Out of Thin Air at the Society for Ethnomusicology

At the annual Society for Ethnomusicology meeting in Austin, Texas, I presented a paper titled “Out of Thin Air: Technology, Media, and the Air Guitar World Championships.” Here’s the abstract for the presentation:

At the 2014 Air Guitar World Championships, Eric “Mean” Melin impaled himself with an air guitar. During one-minute competition routines, air guitarists not only simulated the “real” guitar, but they also challenged the boundaries of the actual body, by swallowing, digesting, and regurgitating their virtual guitars. In these annual competitions, air guitarists demonstrate how consumption of media can transform the body. Before competing, air guitarists use audio-editing software to isolate guitar solos, add sound effects, and combine various clips to construct a narrative arc for individual performances. These remix aesthetics offstage reflect the manipulation of the virtual guitar onstage, since both involve gaining power over popular music by controlling its configurations and representations. Air guitarists frequently connect their practice to ideas of freedom, self-expression, and positivity. The Air Guitar World Championships website reads: “According to the ideology of the Air Guitar, wars would end, climate change stop and all bad things disappear, if all the people in the world played the Air Guitar.” Based on fieldwork at local, regional, and national competitions in the U.S. and the international competition in Finland, my research takes a critical approach to air guitar ideology. By drawing on theories related to virtual performance, popular music, and participatory culture, I examine the questions: How do these competitions depict media consumption as self-empowerment? How does choreography construct certain conceptions about how music affects the body? How does the celebration of configurable media as universally positive reflect certain attitudes towards technology and globalization?