Video chosen because playing this is probably my #1 guilty pleasure in Rock Band.
Via Spencer and Nicholas comes yet another tired tirade against Guitar Hero and Rock Band for the high crime of being silly games, as opposed to artistic expression. As Spencer notes, there is not a lick of evidence that Rock Band has stopped the formation of any real rock bands—and I would point out that people who suspect this are showing, though they don’t realize it, that they are too lazy and out of it to listen to new music and therefore presume there isn’t any. In fact, the contrary in many cases. My consort actually learned to play the drums because of Rock Band. (Alas, the drum set was too big to make the move to New York.) I would also point out that Rock Band is a really great place for the talentless to have some fun without assaulting anyone by trying to play and making them pretend to give a shit.
If these tirades are so tired, why link to David Hajdu writing about it? I would say because he perfectly captures the self-contradictory, pointless arguments people make against Rock Band. His is the most explicit. He argues both that Rock Band is bad because it glorifies rock and roll’s excess, and it’s bad because it’s irreverent. In making this argument, he demonstrates that he’s not only humorless, but that his humorless means he’s especially unqualified to say anything about rock and roll, a music that is at its best when it’s excessive and irreverent. The thing that unnerves critics of Rock Band is that it’s actually quite rock and roll in its refusal to take itself, the music, or the culture of rock music too seriously. I’ve found that most people who are wary of the game because they’ve heard all the hand-wringing find it incredibly fun and perfectly pitched, but that’s because people I tend to have in my life have a fucking sense of humor.
Rock Band, much like karaoke, puts the overly reverent and humorless on edge because it interferes with what they see as a fan’s role in the entire business, which is prostrate before our rock gods. Hajdu really betrays this attitude, and makes the same error that pretty much all humorless critics make, which is that people playing the game are trying to wear the mantle of our idols without earning it:
Artistry often begins as fandom–as an aspiration, at first, not really to express one’s creative identity but to take on someone else’s. Like a zillion kids my age, I ventured into music wanting to be John Lennon, much as he had started out wanting to be Chuck Berry, who had started out wanting to be Louis Jordan. Real anxiety comes not with influence, but with the imperative to transcend it, which is another part of creative development. For me, being in that imitation Monkees cover group was different than playing air guitar but very much like taking part in a session of The Beatles: Rock Band. I wasn’t pretending to play an instrument; I was pretending to play a Beatle.
He sticks to the Beatles Rock Band when exercising this argument, because looking at the main game—where you custom create avatars, and can inject as much silliness as you like (I’ve gone back and made all mine punk versions of Disney princesses, which satisfies my love of irreverence)—would really undermine his ultimately bullshit argument that Rock Band is somehow lulling its audience into mediocrity. But like I said, I don’t think that’s exactly what upsets a lot of critics of Rock Band, because they have to know on some level that mediocrity needs no assistance, and that the vast majority of people who pick up instruments and learn to play are also not going to be the Beatles. No, what bothers him and other critics is that we fans take our non-Beatle selves and dare to think we have a right to engage the song in any way outside the prescribed worshipful stance of listening quietly in awe. Hitting the plastic guitar and goofing off to “Don’t Let Me Down” veers very close to making fun of the Beatles, in the eyes of the humorless—like most critics, he flinches at the silliness of the plastic guitar, because he can’t see any pleasure in the absurd for its own sake.
But there’s a legitimate difference between irreverent and just pointless mockery. One thing that makes Rock Band satisfying is playing songs you adore on it, and having a good time simply enjoying them while also having a healthy sense of humor about your own absurdity. There’s a reason that more and more rock musicians have come around to thinking Rock Band is awesome and releasing their music on it, and it’s because they know that having a sense of humor about yourself is central to the rock experience. If anything, the times I don’t like the Beatles Rock Band is when I feel that sense of silliness slipping away, but even in that game, most of the time there’s a cheery goofiness to it. To say that it doesn’t capture the Beatles because it’s not historically accurate is to miss the fact that it captures their sense of irreverent joy quite well. (This is why the song “You’re No Rock And Roll Fun” kept going through my head while I read this article.)
The other fun thing in Rock Band is playing over the top crap and enjoying the over the top crappiness of it. That’s why songs like “Carry On My Wayward Son” and the Journey catalog are so popular—ironic distance turns these songs from interminable crap to something that can be enjoyed for being interminable crap. You enjoy yourself understanding why the tasteless enjoy these songs. If you could make a video game about eating crappy hamburgers, it would be a similar experience. But Hajdu takes that part way too seriously, too.
With success at that, the player progresses, and the avatar gets richer and more famous. Billy Idol/cousin Donny goes from playing in small clubs to concert halls to stadiums, amassing more and more of the material benefits of rock celebrity–first a van, then a tour bus, eventually a private jet … grander stage sets and bigger speakers, more dry ice and lasers, larger and more adulatory crowds of sexed-up kids….
There is no harm in all this, though clear dangers lie in the consequences of success in these games’ schemes–that is, in their opulent glorification of ego-gratifying luxury, idolatry, and easy sex. Foremost among those hazards is the delusion that an ego adequate to achieving rock stardom can be gratified by any amount of anything.
His tone deafness to what the game is doing with these elements is startling, namely his inability to notice that it’s all a big joke. It’s one reason I don’t like Guitar Hero as much anymore, because they don’t seem to really understand rock culture enough to send it up, but Rock Band is pitch perfect in creating a space where the music can be appreciated for exactly what it is while no one takes the enterprise too seriously. And one way they do this is by having these elements of super-stardom in the game to be sent up, sometimes gently and sometimes harshly. (The managers and publicists are gross caricatures.) Like a great music snob, Rock Band strikes a tone of appreciation for music unburdened by over-seriousness, right down to the ironic appreciation for trash. Which is exactly the sort of stance that gave birth to American-style punk rock—a love of rock combined with a humor-laden self-awareness and a big dose of irony—but of course, in order to make his arguments work, Hadju just pretends punk rock never happened.
There’s always been a kind of rock fan/critic who just can’t reconcile their love of rock music and their own overinflated self-importance. The solution wasn’t to quit being so self-important, but to pretend that rock music conducted itself with a kind of seriousness that it simply can’t muster. After all, it was born out of teeny-bopper music. I would argue that it still is teeny-bopper music, and what rock music has done for a handful of generations now is given us permission to become adults without growing up and giving up the best parts of youth, which is to say it allows us to hang onto our playfulness. I’d argue that rock music is part of the reason that video games are such mega-sellers now; because rock music gave us permission to be “childish”, adults with hard cash to spend are willing to do so on games that used to be considered childish. The two forms are a natural fit, but of course, putting them together is going to therefore undermine the pretensions of people who take themselves too seriously. Therefore, I can guess we’re going to keep getting hand-wringing articles like this for many years into the future.