Updated: May 19, 2021
Why I Might Not Watch U.S. Air Guitar This Season but You Absolutely Should
By Charles Austin Muir
If you’re reading this, you probably have some context for what U.S. Air Guitar is and how I am associated with it. You may even be thinking: “Oh no, Charles is going to talk shit about the organization because he’s still mad about his wife losing last year’s contest.”
If you don’t know what contest I’m talking about, I will get to that, as it’s central to why I’m writing this blog post. If you do remember the 2020 U.S. Air Guitar Online Championship, it may be difficult for you to understand why I’m so mad about the results a year later, although you may have your suspicions about what prompted me to finally come out about it.
Anyway… to be clear: I am not writing to talk shit about the organization. When I even call U.S. Air Guitar an organization, I’m talking about friends—many whom I consider family—who are just trying to give this weird sport some longevity. I’m also talking about Kara, my wife, who put on the Portland, Oregon, show for five years and served on “the Committee” in 2016. So yeah, no shit-talking here. What I’m writing about involves people I love.
Not only that, if I talked shit about U.S. Air Guitar, I would be pissing on the profoundly positive impact that air guitar has had on me. Okay, not literally pissing, as contestants have left many interesting fluids on the competitive stage, but figuratively pissing on a community of wonderful, talented, inspiring individuals who have more than once—now I am going to speak literally—saved me from oblivion. Kara, too.
Given all this, it would be absurd and ugly for me to publicly blame anybody in the organization for a perceived slight or stir up drama as if I don’t have more pressing problems.
While I’m disclaiming, I want to point out I am speaking only for myself. My thoughts alone.
So, Charles Austin Muir, you might say, if you’re not writing to bash on U.S. Air Guitar, why do you want us to know you will probably not watch the competitions this season? Aren’t you being a bit of a poor sport about your wife losing a contest? People are always losing contests or they wouldn’t be contests, isn’t that how it goes? And haven’t we all had enough of people whining and refusing to admit when they’ve lost?
Fair questions. Let me take you back to the night of July 25, 2020, when my wife competed in an online U.S. Air Guitar contest for a spot at the 2021 U.S. Air Guitar National Championship.
If you’ve read this far, you know Kara has been struggling with stage 4 colorectal cancer for the last two years. By July 2020, she had had a colostomy, at least three surgeries for gluteal abscesses, and over twelve months of chemotherapy. In fact, she was undergoing chemo treatment at the time of the contest. I bring this up for a couple reasons, but foremost because the process had taken a heavy toll on me personally at that point. My symptoms included abdominal pains, dizziness, exhaustion, depression, panic attacks, and episodes of what I can only describe as an altered state in which I could hear others speaking to me but could not process, or could only process with great difficulty, what they were saying.
On the day of the contest, I suffered from all those symptoms.
The fact that Kara’s mentally disturbed little brother gave us a COVID scare and died suddenly of unrelated causes only a few weeks earlier did not help matters. That crisis, along with fourteen months of cancer support and a tendency to be a nervous wreck whenever my wife competes, put me on edge so badly that I laid in bed all day while Kara prepared our front porch in the event that her pre-recorded first-round video scored high enough with the judges to advance her to the contest’s live second round.
To be blunt, I really, really did not want to go through the stress of watching her compete again; but, as I have for the last ten years of this crazy sport, I supported her. In a time of quarantine when life felt like nothing more than masked-up, unaccompanied hospital visits, Kara needed this… a chance to be creative and to be seen. To perform.
Knowing this, I waited awhile, stomach aching, then went downstairs to see how the show was going. To my surprise, Kara had not only made it into the second round, but had managed to go into it in first place! This meant that she needed an assistant to record her live second-round performance. Obviously, the job would fall to her closest air-guitar supporter, me—the guy who screams at USB ports and smart TV logins even without abdominal pains, dizziness, and an inability to understand people talking to him.
I shit you not, not since I almost killed Kara and I both in a near-drowning accident thirty years earlier had I felt such acute panic about what I had walked into.
Feeling like a lost child at the mall, I told her I would film her as long as someone told me exactly what I was supposed to do to capture her performance. I insisted I needed total direction; I was verging on one of those altered states of scary, senior-like confusion and knew it.
If you watched the contest online, you remember what happened next.
It’s a blur to me now, one that will haunt me for the rest of my days (for reasons I hope to make clear later). All I remember is Kara preparing for her routine on the front porch she had decorated like an actual competitive stage, checking her gimmick prop and psyching up for the performance. There was some back-and-forth with the organizers about filming with her tablet instead of her phone (as she had originally intended) and going to a link she’d received in her private messages… but at some point, the preliminaries were put to rest and the tablet placed in my hands, ready to shoot for the panel of online judges.
Looking back, I should have asked for a test run before we went live, but I was too anxious and exhausted to think of it. And it kills me that neither of us knew how to record with an iPad as opposed to an iPhone. Because of that, and because Kara had opted not to run a test with the organizers earlier in the day, the remote judges and audience got to watch me scowl with a mask on, hardy har har, rather than my wife deliver one of the best round-two performances I have ever seen her give.
And if you think I’m biased, let me say something.
I am biased—in a hypercritical way. Over the last ten years, I’ve watched almost every one of Kara’s competitive air-guitar routines and nitpicked over every single piece of them. Every lick, kick, and windmill. Time and again, I’ve nagged at her to use the entire stage, to vary her strums and elevation and attack the beat on all planes of motion. I know when she’s in her head too long and when her nervous system has burned out, sometimes maddeningly with only seconds to go in the routine. I’m basically Mick to her Rocky Balboa. Do you think I wouldn’t nitpick over a performance that could protect her position in first place?
Yet this time, I found nothing to pick on.
With just myself and two friends watching from the sidewalk, Kara Picante put on something special, overflowing with stage presence, technicality, and airness, right there on our front porch in the gore of a watermelon she’d dropped from between her thighs with her back to the wrong-facing camera.
It kills me that no one else got to see it.
Naturally, she was asked to do it again, so the judges could see her and not me.
About fifteen seconds into her redo, the WiFi dropped.
Thankfully, on the third try, in a cosmic miracle of synergy, the cameraman did his job and the WiFi did its job. And after finally getting scored for her worst performance (in my opinion), Kara ended up tying for first place with her closest competitor. Under pre-COVID circumstances, this meant sending the two contestants into an air-off, a type of tie-breaker in which they are scored for their performance to another prerecorded track. In these particular circumstances, however, it meant asking Kara to pick up her air guitar again with no gas left in the tank.
You could hear the hesitation among everyone on the air: Awkward.
Now, going back into the dim pre-COVID times, I can’t remember ever watching an air guitarist go into a tie-breaker winded from three previous all-out efforts against a competitor who had only put on a single performance in the preceding round (maybe it’s happened, I don’t know). But whatever, this was an unprecedented situation, and a winner needed to be called for the show to deliver a seasonal champion in a year without an actual national championship. Kara dutifully went into the air-off and shredded as hard as she could.
With every passing second, I watched her shot at victory fall apart with my own fucking face partly to blame.
My face, my gut, my exhaustion, my stupidity with electronics, my failure to upgrade our streaming service for a contest that would turn upon the reliability of our WiFi…
I hated myself.
I hated my life.
I know that must sound pitiful and deranged.
Kara powered through the routine. A few minutes later, the results of the 2020 U.S. Air Guitar Online Championship were announced: Smiley Rod in first place. Kara Picante in second place—by a tenth of a point.
Damn. So close, Kara. But no cigar for top loser at next year’s U.S. Air Guitar National Championship.
Let me consider the outcome again with a thought experiment I’ll call the Blame Game.
First, let’s blame Kara for giving U.S. Air Guitar a predicament. She could have filmed her live performance with her camera mounted so she could see how the picture would look before she started. She could have eliminated the idiot cameraman or thought to secure a smart one. She could have adopted a more stationary, technically based style to conserve energy. She could have insisted on a test run at any point. And damn it, she could have told her husband to upgrade the WiFi before the contest!
That’s no fun. I’d just as soon blame a pro golfer for missing a putt because a sinkhole opened up underneath them.
Second, let’s blame U.S. Air Guitar for giving the contestants a predicament. They could have had competitors film their second-round performances in advance (which is what they are doing this year). They could have insisted on test runs right before every second-round live performance, regardless of tests conducted earlier. They could have addressed the tie situation—given the technical difficulties leading up to it—with something other than an air-off. I’m not saying U.S. Air Guitar is like a totalitarian regime or anything, but they can do what they want, you know? I’m kind of spitballing here. Not that I have any answers.
But that’s no fun, either. I’m married to a former U.S. Air Guitar organizer, both nationally and locally. I know how complex, confusing, and stressful it can be for people working behind the scenes when they’re not grinding through day jobs and dealing with life. And running air guitar season takes a lot of work. Lots of moving parts. Hurdles, setbacks, logistics, timing, sponsorship, advertising, promoting, public relations. I can’t imagine the problems that U.S. Air Guitar must have faced—except for the one I’m writing about—and continue to face during a pandemic.
In 2020, the organization took on the complicated project of transferring a drunken, sweaty, socially driven musical/athletic spectacle into an online arena. It doesn’t surprise me that they incorporated some traditional approaches (such as live second rounds that could lead to live air-offs) into the new paradigm on their first real go in cyberspace. Not only that, they had to operate in a turbulent, bewildering, and utterly frightening year with some seriously trickster energy. An air guitar event in which the winner narrowly beats a 50-year-old woman with stage 4 colorectal cancer, a technologically illiterate husband, and shitty WiFi? What’s more 2020 than that?
No, it’s not fun to blame U.S. Air Guitar for doing its best to produce in a trying time, either.
Well then, let’s close the thought experiment by blaming technology, which makes victims of us all. I mean, it’s just air guitar, right?
Now, that’s really not fun. Because that means a whole lot of people will have anxiety about competing in the next virtual competitions. People panicking and waving their arms around like me with an Apple tablet on my front lawn. Will someone tell me EXACTLY what I’m supposed to do to get a proper evaluation, please? And yeah, I know it’s just air guitar, but it’s fucking AIR GUITAR!!! I live for this shit, damn it!
Of course, we could say that what I speak of as a problem is not a problem, but a fluke, or—to borrow Kara’s analogy—like the first pancake you toss out before you find your groove. Which, if you’re talking about a wide margin between the winner and loser, okay…
We could also talk about the outcome in terms of advantage. It’s true that Kara Picante had to perform three times to Smiley Rod’s one in the second round, but that means she had at least twice as many opportunities to learn the track! Or something like that.
But what good are those “bonus” listens when you’re heaving for breath, your spouse is freaking out, disembodied voices are talking to you through more technical stuff, and a live audience is waiting for you to stop farting around and melt their faces off? What good are they when your muscular endurance and force production diminish every time you attempt to give a judgeable performance? Unless you’re conditioned by a sport way more intense than air guitar, you’re probably not going to get better repeatedly bopping around to someone else’s prerecorded track for sixty seconds at maximum intensity in a short period. Not if your style is dynamic with big and small movements that race from flowy to staccato.
And not to be morbid, but I’m sure the tumors and chemo didn’t help Kara recover between performances.
Let’s talk about fairness in air guitar.
Obviously, air guitar is not an objective, quantifiable sport like Olympic weightlifting. Air guitar conjures experiences that people perceive differently—especially, though not necessarily, if they’ve knocked back a few beers first. And U.S. Air Guitar, the single sanctioning American body as licensed by the Air Guitar World Championships, does not operate like the International Weightlifting Federation. That would be like a handful of drunken redshirts in their down-time trying to run Earth like the United Federation of Planets (kidding, it takes professionals to run an air guitar season, although some of them are as nerdy about stuff like Star Trek as I am).
I mention the IWF because it enforces the same rules and standards all over the world. If you’ve ever been to an air guitar show, you know this is not the case. As an outside observer, you might think the organizers are just making shit up as they go along. I believe there is some truth to this, but I’m not suggesting they’re like ten-year-old boys switching up the rules to favor certain outcomes. Maybe more like CrossFit Games organizers who want to make the contest tougher for the competitors and more surprising for the audience. At least this is how it has struck me at times, and I’ve helped Kara organize five U.S. Air Guitar events.
Given the tendency toward such, shall we say, fluidity, some air guitarists will benefit and others won’t at any given moment. Then, too, there is the unintentional, highly variable and unpredictable distribution of advantages and disadvantages whenever a group of weirdly dressed people assemble for a night of pretending to play a real guitar for points. To help everyone stay sane, air guitarists tacitly agree to “let the chips fall where they may” when they compete, otherwise there would be no end of public griping.
One air guitarist prepares a high-energy routine only to get a stage the size of a postage stamp. Another air guitarist slips on a puddle of beer that somehow didn’t get mopped up between performances. Another air guitarist can’t hear their edit because of a poor sound system. Another air guitarist gambles on a pair of tearaway pants that don’t tear away in time. Another air guitarist asks a front-row spectator to shoot a confetti gun not realizing their assistant will be wasted by the time they go on an hour later. And every air guitarist faces the possibility of a nightmarish judging panel. I won’t even tell you some of the crazy shit I’ve seen behind the judges’ table at contests over the years.
Fairness in air guitar? You won’t get it the same way as you would in an Olympic weightlifting contest. That would be nearly impossible, and very boring to follow!
Before COVID, I watched Kara lose two consecutive contests by a tenth of a point and gritted my teeth through it. In my hypercritically biased heart, I knew she outperformed the winners. But that’s part of the wild ride of air guitar. I’m not the only teeth-gritting air guitarist “stage mom” out there.
And anyway, congratulations to the winners. You add your own flair to a wonderful community.
To be clear, too, Kara has benefited from U.S. Air Guitar’s fluid decision-making. In 2012, she was robbed in Portland, only to compete in the national championship in Denver, Colo., after a solid turn in the “Dark Horse” contest. In 2019, she took second place in Portland, only to compete in the national championship in Nashville, Tenn., at a time when only winners advanced (in previous years, second- and sometimes even third-place contestants had the option to compete against the national finalists).
As if I haven’t stressed the point enough, it is not my intention to stir up a “Kara Versus U.S. Air Guitar” controversy. Nor a “Me Versus U.S. Air Guitar” controversy (who the hell am I, anyway?). Although there may be some out there (if they even read this) who will say I’m acting like a baby, being a poor sport, making a mountain out of a molehill, whatever.
Uh-huh. Fuck them.
Over the last few years, my wife was diagnosed with metastatic cancer, my dog died, my most beloved relatives died and my entire immediate family moved on from this world. After all that sorrow and loss, I know what really matters to me. Some of it, like losing an air guitar contest under the conditions I described—and yes, it is only my narrative—may seem trivial to you. But I’m not turning a non-problem into a problem because it’s easier than facing the heavier challenges in my life.
Air fucking matters, damn it, and I will never get over an air guitar contest decided by Internet connectivity and who points the camera the right way. Would Kara have won if WiFi and I hadn’t been such dum-dums? Who knows? All I know is a part of me died when I watched her victory slip away the way it did. Not being melodramatic: Death is the end of something, even a little something, a feeling of… I don’t know.
Put it this way: In every sport I've ever loved, at least for me, there is a special, intangible, nameless quality that is beauty in itself. To use basketball as an example, it transcends players, coaches, managers, fans, corporations, advertisers, shoe brands, everything. It's like a dream. That dream, beyond statistics and hype and all that, exists even in the goofy sport of air guitar. An invisible within an invisible. What disheartened me so deeply is I that watched that dream die a little in that contest. As far as U.S. Air Guitar goes, I'm not raising an issue about integrity or professionalism or ethics or anything like that, I am only trying to articulate the pain I felt over the death of a kind of beauty from an artist's point of view (air guitar is art as well as sport, not coincidentally; at least I think so).
I experienced that pain a certain way because it happened to Kara and because I was already distressed, but above all, at least as I see it, anyone could have gotten caught in the moment of that fading dream. Maybe I'm the only one who has any notion of such a dream. Maybe this is just a fancy metaphor for a certain definition of a standard I can't name. But I don't think I'm rationalizing this quality to explain my disappointment with the outcome of the contest.
There is just something impure about a win so close based on non-air error and technical difficulty. I’m not a freak about purity, either. This is the first time I’ve ever gotten so fired up about a problematic decision.
(Side note: I’m a cancer caregiver, aren’t I? I have to deliver on all sorts of support. On July 25, 2020, all I delivered was my face while Kara was rockin’ like Dokken for God knows what kind of score.)
(Also, side note: Who knows how long any of us has to do their very best? Will the U.S. Air Guitar Online Championship be as close as Kara will ever get to winning a single contest? Stay tuned.)
My feelings are not anyone’s problem. I didn’t borrow my wife’s blog to get sympathy or its opposite, rebuttals, explanations, and such. But after sitting on this for a year I decided to express my frustration, because I think it’s valid and I’m tired of carrying it in silence. I can’t imagine any truly competitive air guitarist wouldn’t feel a bit dark if they lost the way Kara did last year, too.
Not going to lie, I got even more frustrated to learn the second-place contestant from all the virtual regional championships will have a chance to compete at the 2021 U.S. Air Guitar National Championship.
Sure, that was a different type of contest from the U.S. Air Guitar Online Championship, I get that. Still frustrated.
But all that said, if you’ve read this far, you are not me and you absolutely should watch the virtual U.S. Air Guitar shows this year. Because they are crazy-impressive, entertaining, and brought to you by the brightest, loveliest group of organizers and competitors I know.
To be clear, I am not taking a stance and "boycotting" this season. I simply don't want my dead dream to come back as a ghost haunting the television screen while people I love shred their hearts out with so much passion, physicality, and creative energy.
Although who knows? I said I might not watch the shows in the title of this blog post.
Anyway watch them, you will be amazed.
I mean that.