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  • Air Apparent:Amplifying the History of Air Guitar, Air Bands, and Air Playing in the Twentieth Century

I present a history of air playing, air guitar, and air bands in the United States. Demonstrating how gestural listening practices developed into distinctive performance genres in the late twentieth century, I argue air playing organized and advanced an interactive approach to media consumption that pervades contemporary media sensibilities. This history of air playing reveals how music consumers sought ways to treat listening as something dramatic, spectacular, and interactive. I trace this history by focusing on the interplay between playback devices and listeners, as well as performance contexts that facilitated air playing as an audience activity. I underscore how ideas related to pathology, fandom, fantasy, failure, intimacy, and configurability shaped perceptions of air playing later in the twentieth century. The title—"Air Apparent"—draws attention the ways successive generations inherited gestural practices, often in ways that carried forward unacknowledged ideas about race, gender, and disability.

"The Rolling Stones came on after Blondie and the Who. Mick Jagger was in fine form during 'Shattered,' flapping his arms and whipping off his shirt. Keith Richards pumped away at his vacuum cleaner, while second guitarist Ron Wood executed some difficult riffs on a large inflatable vodka bottle."1 Jack Lechner, a student writing for the Yale Daily News, wrote about an air band contest sponsored by the Social Activities Committee, in which eleven groups "synchronized their fingers and lips to rock songs as a beery crowd of 200 cheered." Highlights from the contest included a white freshman with a Rick James wig who played a medley on a broomstick, a version of Blondie's "Call Me" by a four-woman gang using a telephone receiver as a microphone, a Mick Jagger impersonator who swung across the cafeteria on a rope, and rambunctious punk rockers who disrupted another air band's classical music performance with their punk rock power chords.

Sponsored by college radio stations, social clubs, and beer companies, air-playing contests appeared across the United States during the 1980s. The competitions went by many names: air guitar competitions, air band competitions, pantomime performances, and lip sync battles. These competitions gave popular music fans license to become avatars of their idols, as they impersonated popular musicians while adding their own personal flair. Headlines, such as "Air Band Players Rock Auditorium" and "Guitar Wizards Take to 'Air' Contest," littered newspapers across the country,2 signaling the rise of "ersatz Elvises, mock Madonnas, make-believe Michael Jacksons, bogus Bruce Springsteens, proxy Pointer Sisters, simulated Cyndi Laupers and even a sham Sha Na Na."3

Over the past forty years, these pantomime performances have remained a consistent part of US popular culture, and an abundance of musical practices today involve embodied performance with pre-recorded media.4 The US Air Guitar Championships, for example, is an organization that oversees local, regional, and national competitions with thousands of viewers and hundreds [End Page 807] of participants. Organizations on college campuses continue to host air band, karaoke, and lip sync competitions. Numerous national television shows feature celebrities and amateurs performing with music recordings, such as Lip Sync Battle, Ru Paul's Drag Race, or the popular "Carpool Karaoke" segment on The Late Late Show with James Corden. Viral YouTube videos appear on social media of everyday people dancing, lip syncing, and air playing with music recordings in their cars and bedrooms. Music video games have capitalized on these trends, with user interfaces that allow performers to play along with their favorite media without having to pick up traditional instruments.5 Smartphone apps, such as Triller,, and Smule, enable fans to mash up their own images, voices, and bodies with popular music and circulate the resulting videos via social networks.

The impulse to inhabit and interact with pre-recorded media came from a century of powerful and playful fan practices, which explored possibilities for bridging the gap between recorded sounds and listeners' bodies. In this essay, I present a history of air playing, air guitar, and air bands in the United States. My goals are twofold: (1) to trace the rise of air playing as an important precursor to contemporary media practices; and (2) to show how air playing conjured problematic ideas of race, gender, and disability. Demonstrating how gestural listening practices developed into distinctive performance genres in the twentieth century, I argue air playing organized and advanced an interactive approach to media consumption that pervades our contemporary media sensibilities. The history of air playing reveals how people found ways to treat listening as something dramatic, spectacular, and interactive. I focus on the interplay between playback devices and listeners, as well as performance contexts that facilitated air playing as an audience activity, and I underscore how ideas related to pathology, fandom, fantasy, failure, intimacy, and configurability shaped the perceptions of air playing later in the twentieth century. I use the title "Air Apparent" to draw attention to how successive generations inherited these gestural practices, often in ways that carried forward unacknowledged ideas about race, gender, and disability.

New interactive musical technologies bring forth possibilities and problems. Just as they enable people to configure new intimate relationships to popular media, they also represent new iterations of long-standing racist, sexist, and ableist practices: the blackface-enabling Bob Marley Snapchat filter, the white ventriloquism of hip-hop karaoke, the mad affects of comedic lip-syncing videos, or the chauvinism of male-centered musical video games. Contemporary practices do not arise as by-products of technological innovation. The possibilities and value systems that inform contemporary media practices originate [End Page 808] in the complex ways people sought to embody and interact with pre-recorded media in the previous century.

Participatory culture has become one of the dominant ways to define interactive engagement with digital media.6 "Interactivity is a property of the technology, while participation is a property of culture," writes Henry Jenkins.7 The participatory impulse to annotate, alter, and spread digital media comes from predigital practices that often played with participatory forms of fandom, such as zines or fan fiction.8 As Paul Booth points out, "Today's fan/industry relationship reflects both active audiences, who have the ability, the desire, and the technology to interact, change, and play with the media, and media producers, who have access to those same technologies and are making use of them to find new ways of marketing and designing media products for those same active audiences."9 This interplay between audiences and industries not only helps explain the tug-of-war that takes place between digital cultures and corporate producers, but also offers a lens through which to analyze historical practices, which can reveal the way interactive technologies and participatory cultural practices develop together.

In scholarship on new media and participatory culture, the body and performance tend to disappear in considerations of participation and fandom. In her work on dance games, Kiri Miller theorizes "playable bodies," which draws attention to the relationship between interactive technologies and the body. In dance games in particular and interactive technologies more generally, the body can become a "playback device," "an instrument," and a "site for play," where gestures interact with interfaces that record and organize musical motions.10 These technologies invite and require people's bodies to "perform an ever-expanding repertoire of social and kinesthetic choreographies," which build on an "archive of cumulative embodied experience." This theory helps connect the work on participatory media with the work on the body in popular music studies, research ranging from DJing to drag performance to viral choreographies to virtual musical communities.11

In what follows, I organize diffuse air playing into meaningful continuities, highlighting the relationship between media, technology, and the body. I focus on gestural practices that often fall beyond the purview of listening, musical performance, and dance, in order to show how gestural listening practices can accumulate into a distinctive musical practice. My essay is organized into three sections. First, I sketch a prehistory of air playing in the US, revealing some of the many ways people played with pre-recorded media long before the rise of air competitions. Then I turn to the rise of air guitar and air playing as a cultural phenomenon, focusing on famous examples of air playing in the media [End Page 809] that shaped the way the American public viewed air playing. Finally, I present the rise of air band competitions among amateur performers, emphasizing themes related to feminized and racialized fandom, white male failure, and sincere forms of gestural listening. Placing air playing within this long trajectory, I underscore how air playing makes visible the norms and sensibilities that undergird participatory popular music reception today.


Air guitar, air bands, and air playing did not suddenly arise alongside rock music. People played with imaginary instruments long before the popularity of rock music, and these precursors established important ideas related to the body, music, and imaginary instrument playing. Air-playing history could be quite expansive, including many practices: musical theater, opera, cabaret, British pantomime, miming, mesmerism, music hall, vaudeville, orchestration and silent film, comedy routines, magic shows, film syncing, dance, song signing among Deaf musicians, the rise of music videos, air playing as a cognitive exercise, air playing as music pedagogy, or gestures as a listening practice among different cultures around the world.12 To narrow this history, I sketch a cultural history of air playing in the US by focusing on interactions between listeners and playback technologies, as well as the performance contexts that gave rise to pantomime practices.

In the early days of recorded sound, the phonograph produced profound changes in the possibilities for private engagement with music. Mark Katz makes the point that phonograph recordings did not simply disembody or delocalize sounds; they brought forth new opportunities for consumers to create their own contexts for private listening. Phonograph advertising primarily targeted women, emphasizing the phonograph as an important asset in the home, but many men found the phonograph appealing, because it "mitigated the supposed 'feminizing' influence of music (particularly classical music)" by offering "opportunities for tinkering and shop talk, traditional men's activities."13 The phonograph also enabled taboo and fantastical forms of listening. Katz offers the example of "shadow conducting":

The phonograph also gave nonmusical men the possibility of self-expression through music, permitting them to do in private what they could not or would not otherwise do. Conducting was perhaps the most common manifestation of this possibility. The Minneapolis Phonograph Society reported that some of its members "have taken to 'shadow conducting,' that most exhilarating phonographic indoor sport." [End Page 810]

By gesturing along with music in ways that foreshadowed air guitaring at the end of the century, phonograph listeners found ways to interact with recordings, by animating sounds with the body and simulating control of musical performances.

Shadow conducting coincides with a broader cultural fascination with pantomime, stemming from similar practices in vaudeville, burlesque, music hall, musical comedy, and pantomime theater. Histories and theories of pantomime performance practices can be found elsewhere,14 but it is essential to note that pantomime influenced listening practices beyond the stage. Gesturing as a form of enhanced listening featured prominently in participatory popular music genres and often brought out latent ideas about social identities.

For example, blackface minstrelsy involved audience participation, as people mimed along with the racist caricatures by white performers onstage.15 Sean Murray analyzes the case of the well-known blackface performer Thomas Dartmouth Rice, who popularized the song "Jim Crow" based on his impression of a black man he claimed to have once met. Murray emphasizes two relatively unexplored aspects of blackface performance: "participatory audience performance" and disability. Murray argues that Rice crafted performances based on his ideas of a "deformed," "grotesque," and "crippled" black body, and the audience's "pleasure of jumping 'Jim Crow' was in fact rooted in the spectacular performance of disability by presumably able-bodied people (usually white and usually male)."16 Blackface musical performances encouraged performers onstage and audiences to participate in gestural practices that conjured imaginary, disabled, and racialized bodies, enabling white people to transgress white sensibilities—all through dancing and miming the playing of an imaginary banjo.

Pointless gestures and miming were sometimes seen as evidence of hysteria or insanity, and these acts were often attributed to bodies deemed nonnormative: women, racial minorities, foreigners, and children. The field of mad studies demonstrates the way pathologized bodies have long been subject to oppression, stemming from the notion that they fail to meet a normative standard of rationality, whiteness, and ableist conformity.17 I will simply add that air playing and spiritual possession are common symptoms of the purported irrationality of these nonnormative bodies. Nonsensical gestures were linked to irrationality and childish fantasy. For example, a writer for the Evening Star in Washington, DC, described the apparent insanity of patients at the Locust Ward, including "one young girl [who] appeared to be fingering an imaginary guitar.18 The Seattle Star detailed a pantomiming prisoner: "Stubley spends his [End Page 811] time in jail playing on an imaginary piano, hoping thus to give the impression that he is insane and so escape a more severe punishment."19 During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, mesmerists also convinced people onstage to perform imaginary instruments. These mesmerist shows often put women and African Americans onstage to perform these imaginary acts, demonstrating how the mesmerist could manipulate and control their bodies to humorous effect. The Helena Independent told of a mesmerist in Montana whose subjects would "sing, dance, try to catch flies, hornets, and bees, [while] playing on imaginary instruments such as violins, banjos, pianos, harps, drums and etc."20 During the early twentieth century, amateur games circulated in US newspapers called "The Game of Dumb Instruments" or "Dutch Band," which similarly encouraged people to embody the nonsensical gestures of racialized others. Often attributing imaginary instrument playing to foreign exoticized cultures (e.g., "one of the favorite pastimes among the Chinese"21), these games featured air playing as a game, where people would switch imaginary instruments at the sudden instruction of the leader. These games invited people to embody these irrational modes of musical performance, connecting air playing with the foolishness attributed to racialized, gendered, and pathologized bodies.

Pantomiming practices played with the idea that music could overpower the body, and advancements in listening technologies often prompted questions of bodily control and susceptibility to sounds. As listening became increasingly more mobile, people found ways to configure playback devices to give them the ability to personalize the listening experience. For example, Tim Taylor provides a long survey of the ways that early radio enthusiasts appropriated the radio for their embodied experiences: young people took radios on road trips, used radios while camping, and brought radios into the kitchen while cooking.22 He tells the story of a wedding in Chicago in 1924, in which a couple listened to Richard Wagner's Lohengrin while marching down the aisle, after arranging to have a local radio station play the march at that precise time on air. The radio gave people a chance to stage their own relationship to these broadcasted sounds in personal and transportable ways, aligning synchronized motion with the sounds coming from the speakers.

The radio also stoked cultural anxiety about the bodily effects of private listening, in ways similar to the phonograph. Focusing on radio crooners in the 1920s and 1930s, Allison McCracken describes the widespread male anxieties about their soft, whispering, and erotic voices in the ears of women. She writes: "The autoerotic aspect of the crooner is particularly underlined by the fact that he sings to the microphone; his dependence on technology was disturbing to a male public not equally able to artificially amplify their [End Page 812] virility."23 The threat of a crooning voice created a crisis for men invested in maintaining patriarchal norms in the household, leading them to emphasize the potential psychological and bodily impact that intimate and private listening could have on susceptible feminized bodies. Not only did the rise of radio challenge gender norms, but it also raised questions about the lasting effects of recorded sounds on and in the body.

While radio brought about new kinds of intimate engagement with music, television brought forth new possibilities for configuring media, by combining images with sounds in innovative ways. June Bundy, writing for Billboard in 1956, describes local TV channels that created low-cost segments to appeal to teenagers—a coveted audience demographic.24 Shows featured "TV DJs," who would act as disc jockeys and act out the sounds on the records for the enjoyment of home audiences. Bundy gives an example:

Gerald Wheeler, KARK-TV, Little Rock, Ark., wears a variety of special makeups (old man, witch, clown, etc.) while he lip-syncs to records. Films on his show include clips from stock westerns, cartoons, features, newsreels and some footage specially shot for the show. He also makes effective use of newspaper photos. For example, news pictures of happy couples. From Debbie and Eddie to Ike and Mamie, are shown in sequence during a spinning of "Hello Young Lovers."

Taking cues from vaudeville and variety shows, these TV DJs engaged in a pre-music video form of imaginative musical interpretation, using their own bodies as sites for musical expression. These antics found a counterpart in musical comedians, like Fred Astaire and Jerry Lewis, who performed comedic pantomimes of "air playing" and "air conducting" (e.g., Lewis in Cinderfella [1960]). They reveal a lineage that traces back to blackface minstrelsy, in which impersonation and pantomime offer a way to conjure and ventriloquize racialized and pathologized bodies for comedic effect.

The other more obvious and enduring form of pantomime on TV comes from the syncing involved in "live" musical performances on television shows. Beginning in the 1950s and continuing for the next two decades, many talk shows and performance-based TV shows featured "live" musical performances, in which artists pretended to play instruments to their own pre-recorded music.25 Most bands played along with this construct, pretending to perform live and syncing their lips, bodies, and instruments to the music. However, notable moments of rebellion occurred, typically from rock artists who saw TV as anathema to rock authenticity. The most famous example might be Johnny Rotten's performance on American Bandstand in 1980. As the music of the former Sex Pistols' frontman played in the background, he put in nose [End Page 813] drops, provoked the crowd, and wandered the stage aimlessly, refusing to lip sync to the music. Other examples include the Who on the Smothers Brothers in 1967. During their performance of "My Generation," Keith Moon ignited explosives that he had put inside his bass drum, while Pete Townshend destroyed his guitar onstage. As the live performance descended into pandemonium, the various demolitions onstage had very little effect on the actual sound of the performance.26 In another more subtle example, Bill Reed and the Diamonds performed "Words of Love" on the Steve Allen Show in 1957, and, during a few moments of the performance, Bill Reed fingers an imaginary guitar to reference the canned music in the background.

The various manifestations of these gestural listening practices and the cultural ideas about air playing that swirled around them fed into air playing as a distinctive practice in the latter half of the twentieth century. The history sketched here hardly encompasses the many practices that involved air playing. But these examples reveal the diffuse yet prevalent attempts to fuse bodies with popular media, as well as attempts to animate sounds through bodily gesture.

Air Guitar on the Rise

How did air playing crystallize around air guitar and air bands, particularly in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s? The rock genre played a large role in the development of these practices, but, before I articulate the rise of air playing in rock music, it is important to note other musical practices that rose to popularity during this time. Lip syncing was a facet of World War II entertainment for the US military, and it appeared in many comedic performance genres after the war. In the 1950s and early 1960s, drag performers frequently performed with live musicians, but, starting in the mid- to late 1960s, larger drag bars with live music faced increasing pressure because of the demand for payment from musician unions, cabaret taxes, and harassment from police.27 These factors led drag bars to pursue cheaper entertainment, in the form of pre-recorded music with lip syncing. Lip syncing resonated with a long history of avantgarde and queer entertainment practices (e.g., burlesque or ball culture) that performatively played with authenticity, embodiment, and simulation. During the 1970s, many bars began switching over from live music to pre-recorded music, and many performance genres emerging in subsequent decades allowed amateurs to perform pre-recorded media. Karaoke became popular in the US in the 1980s, and the phenomenon was depicted as the public display of private and embarassing fandom. Time magazine in 1983 announced the imminent rise of karaoke in an article titled "Closet Carusos," which suggested karaoke [End Page 814] enabled fans to embrace taboo forms of musical fantasy in public. Karaoke came from a range of cultural practices in East Asia that involved combining live performance and pre-recorded media, and the rise in popularity of karaoke connects with a broader influence of East Asian cultural practices on US popular culture.28 Other performance genres appeared during this time that enabled people to perform pre-recorded sounds. Comedic acts, especially celebrity impersonation and performance art, also played with pre-recorded media (e.g., Andy Kaufman's Mighty Mouse routine that featured him lip syncing to the theme song). Song signing—a form of storytelling in the Deaf community—has also been an important and long-standing practice for representing sounds through gesture, and song signing as a musical practice grew in popularity in the 1980s, along with the rise in American Sign Language poetry.29 Finally, the rise of breakdancing and DJing, like air guitar, involved configuring rock and funk songs for embodied performances, and break dancing offered a way to interact with the turntable manipulations of DJs.30 As hip-hop developed out of these experiments with playback devices and records, air guitar emerged as a way for primarily white fans to embody and interact with recorded music.

The rock genre became a fertile terrain for a certain type of air playing: air guitar. Following the rise of rock 'n' roll in the mid-twentieth century, rock split from rock 'n' roll to become a virtuosic form that emphasized live performance.31 Live performances centered guitar virtuosos whose physical gestures animated the sounds found in recordings. Philip Auslander points out: "Our ability to visualize the performance of rock music as we listen to it is dependent on the availability of visual artifacts that show us what the musicians look like in performance."32 Live performances gave fans an idea of the kinds of labor, emotion, and theatricality implicit in recorded sounds. Performers acted out emotions, both expressing and also embellishing their own feelings to make the music come alive for audiences. Simon Frith writes:

Performing involves gestures that are both false (they are only being put on for this occasion) and true (they are appropriate to the emotions being described, expressed, or invoked). Even the most stylized performer, the one with most obviously formal and artificial gestures, is expressing the self, displaying in public sounds and movements usually thought of as intimate.33

From a theatrical standpoint, we can understand these nonessential acts onstage as ways to explain the music to audiences, who could, in turn, adopt similar behaviors toward recordings. For example, a guitarist's facial gestures help discriminate sounds—pointing to certain bends, hammer-ons, pull-offs, or arpeggios in a given solo—and attach emotional qualities to those sounds. Auslander calls this "guitar face."34 [End Page 815]

The guitar, during this time, was ascendent as a powerful symbol of technological and musical power. Steve Waksman describes the flamboyance of Jimi Hendrix's performance style, which centered his virtuosic playing as well as his playful manipulations of the guitar as an object.35 Hendrix would play with his teeth, push the feedback of his amps to the limits, and set fire to his guitar. Waksman argues that "the electric guitar stood for Hendrix as the literal and symbolic instrument by which he could transgress musical and racial boundaries," but his performance style and gestures were often mediated through broader white cultural ideas about black male sexuality: "His style of virtuosity was itself highly phallocentric, and his combination of musical and bodily flamboyance was perceived by many of his white guitar-playing peers to offer a unique challenge to their own talent and, by implication, their masculinity."36 Before his death, Hendrix felt conflicted about white audiences' perception of his theatricality. But his playing endowed the electric guitar with an iconic power that influenced many guitarists and air guitarists thereafter.

The model for air playing as a mode of listening and musical engagement began to emerge from examples set forth by European and US rock singers, who would, during instrumental breaks of songs, air play along with band members as a way to model certain interactive forms of musical listening for audiences. Perhaps the most famous of these examples comes from Joe Cocker. Known for playing air guitar during the instrumental solos of songs, his famous air guitar performance at Woodstock in 1969 became a remarkable moment in air guitar history. As "With a Little Help from My Friends" played in the background, Cocker's arms flailed wildly in the air with each dramatic shift in the music, making him appear as a conductor in front of a large orchestra. One can see footage in the documentary Woodstock (1970) of Cocker's tie-dyed body against the blue sky, as he grasps at the air. Without a trace of humor, Cocker's air guitaring confirms the seriousness with which air guitar might be played—as an emotionally invested orchestration of the affective power of the electric guitar.

These gestural acts also brought to the fore some of the problematic racist and ableist subtexts of rock theatrics. For example, one review from the Los Angeles Times describes Cocker during his 1969 tour:

Writhing as if in agony and clawing madly at the air, Cocker, white and 23, sings in a voice that exudes pain and desperation. Employing the inflection and emotional tone of a Southern Negro, he is possibly the most notable soul singer of either color to appear since Ray Charles, an early inspiration to Cocker, went on the supper club circuit.37 [End Page 816]

Tracing a lineage from blues to blue-eyed soul, the reviewer locates Cocker's authenticity in his theatrical similarity to black performers—a connection Cocker manifests through his gestural spasms and jerky motions. The reviewer traffics in a swirl of racist and ableist tropes, aligning nonwhite and nonnormative bodies with excess emotionality and revealing the persistence of racist and pathologizing ideas about air playing that come from earlier in the twentieth century. The performance of air guitar by white men made implicit and instrumental claims about their embodied connections to black performance traditions.

By the late 1970s, rock and metal fans in the United States and Europe began bringing cardboard guitars and airing notes in live concerts. The first popular media example that explicitly addresses this practice comes from a 1981 British TV special called Twentieth Century Box on the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOFHB).38 Neil Kay's Bandwagon Heavy Metal Soundhouse, a bar that featured disco and rock music, served fans in North London. The TV segment interviewed fans who attended BHMS to see Iron Maiden perform. A fan and frequent attendee, identifying himself under the pseudonym Rob Loonhouse, describes making his own cardboard guitar to take to shows:

The first one was very rough. I cut the neck out. The neck was too wide. . . . Now I've got the neck right. I've got the body right. . . . From a distance it does look like a real guitar. I don't bother with frets. I think it's taking a piss really. You're making it look too much like a guitar. It's supposed to look like a guitar, but it's not supposed to look like a real guitar. It's supposed to be like a harlequin of a real guitar. Just an image.

Although Loonhouse doesn't go so far as to use the term air guitar, he captures the ethos of air guitar playing during the late 1970s—that it is not an attempt at imitating guitar virtuosity but rather an appreciation for the symbolic power of the guitar.

Air guitar both celebrated guitar virtuosity and made fun of it. The rise of glam rock in the 1970s and its influence on various rock subgenres in the decades that followed brought about new approaches to rock performance, celebrating flamboyance, irony, and over-the-top theatricality. Lawrence Grossberg describes a shift in ideas of authenticity, leading performers to embrace inauthenticity rather than serious rock virtuosity: "The only possible claim to authenticity is derived from the knowledge and admission of your inauthenticity."39 Glam rock arose at a time when guitarists were experimenting with all kinds of guitar theatrics and gimmicks—from Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen playing a five-necked guitar to Michael Angelo Batio's use of two guitar necks [End Page 817] in his V-shaped guitar to Eddie Van Halen's onstage theatrical gymnastics. As the critic Chris Willman put it, Eddie Van Halen's fingers were "the fingers that launched a hundred-thousand air-guitar solos."40 If glam and postglam rock involved a lot of self-reflexive critiques of rock conventions by employing them ironically and strategically, then air guitar achieved a similar feat: critiquing rock conventions through embracing them in an exaggerated and hyperbolic way.

In the early 1980s the term air guitar became common parlance. On April 2, 1980, the Hartford Courant described a musical competition that featured a pantomime performer: "Roy Charette displays his prize-winning form at playing the 'air' guitar. The guitar, you see, isn't really there."41 In December of that year, the Placerville Mountain Democrat in California offered a depiction of a high school pep rally: "A medley of Stones hits from 'Jumping Jack Flash' to 'Satisfaction' are blasted while the cheerleaders do a very nice dance routine and the fans whip out their air guitars to catch all of Mick Taylor's licks."42 The Atlanta Constitution sketched the rules of an "air guitar" contest in 1981, in which competitors could mime one of four songs: AC/DC's "Highway to Hell," Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze," the Who's "Summertime Blues," and Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love."43 After the first round, the top competitors "from each song group [could] then face-off with the tape of their choosing." In 1982, Patricia Behre, writing for the New York Times, declared: "Air guitar, the art of miming musical performances, has caught on around the country."44

By the mid-1980s, air guitar had become a ubiquitous term describing various forms of pantomime, lip syncing, and air playing, and the term was popularized in part by John McKenna and Michael Moffitt in The Complete Air Guitar Handbook (1983). The book relays a long mythic history of oppression for air guitarists, beginning with the desire to imitate Elvis:

Air guitarists were arrested, jailed, and sometimes institutionalized. Whether their frenzied motion was a sort of seizure, or perhaps a rebellious ritual, or even total lunacy—whatever the cause, the air guitarists were, at least, disturbing the peace, so they were persecuted."45

This account again traffics in similar ideas of madness and air playing that appeared in the early twentieth century—air playing, in the rock context, manifesting a kind of desirable pathology that can be acquired and removed at will.46 In Shakin' All Over: Popular Music and Disability, George McKay builds on the work of Robert Walser and notes that madness in rock music became a trope for spiritual transcendence and unconventional approaches to performance—often problematically fetishizing disability as enabling a [End Page 818] superhuman capacity for artistic expression.47 Madness came to be a lauded quality in fandom as well, evoking a sense of receptivity to music's power and the transcendent possibilities of losing oneself in the music.

The popularity of air guitar as a gestural practice featured prominently in popular media. Not only did the rise of MTV and music videos foster fantasies of guitar theatrics, but advancement in playback technologies also offered new possibilities for mobile and personalized listening. The Walkman, for example, became popular in the early 1980s, and some of the first television advertisements for it showed people rollerblading, dancing, and juggling, as they embraced new possibilities for syncing bodies with popular music.48 During the 1980s and 1990s, many films valorized air guitar playing, braiding ideas of whiteness, masculinity, and air-headed slacker culture. The famous scenes include Tom Cruise pouring up Chivas Regal and air guitaring to Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock 'n' Roll" in Risky Business (1983), Mike Myers and Dana Carvey head banging and air playing in Wayne's World (1992), and countless scenes of air playing in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989). This Is Spinal Tap! (1984) also played with the rock genre aesthetics, performatively engaging with rockist ideologies and conventions (narcissistic performers, intra-band conflicts, obsession with gimmicks over virtuosity, etc.). These cinematic portrayals of air guitar came about along with televised amateur talent shows, which encouraged people to dress up in costumes, impersonate celebrities, and reenact popular music performances—from The Gong Show (1976–78) to Puttin' on the Hits (1984–88) to Lip Service (1992–93).49 In 1990, the Milli Vanilli scandal drew renewed attention to the encroachment of recorded sounds in live vocal performance, but, while lip-syncing scandals stoked cultural anxieties about simulated performance, air guitarists across the country delighted in the humorous and powerful possibilities of playing along with pre-recorded media.

Air Band Competitions Take Center Stage

By the 1980s and 1990s, air guitar playing had emerged out of rock subcultures and found a much broader appeal in the form of air band competitions, which flourished on college campuses and in suburban malls across the country. Sponsored by local beer companies, radio stations, and student organizations, these competitions were hardly competitive in any real sense and trafficked in the comedic potential of imaginary instrument playing. Air band competitions rehearsed and celebrated an interactive approach to music media, showing how the body can serve as a resonant instrument for animating music. In [End Page 819] what follows, I present three examples, in order to draw out themes related to feminized and racialized fandom, white male failure, and sincere forms of gestural listening.

The first example takes us to Little Switzerland in Slinger, Wisconsin, in 1982. WQFM and Pabst Brewing Company sponsored an air band contest, which was judged by people from WQFM, Pabst, and members of the band Triumph.50 Thirty-five bands entered the competition, performing songs by artists from the Kinks to the Rolling Stones. Jim Higgins, a reporter for the Milwaukee Sentinel, described the scene:

Many rock fans suffer from air guitar mania, an affliction—often called "electric stomach"—that forces them to mimic favorite guitarists and singers for hours, on imaginary Stratocasters and invisible microphones. Until recently, victims stayed hidden, popping up only at late night parties and tavern exhibitions. But WQFM and Pabst Brewing Co., have helped, via a recent air band contest, to bring "air musicianship" out of the closet. . . . Air guitar has come a long way from the days of thumping brooms and shouting to the lyrics of "Pinball Wizard" into soap-on-a-rope.51

Higgins goes on to describe bands with various props, such as drum kits made from pizza boxes and guitars made from plywood. After the first few performances, three men from Racine stepped onto the stage as the lead performers, fronting a larger group of fourteen men. These three men in their late twenties appeared in blackface, with long evening gowns, props, and makeup that cost them $580. They spent nearly an hour preparing for the performance, struggling to fit into custom gowns made by two of their friends. Finally, they were ready for their performance, and they took the stage as the announcer declared the upcoming act as the "Air Supremes." The musical recording began playing, and they started miming musical instruments and simulating singing to "Stop! In the Name of Love," followed by "You Keep Me Hangin' On." Kevin Hlavka, the founder of the Air Supremes, explains the risky move to perform Motown to Higgins: "I thought most of the bands would be younger and play heavy rock 'n' roll . . . I wanted to do this because I didn't think anyone else would." The gambit paid off. When the competition ended, they were announced the winners of $1,000 and the first-place prize. "After paying our expenses (with the $1,000 prize money) we're going to throw a party with what's left and invite the other air bands," he told reporters afterward.

This example typifies many aspects of air band competitions in the 1980s. The pathologizing language of Higgins, which positions air playing as an automatic response to the power of musical listening, demonstrates how air playing evoked ideas of possession, trance, and lost inhibitions. The Air [End Page 820] Supremes, however, were quite deliberate in their approach. Clearly connecting to the air banjo antics apparent in blackface minstrelsy, these performers enacted a form of racial and gender impersonation, attempting humor as a result of their failure to convincingly pass as the racialized and gendered other. Their masquerade naturalized their status as white men, by showing how their bodies do not fit constructed ideas of black women's bodies. In writing about drag performance, Judith Butler argues that "there is no necessary relation between drag and subversion" because "drag may well be used in the service of both the denaturalization and reidealization of hyperbolic heterosexual gender norms."52 Air band competitions could certainly facilitate subversive approaches to identity, in ways similar to lip syncing in queer subcultures, but most manifestations of air band competitions offered an opportunity for white performers to transcend white, middle-class respectability while using other constructed identities to naturalize their own normative identities.

Air playing can either celebrate or denigrate certain forms of excessive fandom, by simulating an automatic and uncontrollable response to music. In this case, the Air Supremes could be sincerely celebrating the musical legacy of the Supremes, or (more likely) making fun of the excessive emotionality attributed to feminized pop fans. Their choices of genre (a pop song in a rockcentric competition) and feminine apparel (pink gowns) combine to produce a caricature of pop fandom as passive, feminine, and excessively emotional. Their performance plays with ideas about the susceptibility of impressionable female fans—the same kinds of stereotypical ideas McCracken describes in her work on crooners.

The second example takes us to a bar called the Loading Zone in Los Angeles in 1991.53 It was 11:30 on a Friday night. As part of the promotional efforts to launch the slacker film Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, Orion Pictures hosted local air guitar competitions across the country and flew the winners to LA to compete in their Superstar of Air Guitar Contest. A guitarist from Tampa named Dave Arazmo won the competition in his hometown and flew to LA for the competition that night. Arazmo, a fan of Van Halen and guitarist since the age of ten, brought his own band's music with him, which he used as his backing track. As he wandered the crowd before the competition, he found himself face-to-face with Vince Neil of Mötley Crüe, who was there to watch the competition. When it became time to perform, Arazmo took the stage and delivered his best air guitar performance—grimaces, groans, and powerful power chords. The judging criteria consisted of air guitar technique, knowledge of the music, and showmanship. He excelled at all three, and at the end of night, he walked out of the Loading Zone with $1,000 and a Gibson [End Page 821] guitar—the first-place prize. He spent the money on clothes, a watch, and twenty-five hamburgers for homeless people outside the Santa Monica Mall. When interviewed about his win by the St. Petersburg Times back in Florida, Arazmo said: "I mean, it would have been one thing if it was a guitar contest. But it wasn't. It was just a chance to be in California for free. I didn't place any importance on winning. I don't think anybody there did."54

This example demonstrates the relationship between whiteness, masculinity, failure, and slacker culture. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, much of the writing about air guitar competitions attributed air guitar playing to men, and air playing connects to a long history of white male failure as a kind of desirable practice. Citing examples from Jackass to dancing on YouTube, Harmony Bench describes the "epic fail" as a characteristic of white masculinity: "The success of failure, it seems, has given young men leave to perform acts of superlative stupidity, as well as feats for which they do not possess the requisite skills, in front of a camera. Epic failure . . . is a type of failure that is so satisfying to viewers that it becomes a 'win' in its own right."55 These failures assert a kind of agency and power through showing how vulnerable one can make oneself. In The Queer Art of Failure, Jack Halberstam articulates the power of failure to undermine serious and dominant forms of knowledge that sustain and reify power structures. Failure, for Halberstam, is a "refusal of mastery" that can "stand outside of conventional understandings of success."56 Air guitar can offer a way to opt out of conventional ideas of musical performance, rejecting formal musical knowledge and embracing taboo and stigmatized ways of listening. But failure can also reinforce a position of privilege and power. Halberstam warns that failure can serve as a form of privilege that confers certain desirable values on men (humility, simplicity, the lack of a will to power) while appearing as weakness in women.

The extent to which air guitar enables men to embrace stigmatized emotionality or privileged stupidity is contextual, and these often overlap in complex ways. Adam Liptak, writing for the New York Times in 1985, published an article titled "About Men: Playing Air Guitar":

Men identify with the great rock guitarists the way they do with sports legends, and we mimic their gestures and attitudes in an instinctive quest for grace. . . . Sometimes, at the end of a beery night, my friends and I would put together a whole band—it was always the Stones, and I always wanted to be Keith Richards—and clamber up onto the furniture and play, each of us with his eyes closed, in a way alone. It sounds like a silly and slightly aggressive scene, and it was.57 [End Page 822]

Here we see how air playing enables men to embrace irresponsibility, fantasy, drunkenness, and play. The privilege to be vulnerable can be the subject of these kinds of exhibitions, which flaunt the ability to be reckless without consequence. At the same time, Liptak's passage reveals the way air playing facilitates the expression of intimate emotions that may be stigmatized in the public sphere, harking back to men who played air conductor with the phonograph.

The third example begins with a music video festival that took place in Oulu, Finland. In 1996, organizers of the music video festival arranged to have an air guitar competition as an auxiliary activity. The competition featured performers in bizarre costumes, mainly locals from the nearby area. The presence of a few foreigners in the competition led the organizers to call it the Air Guitar World Championships. Following a successful competition, organizers made it a recurring feature each year at the festival. A group of people in the US heard about this international competition and formed an organization called US Air Guitar in 2003. An American journalist named Dan Crane decided to enter the US competition while writing about his experience in a book and appearing in a documentary called Air Guitar Nation. He eventually traveled to Finland and lost the competition, but his enthusiasm led him to publish To Air Is Human in 2006,58 which had modest circulation and, along with the documentary, catalyzed the organization of local air guitar competitions in the United States. The competition continues today, and the winner travels to Finland each year to compete against air guitarists from other countries, in a Eurovision-style competition format.

During these organized competitions in the US, contestants adopt theatrical personas—more closely aligned with wrestling personas or roller derby than the types of celebrity impersonation found in earlier forms of air guitar. Performer names include Captain Airhab, Shreddy Boop, Airistotle, Cindairella, C-Diddy, Hot Lixx Hulahan, and Sonyk-Rok.59 In my research on these contemporary competitions,60 I have conducted numerous interviews and fieldwork with competitors, but one particular conversation highlights an important underrepresented aspect of air guitar competitions relevant to this history. I spoke with a competitor named Tiger Claw, who explained his history with air guitar:

I've been playing air guitar since 1979. I never learned to play guitar. It didn't come naturally. I tried to read tablature and play by ear. But it was easier to play air guitar than play guitar. Air guitar just came naturally. I never felt self-conscious. All my friends would look at other people doing it, but, because of my skill, they would look at me like: "Oh my god you actually know how to play that song!" They actually held me in awe. They didn't make fun of me; they got a kick out of me. . . . I was in one air band competition in San Jose [End Page 823] State College. That was in 80 or 81, maybe 82 or 83. Air guitar had just gotten started. Joe Cocker, back in 1969, went on Dick Cavett and he asked him: "What's that thing you do when you pretend to play the guitar?" And he says: "I always wanted to learn how to play guitar and I never did." And, as you know, it became an art form in and of itself. . . . I didn't find out about [contemporary] competitions until 2006. . . . I started at San Francisco's first competition back in 2006 and have been doing it ever since.61

Tiger Claw, who competes and judges competitions in San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles (all of which are organized by US Air Guitar), articulates some of the genuine reasons people play air guitar as a meaningful musical practice, particularly for a lot of men who might feel that dance or conventional instrument playing does not suit them. Tiger Claw has impaired mobility, mainly stemming from nerve damage from a severe stroke suffered in 2009. He walks with a cane and struggles with balance when he stands. For him, air guitar provides a way to embody a relationship to rock virtuosity as an engaged listener. He strategically reclaims the pathology attributed to air guitar in the past. Air guitar competitions can offer alternatives to the ableism inherent in conventional instrument pedagogy, which imposes certain bodily requirements and expectations for musical performance. Sydney Hutchinson writes about the connections between dance, masculinity, and these contemporary air guitar competitions, which enable men to "athleticiz[e] this normally private activity" and embrace bodily damage to avoid some of the trappings of effeminized dance.62 Normative cultural ideas that position instrument playing as masculine and dancing as feminine might be challenged in certain ways by air guitar, which mediates this relationship by treating masculine instrument playing as a kind of dance.


The US Air Guitar Championships, now organized by US Air Guitar LLC, continues to be the most organized and expansive air guitar competition structure in the history of the country, sending its annual champion to the Air Guitar World Championships in Finland. Each year, organizers sell out famous concert venues across the country—from the Bowery Ballroom to the Black Cat—and livestream the events. In 2017 the US Air Guitar Championships brought together 281 competitors, who competed in 27 air guitar competitions across the country, and one competition brought in nearly 35,000 livestream viewers. Performers prepare for competitions by choreographing elaborate pantomimes and constructing costumes to manifest ideas about popular music. [End Page 824] These air guitarists now use digital editing techniques to construct backing tracks that condense rock music into powerful one-minute routines. They sample multiple rock tracks and splice them together. They add sound effects to enhance the gestures onstage. Their creative choreographies combine with their digital editing techniques to customize a relationship to popular music, through manipulating the relationship between music recordings and their bodies. In their routines onstage, performers smash air guitars. They light air guitars on fire. They swallow air guitars, showing their capacity to consume rock recordings in front of a live audience. Some performers simulate the loss of bodily control as a result of music's overwhelming power; others reveal their power over musical recordings, showing off their ability to manipulate musical technologies.

Currently, many companies around the world are trying to create technological devices that make air playing easier and more user-friendly. In 2005 Helsinki University of Technology researchers were developing "virtual air guitar" technology, an interface that would translate air-playing gestures into synthesized guitar sounds.63 In 2007 Takara Tomy from Japan created a device using buttons and infrared motion sensors that detect hand movement in order to produce guitar sounds.64 In 2008 the California company Jada Toys created a device with a belt buckle and magnetic pick, allowing users to play the air and produce guitar sounds through a small speaker.65 In 2011 San Francisco–based Yobble created a motion-sensing guitar pick that attaches to an iPhone, giving users the ability to strum the pick and create sounds on an accompanying app.66 These inventions exist alongside many avant-garde musical technologies throughout the twentieth century, which similarly use gestures to create sounds (e.g., the theramin or musical gloves).

All these inventions—as random, novel, and avant-garde as they may be—are part of a broader cultural shift toward interactive technologies, which make use of gestural interfaces, wearable devices, and apps that record and aggregate embodied movement. In her writing on habits and new media, Wendy Chun theorizes the way "capture systems" turn everyday gestures and actions into big data. She writes: "Capture systems are all about habitual actions. They seek to create new, more optimal habits; they record habitual actions in order to change them."67 They change them, she points out, to generate information and new, more profitable habits. Air playing is not solely to blame for the interactive imperatives of new media. But this history shows how air playing foreshadows the development of a broader group of technologies, which normalize and organize interactive approaches to media. [End Page 825]

Many practices, both inside and outside the US, could be part of this history. The various examples mentioned here show how air playing can carry forward ideas about race, gender, and disability in abstract but significant ways. The origins of a particular gesture are hard to trace, but air playing makes apparent how gestures are endowed with cultural power.68 Gestural listening materializes ideas that inform music reception. These gestural practices constitute frameworks—bodily interfaces, kinesthetic vocabularies,69 or interpretive codes—for understanding musical meaning. They establish registers of reception, where the body becomes a conduit for amplifying and animating music media. [End Page 826]

Byrd McDaniel

Byrd McDaniel is a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at Brown University, where he researches popular music reception, disability, and digital cultures. His dissertation, "Syncing Out Loud," focuses on contemporary musical practices that sync bodies and pre-recorded media. Ethnographic case studies include a karaoke bar, air guitar competitions across the United States, and lip-syncing videos on digital platforms. Byrd received the MA in American studies at the University of Alabama. He has taught courses at Brown University, Tufts University, and the University of Alabama.


. I am grateful to the folks at the Association for Recorded Sound Collections for providing me with a grant to travel to the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University, where my kind hosts pointed me to all kinds of interesting materials. I would like to thank Kiri Miller, Joshua Tucker, Marc Perlman, Sydney Hutchinson, the anonymous peer reviewers, and the editors at AQ. I would also like to thank Aline "The Devil's Niece" Westphal and Mathias Mertens, whose insights on Luftgitarre have been instrumental in my research. I would also like to express appreciation for the faculty and former graduate students in the Department of American Studies at the University of Alabama, particularly Eric Weisbard and Jolene Hubbs, for their enduring support.

1. Jack Lechner, "Air Guitarists Rock Berkeley," Yale Daily News, February 15, 1982.

2. Jim Higgins, "Guitar Wizards Take to 'Air' Contest," Milwaukee Sentinel, July 16, 1982; Kathy Keesey, "Air Band Players Rock Auditorium," Spartan Daily, May 1985.

3. Clifford May, "Suburban Malls the Stages for Pantomime Music," New York Times, November 11, 1985.

4. I use the term pre-recorded media rather than simply recorded media to indicate that the musical recording existed before the live performance.

5. Kiri Miller, Playing Along: Digital Games, YouTube, and Virtual Performance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

6. Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2008).

7. Henry Jenkins, with Ravi Purushotma, Margaret Weigel, Katie Clinton, and Alice J. Robison, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture Media Education for the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), 8.

8. Jenkins, Convergence Culture; Lawrence Lessig, Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy (New York: Penguin, 2008); Aram Sinnreich, Mashed Up: Technology and the Rise of Configurable Culture (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2010); Mark Duffett and Koos Zwaan, "New Directions in Music Fan Studies," International Association for the Study of Popular Music 5.1 (2016).

9. Paul Booth, Playing Fans: Negotiating Fandom and Media in the Digital Age (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2015), 5.

10. Kiri Miller, Playable Bodies: Dance Games and Intimate Media (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 208.

11. Joseph Schloss, Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004); Madison Moore, "'I'm That Bitch': On Queerness and the Catwalk," Safundi 18.2 (2017); Harmony Bench, "Single Ladies Is Gay: Queer Performance and Mediated Masculinities on YouTube," in Dance on Its Own Terms: Histories and Methodologies, ed. Melanie Bales and Karen Eliot (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 139; William Cheng, "Role-Playing toward a Virtual Musical Democracy in Lord of the Rings Online," Ethnomusicology 56.1: 31–62.

12. Rolf Inge Godøy and Harald Jørgensen, Musical Imagery (Lisse: Swets & Zeitlinger B.V., 2001); Rolf Inge Godøy and Marc Leman, Musical Gestures: Sound, Movement, and Meaning (New York: Routledge, 2010); Matthew Rahaim, Musicking Bodies: Gesture and Voice in Hindustani Music (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2012).

13. Mark Katz, Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 66.

14. Mary Ann Smart, Mimomania: Music and Gesture in Nineteenth Century Opera (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005); Paul Pierre, Music Hall Mimesis in British Film, 1895–1960: On the Halls on the Screen (Madison, NJ: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2009); John Kenrick, Musical Theatre: A History (New York: Continuum, 2008); Louise Peacock, Slapstick and Comic Performance: Comedy and Pain (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

15. Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); Dale Cockrell, Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

16. Sean Murray, "That 'Weird and Wonderful Posture': Jump 'Jim Crow' and the Performance of Disability," in Oxford Handbook of Music and Disability Studies, ed. Blake Howe, Stephanie Jensen-Moulton, Neil Lerner, and Joseph Straus (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 359.

17. Tanja Aho, Liat Ben-Moshe, and Leon J. Hilton, "Mad Futures: Affect/Theory/Violence," American Quarterly 69.2 (2017): 291–302.

18. "A Day among the Mad Folks," Evening Star, November 27, 1869.

19. "Plays on Imaginary Piano in Jail," Seattle Star, February 22, 1909.

20. "Prof. Fitzgerald the World's Greatest Mesmerist of the Century," Helena Independent, May 12, 1889, 8.

21. "Game of Dumb Instruments," Virginia Enterprise, May 12, 1911.

22. Tim Taylor, "Music and the Rise of Radio," in Wired for Sound: Engineering and Technologies in Sonic Cultures, ed. Thomas Porcello and Paul D. Greene (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2005).

23. Allison McCracken, "'God's Gift to Us Girls': Crooning, Gender, and the Re-Creation of American Popular Song," American Music 17.4 (1999): 382.

24. June Bundy, "TV-D.J.s' Status Up at Local Level," Billboard, November 10, 1956, 62.

25. Philip Auslander, Liveness: Performance and Mediatized Culture (1999; repr. New York: Routledgez 2008).

26. The sound recording that accompanies the televised performance also ends with sounds of destruction, distortion, and feedback, but the video reveals that the musicians' gestures do not correspond with the sounds on the backing track. We hear two demolitions at once—the cacophony of the pre-recorded backing track and the muted sounds of explosions and guitar destruction onstage picked up by the studio mics.

27. Stephen Farrier, "That Lip-Synching Feeling: Drag Performance as Digging the Past," in Queer Dramaturgies: International Perspectives on Where Performance Leads Queer, by Alyson Campbell and Stephen Farrier (London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2016); Carol Langley, "Borrowed Voice: The Art of Lip-Synching in Sydney Drag," Australasian Drama Studies 48 (2006): 192–209; Laurence Senelick, The Changing Room: Sex, Drag, and Theatre (New York: Routledge, 2000).

28. Charles Keil, "Music Mediated and Live in Japan," Ethnomusicology 28.1 (1984): 91–96; Karen Tongson, "Empty Orchestra: The Karaoke Standard and Pop Celebrity," Public Culture 27.1 (2015): 85–108.

29. Anabel Maler, "Songs for Hands: Analyzing Interactions of Sign Language and Music," Society for Music Theory 19.1 (2013): 1–15. Gestural interpretations of songs among both Deaf and hearing performers persist today in many different forms. For example, see Jill Walker, "Hand Signs for Lipsyncing: The Emergence of a Gestural Language on," Social Media + Society 3.4 (2017): 1–11.

30. Joseph Schloss, "'Like Old Folk Songs Handed Down from Generation to Generation': History, Canon, and Community in B-Boy Culture," Ethnomusicology 50.3 (2006): 411.

31. Auslander, Liveness, 95.

32. Ibid., 85.

33. Simon Frith, Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), 214.

34. Philip Auslander, "Musical Personae," TDR: The Drama Review 50.1 (2006): 112.

35. Steve Waksman, Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 167–206.

36. Ibid., 180, 189.

37. "Cocker, Grease Band at the Rose Palace," Los Angeles Times, June 10, 1969.

38. Aline Westphal, "Die Kulturgeschichte der Luftgitarre" (unpublished MS, Stiftung Universität Hildesheim, 2011).

39. Lawrence Grossberg, "The Media Economy of Rock Culture: Cinema, Postmodernity, and Authenticity," in Sound and Vision: The Music Video Reader, ed. Andrew Goodwin, Simon Frith, and Lawrence Grossberg (London: Routledge, 1993), 205–6. See also Philip Auslander, Performing Glam Rock: Gender and Theatricality in Popular Music (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006).

40. Chris Willman, "Pop Music Review: Van Halen's Un-Twin Towers at the Forum," Los Angeles Times, July 4, 1986.

41. "Fret Work," Hartford Courant, April 24, 1980, 82.

42. "Listen to the Music," Placerville Mountain Democrat, December 19, 1980.

43. Bill King, '"Air Guitar' Contest Is Under Way," Atlanta Constitution, April 10, 1981.

44. Patricia Behre, "At an Air-Guitar Party," New York Times, February 21, 1982.

45. John McKenna and Michael Moffitt, The Complete Air Guitar Handbook (New York: Pocket Books, 1983), 7.

46. The book attributes air guitar to Elvis on the first page. As Albert Goldman declared in his biography, "It can't be said often enough that the source of Elvis's onstage power was not his vocal performance but his erotic pantomime" (Elvis [Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1981], 519). Unsurprisingly, the earliest footage I could find of someone playing air guitar comes from Elvis, in a home recording of a vacation he took in Biloxi, Mississippi, in 1956:

47. George McKay, Shakin' All Over: Popular Music and Disability (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013), 164. See also Joseph Straus, Extraordinary Measures: Disability in Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

48. Shuhei Hosokawa, "The Walkman Effect," Popular Music 4 (1984): 165–80.

49. These shows may be serious or superficial, and they often traffic in ideas of national belonging, where individual differences fit a larger narrative of assimilation and collective musical canons. See Katherine Meizel, Idolized: Music, Media, and Identity in American Idol (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010).

50. Jim Higgins, "Guitar Wizards Take to 'Air' Contest," Milwaukee Sentinel, July 16, 1982.

51. Ibid.

52. Judith Butler, "Gender Is Burning: Questions of Appropriation and Subversion," in Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation, and Postcolonial Perspectives, ed. A. McClintock, A. Mufti, and E. Shohat (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

53. Tom Zucco, "Hot Air," St. Petersburg Times, July 24, 1991.

54. Ibid.

55. Bench, "Single Ladies Is Gay," 139.

56. Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 11, 2.

57. Adam Liptak, "About Men: Playing Air Guitar," New York Times, September 1, 1985.

58. Dan Crane, To Air Is Human: One Man's Quest to Become the World's Greatest Air Guitarist (New York: Riverhead Trade, 2006).

59. Sydney Hutchinson's work sheds light on the ways Asian and Asian American performers use air guitar competitions to combat stereotypes through a construct she calls "Asian fury." See Sydney Hutchinson, "Asian Fury: A Tale of Race, Rock, and Air Guitar," Ethnomusicology 60.3 (2016).

60. Byrd McDaniel, "Out of Thin Air: Configurability, Choreography, and the Air Guitar World Championships," Ethnomusicology 61.3 (2017): 411–33.

61. Tiger Claw, Facetime Interview, April 4, 2017.

62. Sydney Hutchinson, "Putting Some Air on Their Chests: Masculinity and Movement in Competitive Air Guitar," World of Music 3.2 (2014): 80. See also Helene Laurin, "'The Girl Is a Boy Is a Girl': Gender Representations in the Gizzy Guitar 2005 Air Guitar Competition," Journal of Popular Music Studies 21.3 (2009): 284–303.

63. Matti Karjalainen, Teemu Mäki-Patola, Aki Kanerva, and Antti Huovilainen, "Virtual Air Guitar," Journal of the Audio Engineering Society 54.10 (2006).

64. Joshua Topolsky, "Air Guitar Pro Makes Air Guitar Slightly Less Fake," Engadget, June 21, 2007,

65. Rob Wright, "Guitar Hero—Without the Guitar," Tom's Guide, January 7, 2008,,news-277.html.

66. Ryan Tate, "In the Kickstarter Future, Hardware Is the New Software,", June 6, 2012,

67. Wendy Chun, Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016), 61.

68. Tomie Hahn, Sensational Knowledge: Embodying Culture through Japanese Dance (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2007); Marcel Mauss, "Techniques of the Body," Economy and Society 2.1 (1973): 70–88; Rebecca Schneider, Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment (New York: Routledge, 2011); Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).

69. These gestures function in similar ways to what Thomas DeFrantz theorizes as "corporeal orature" in black social dance. See DeFrantz, "The Black Beat Made Visible," in Of the Presence of the Body: Essays on Dance and Performance Theory, ed. Andre Lepecki (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004), 64–81.

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