25 Aug 2008
‘Guitar Hero’ and Why It Should Be Burnt in the Streets
Stopping work and going away has similarities with being hit repeatedly over the head with a plank of wood. In the same way that it is only when the beating stops that you realise how much it hurts, it is only when you actually stop work, turn off mobile phone and email contact, that you realise how utterly exhausted you are. That’s how it was for me anyway. So on our first day away, we ended up in London, and went to Hamley’s toy shop. While the rest of the family wandered around, I sat with our bags and promptly fell asleep in the middle of the shop. When I woke up again, I found I was sitting just by a big XBox thing which was demonstrating the latest version of the game ‘Guitar Hero 3’. While I sat waiting for the return of my family, I had no alternative than to observe this dreadful thing for about half an hour, which prompts the following…
For those of you unfamiliar with this highly popular new computer game, the manufacturers describe it thus;
Crank Up the Volume and prepare to rock with Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock. Battle against some of the greatest guitar legends to ever shred on a guitar and become one yourself. Take your shredding skills online against other Guitar Hero players from around the world. Grab your Guitar Hero Controller and unleash your inner rock legend. Guitar Hero 3 is available on Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Nintendo Wii, Playstation 2, PC & Mac.
The third game from the Guitar Hero series is going to rock your face off. Channel your inner guitar god as you thrash your way through all sorts of venues. In addition to standard Guitar Hero features you know and adore, this game has all kinds of killer new options such as the new multiplayer battle mode, grueling boss battles, a bevy of exclusive unlockable content, and authentic rock venues. The expanded online multiplayer game modes will also allow guitar heroes worldwide to compete head-to-head for true legendary rock status.
What this game does is turn the guitar solo into a competitive sport. You get points for each correct note you hit on your pretend plastic guitar as your ridiculously proportioned character pouts and struts about in front of a highly overexcited and sheep-like virtual audience. ‘Guitar Hero’ reduces music to a turgid backing track overladen with overblown and extended guitar solos. Guitar solos have long been a form of musical masturbation, now they have been imaginatively repackaged as competitive musical masturbation.
This is a reflection of our ghastly Pop Idol culture which has reduced music to a fast ticket to getting rich and being on telly. The idea that you can become an instant ‘star’, that people can be plucked from obscurity just for being able to sing other peoples’ songs in an engaging fashion, and become an overnight pop sensation, is appalling but deeply pervasive. It is the Great American Dream applied to music… anyone can be famous and rich, you just need the lucky break.
No rehearsing in sweaty basements, no dreadful early gigs, no inspired moments when you write your first really good song, no scrimping together the money to do first recordings, no effort. It is style over substance, and it is shallow beyond reason. Yet this culture can be extremely damaging. In his excellent book ‘Growth Fetish‘, Clive Hamilton writes;
For many people, living in the hope of a chance external intervention deprives them of the motivation to change their personal or community circumstances”.
He also notes, that;
“20th century consumer capitalism has seen a progressive substitution of activities and desires that result in immediate stimulation for the more challenging and potentially more fulfilling demands of realising one’s potential.”
In other words, games like this take us further from reality, further from each other, and further from being an active participant in the extraordinary transition we are starting to go through.
‘Guitar Hero’ values and reveres musicianship but can’t be bothered to acquire any of it itself. Solo your way through ‘Walk This Way’ without actually needing to spend the time learning to play the guitar. Become an ‘instant’ guitar hero! Just like that!
My first musical love was punk, which was at least honest when it came to musicianship. With the Ramones, you could learn to play enough to play their songs in about 10 minutes, and then you could form your own band. In the seminal fanzine ‘Sniffing Glue’, they once had a page which showed the reader how to play 3 chords, with the heading “here are three chords, now form a band”. I guess my version of this is “here are twelve steps, now form a Transition Initiative”. No respecter of this however, ‘Guitar Hero’, reduces a classic from that time like ‘Anarchy in the UK’, to this…
One of the most glorious gigs I ever saw was the Shop Assistants, at the Granary in Bristol. Singer, novice bass player, fuzzy guitar and two stand-up drummers, each song was a thrill to see if they would make it to end of the song without it all falling apart, or whether it would all dissolve into chaos. I have always had great admiration for things done not necessarily very well but with great spirit, and there is a magic in people making music because they are driven to, whether or not they have actually mastered the technical ability to carry it off. Imagine the Shop Assistants on ‘Pop Idol’, they’d have been gonged off sharpish about three seconds in.
In the film ‘Garbage Warrior’, Michael Reynolds laments half way through that the restrictive building regulations that stop him from building Earthships have “taken away my right to fail”. ‘Guitar Hero’ likewise takes away people’s right to fail, in that you have no scope to invent, to create, to be spontaneous. Creativity is impossible; in spite of the wonderful potential that new technologies give us for remixing tracks, creating innovative soundscapes and so on, all you can do here is try and keep up with some predetermined guitar solo. I have to say that it struck me as I sat there, bleary-eyed in Hamleys, that in ‘Guitar Hero’ we have plumbed a new cultural low, a landmark in the ongoing devaluing of creativity.
In contrast to the karaoke riff-fest of overlong songs that typifies ‘Guitar Hero’, I remember someone asking Bobby Gillespie from Primal Scream in their early days why their song ‘Velocity Girl‘ was only 1 minute 27 seconds long. His reply was “because it had finished”, or words to that effect. ‘Guitar Hero’ doesn’t value succinctness, coming to the point, it is all bombast and not realising when you have overstayed your welcome. Almost certainly the virtual crowd is not programmed to boo you off when your self-indulgence becomes toe-curling…
There is something especially sad about thousands of people tucked away in their homes, with a couple of friends, a tube of Pringles and their plastic guitars, “channelling their inner guitar gods as they thrash their way through all sorts of venues”… strikes me as being especially lonely. Music should be joyous, occasionally shambolic, a seat-of-your-pants, shared cultural experience, a passionate voicing of shared stories, an unleashing of music’s power to move, inspire or to break your heart. Anything that drives us further apart should be shunned, discarded, repelled, spurned, scorned and spat on. Take an axe to any manifestions of this abomination that cross your path. “Rock your face off” indeed.