The fact that there is an air guitar world championship seems to me as understandable as table tennis being included in the list of Olympic sports: that is to say, irrationally silly. However it is this silliness that makes air guitar so appealing, asserts anthropologist Paul Mullins. In his article “Pleasure, community, and air guitar,” he explains that because the act of playing an imaginary guitar is so goofy and embarrassing, “air guitar performances can be exhilarating and bonding…they bond performers and audiences in a community that encourages and celebrates each other’s performances.”
Air guitar is very connected to dance, in my mind, because they both involve movements to a beat. So that leads to the question: why do we like dancing so much? Certainly no other animals do it. You don’t often see a monkey waltzing or attempting to twerk. So why have we, as humans, created hundreds of different types of dancing, all of which can express different situations or sentiments?
Neurologist John Krakauer attempts to explain why dancing was created in steps. “First, people speculate that music was created through rhythmic movement—think: tapping your foot. Second, some reward-related areas in the brain are connected with motor areas. Third, mounting evidence suggests that we are sensitive and attuned to the movements of others’ bodies, because similar brain regions are activated when certain movements are both made and observed.” So, by his research, dancing activates the reward center of our brain through our motor movements as well as the movements of others. Therefore, through his assertion, to become most pleasurable dancing must be an inter-personal activity.
I find this especially interesting when compared to air guitar because it is a form of dance that completely relies on individualism. There are no boundaries other than the constraints of the song the air guitarist is miming and the fictional instrument they are playing. It relies solely on the player’s imagination and individualism—especially in the world championship, where they are on stage, alone.
The fact that this individualism goes exactly against our inclinations to dance with others may be part of the reason it is so exhilarating. As well, it’s an extreme display of play and expression with very little boundaries. It is extremely popular in Finland, where, Mullins observes, the society is somewhat constraining. He ruminates that possibly “what the unleashed Finnish kids’ performances reflect is the pleasure many of us take in the release from restraint, rationality, and self-consciousness.” Thus, the popularity of air guitar may be a reaction to the relative seriousness prevalent in every day society. Some people have gone so far as to call the extreme silliness and amount of confidence it takes to perform air guitar an art form, which, if we’re talking about forms of expression, definitely qualifies.
“Pleasure, community, and air guitar” by Paul Mullins
“Why do we like to dance–and move to the beat?” by John Krakauer