I wish rock musicians would shut up about Guitar Hero and the death of music already. At what point did a plastic guitar, roughly the size of a ukulele, become a threat to Rock and Roll? At what juncture in Rock’s history as a generally rebellious activity did Rock Band become The Man? Every week the list of rock stars that feel compelled to bitch about games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero lengthens. Noel and Liam Gallagher, Johnny Rotten, Chad Kreuger of Nickelback and now no less than Jimmy Page and Jack White have all expressed their disdain for the music game phenomenon. The arguments usually revolve around the notion that kids will lose all desire to create their own music now that they can ape the process with a guitar shaped piece of plastic. The other argument is that these music games don’t teach anything except button pressing, which is mutually exclusive to the actual music.
Allow me to allay the fears of rock stars everywhere: Guitar Hero and Rock Band won’t ever replace the desire to create music and be in a real band. It has to be one of the sillier fears I’ve ever seen attributed to videogames. Narcissists(read front men) quickly realize that as great as it feels to rock out in front of friends, it doesn’t even come close to the reality of being a real axeman or lead singer for a band performing in front of 50 people to say nothing of 500. It’s a well known fact that rock stars do lots and lots of drugs in order to sustain the high they feel on stage. Also, for the musically curious, these games can’t sate the appetite to create. For the creatively inclined, tapping buttons is no substitute for making new music.
Perhaps the greater fear is that in so freely allowing people to indulge their rock star fantasies, they will abandon the concert experience. Given the ridiculous prices tickets often fetch, it’s a reasonable concern. Even so, I think people will still get together and worship at the feet of their idols. As Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney pointed out in her analysis of Rock Band for Slate.com, “It’s hard to beat the visceral high of playing live and creating something spontaneous.” With great bands the sound changes so much from night to night that true fans will always revel in the unknown pleasures that come with a live show.
What these games are changing is the way we listen to music. It’s a change for the better as well. Consider the wasteland that is contemporary American radio. As a listener, when I dare to listen to the radio, I’m likely seeking through station after station, listening to a refrain here and a bridge there, often running into the same song across multiple stations. The structure of a pop song is essentially lost on me. Music games compel people to play through the entire song. But more importantly, as my coworker Jordan Deam, a rock star in his own right, pointed out, these games force players to listen to songs more carefully. When I filter a song through my tone deaf ears, I hear lyrics and a melody. Musically trained people hear all the parts of a song and truly understand how interesting a complex sound can be. Guitar Hero and Rock Band ask players to take up the individual pieces that make up a rock band and learn to follow and, to an extent, appreciate the separate roles everyone plays in creating the bombast of a Metallica song or the delicacy of a Beatles song like “Blackbird.”
I think it’s easy to look at Guitar Hero or Rock Band and assume that they’re trying to give players a rudimentary understanding of the skills one might need to start their own rock band. After all, the games’ drums and karaoke can provide some amount of one to one approximation. However, I think very few people are under the illusion, for any length of time, that music games and actual musicianship have anything to do with each other. Rather, what gets us to play again and again is the fun we can have while listening to our favorite song. “Living on a Prayer” no longer needs to reside solely in the bar juke box; the cheesy drama of Journey has a place in the living room. God only knows how a game like DJ Hero will revolutionize the suburban TV den dance scene.
Guitar Hero and Rock Band may well end up being as revolutionary as the Walkman and the internet in changing the way people listen to music. When the Walkman arrived, music truly became private and portable. It heralded the concept of a personalized soundtrack to daily life. Likewise, the internet has had enormous impact in the amount and variety of music people can now consume. The concept of the rare album or the unheard bootleg has become an almost alien notion. Now, with the arrival of music games, music is more than just a passive listening experience. Sure, the air guitar and karaoke have always been around, but music games are something different.
Somewhere, a group of fourteen-year-olds is playing “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”, listening to each instrument carefully in order to understand the whole of the song. In a living room, a father and son are playing through Metallica songs, the father realizing thrash metal has more merits to it than he originally thought. This is the process of new music being discovered and horizons broadening. Contrary to what Jimmy Page might believe, Guitar Hero and Rock Band aren’t the catalysts that will cause John Bonham to roll over in his grave; they are the insurance that bands like Led Zeppelin will stay relevant for the next generation of musicians. Music games are the best hope that “Stairway to Heaven”, timeless as it is, will always be a fresh listen.
Despite his bitter old man attitude towards music games, Tom Endo still worships at the feet of Jimmy Page.