BOOKS AND ARTS JANUARY 7, 2010
The Beatles: Rock Band
When smug old children of the 1970s such as my friends and I get together, we play a game. We talk about the bands we loved when we were kids; we trade grumbles about the fact that music no longer seems to dominate youth culture, as we nostalgically recall the role that rock had in our past; and we try to guess what happened. I call this a game and not a discussion, because really it is diverting silliness that boils down to a competition to reach an agreed-upon goal--that is, to prove our generation’s superiority to our successors. The winning answers are invariably ones that reinforce an idealized conception of the classic-rock era more than they illuminate the present. They reiterate the dubious truism that rock was so magnificent in the 1960s and 1970s that it demanded attention in a way that no music that followed it could. And they cast as revelations the perfectly obvious point that contemporary pastimes such as video games and digital networking have taken up the social function of music.
There is a sizable problem with that line of thinking, and it goes by the names Guitar Hero and Rock Band, the trademarks for two competing sets of video games that call upon its players to get together, listen to music, and pretend to perform it. If electronic gadgeting has supplanted music in the social economy of young America, one has to wonder what it means for games about music and music-making to have become the teen craze of the year. Is Rock Band really a replacement for the rock band, its digital mutant spawn, or another thing altogether?
It is tempting to interpret the phenomenal success of music-oriented games--especially the wildly hyped Beatles edition of Rock Band, introduced in September of this year--as evidence of music’s return to the center of young life, or as validation of the aesthetic values of classic rock. The reality is more complicated and less flattering to boomerdom. For one thing, these games have fairly little to do with music. After all, they are games--like poker, the Olympics, or pro football; and like those and other games, they are, to varying degrees, largely about the pursuit of status and glory, wealth and sex. Guitar Hero and Rock Band involve musicianship in the same sense that chess involves military service. Rocking, like rooking, is the thematic action; but the content is the form, the rules.
For another thing--and this is the main failing of music games, and it is a significant one--they have the insidious effect of glorifying classic rock, a music with an already bloated reputation that is founded on its very bloatedness. In the games’ absorption with technical prowess, speed, flash, grandiose show, and fakery, they not only affirm the enduring allure of classic rock to kids and young adults, especially males; they also advance its tyranny. People like me who have kids of video-game-playing age no doubt get many things wrong about these games, and chief among the errors of our age group, I think, is inflated generational pride in the 1970s-style arena rock that Guitar Hero and Rock Band promote to our descendants--kids who might otherwise, and perhaps more appropriately, use their after-school hours to nurture interests in music of their own. The games reassure us that our aftercomers are our heirs. They are male-oriented tools of cultural primogeniture, applications of twenty-first-century technology with a very ancient mission.
As anyone who knows anyone under thirty knows, music games have, over the past couple of years, become an inescapable presence in the dorm rooms and subdivision basements of America--and also, I presume, in the parlors of more childless homes than their ostensibly grown-up occupants would probably admit to their girlfriends or boyfriends or creditors. Since the first edition of Guitar Hero was introduced in 2005 (by the game developer RedOctane, which had worked on the arcade hit Guitar Freaks, in collaboration with Harmonix, a savvy programming group soon afterward bought out by MTV), more than twenty-five million copies have been purchased in sales totaling more than $2 billion. Rock Band, which is basically an upgraded spin-off of the guitar game developed by Harmonix for groups of people simulating performance on multiple instruments, came out about three years after Guitar Hero, and it has already sold more than four million copies in sales of about $600 million. Moreover, because it encourages music downloading of new songs for game play, it is responsible for some thirty million digital song purchases. Tim Geithner might do worse than license the Fed to Harmonix.
Over the past few months I have rationalized as research for this article several dozen hours playing both Guitar Hero and Rock Band--alone, in online group sessions, with a couple of amateur-musician friends, and once with a colleague’s fourteen-year-old son and his best pal. I came to the task happily, as a former garage-band guitarist and piano player with no particular enmity, and no particular zeal, for video games. I have never stopped any of my three kids from playing the games they liked, and I count as luck the fact that they have not been interested in the ultra-violent stuff. Still, our family time has never been spent sitting around the PlayStation console. Ours is more of a movie-night house. Playing Rock Band, I knew I looked ridiculous holding a cheesy plastic faux-Stratocaster; yet some of the best times I have enjoyed with my children have required me to look ridiculous. (For more than a few of those movie nights, we have all dressed in clothes to match the films.)
As with most video games, the play action of Guitar Hero and Rock Band takes place in a fictive landscape conjured in a vein of digital stylization now so familiar to gamers that it has become a form of realism, a projected reality of the digitally fabulous. As usual, the player is represented on screen by an avatar--in these games, either a real rock star or a custom hybrid of actual or player-invented characters such as one, say, with the hair of Billy Idol and the nose of your cousin Donny. The player chooses a song from the game’s selections (or downloads one) and plays by fingering the colored buttons on one of the goofy, cheap-looking plastic instruments designed and marketed for the purpose. There’s a bit more to the games, and they are not all the same, but the main idea is to approximate the notes played on a recording. With success at that, the player progresses, and the avatar gets richer and more famous. Billy Idol/cousin Donny goes from playing in small clubs to concert halls to stadiums, amassing more and more of the material benefits of rock celebrity--first a van, then a tour bus, eventually a private jet … grander stage sets and bigger speakers, more dry ice and lasers, larger and more adulatory crowds of sexed-up kids….
Elementally, then, the games are concerned with the creation of identity, the mastery of rules, and the navigation of social systems as means of earning distinction and rewards. It fits that they would appeal to adolescents (and regressive adults) struggling to come to terms with the grown-up world. There is no harm in all this, though clear dangers lie in the consequences of success in these games’ schemes--that is, in their opulent glorification of ego-gratifying luxury, idolatry, and easy sex. Foremost among those hazards is the delusion that an ego adequate to achieving rock stardom can be gratified by any amount of anything.
Being games, Guitar Hero and Rock Band portray music as a kind of competition, and in this they are accurate. Classical musicians know this better than all others. Few contests are so fierce as tryouts for the New York Philharmonic, and the orchestra is only the third or fourth best in America. A viola player I know missed the cut for the Philharmonic about a decade ago, and although he survived to play in a good orchestra in a smaller city upstate, he still has nightmares about his New York audition. “It was brutal,” he says. “A hundred virtuosi--I don’t know, probably more than that--and one job, and if you get it, there’s another hundred new kids dying to replace you every year. Bloodthirsty business.” The competition is no less brutal for less popular instruments, such as the oboe or the bassoon, because the scarcity of players is roughly proportionate to the scarcity of chairs.
In many styles of vernacular music, including jazz and bluegrass as well as rock, competitive gamesmanship has always been integral to music-making. Big-band battles, banjo duels, and electric-guitar ax wars have been perfectly effective and entertaining forums for players to demonstrate their technical competence and creative uniqueness, to prove their qualifications for membership in a closed musical society, and to help their peers through provocation. Duke Ellington, in his memoir Music Is My Mistress, recalled as formative his early experience watching the virtuoso stride pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith lord over Harlem cutting contests in the 1920s:
This was the big thing about The Lion: [he was] a gladiator at heart. Anybody who had a reputation as a piano player had to prove it right there and then by sitting down to the piano and displaying his artistic wares. And when a cat thought that he was something special, he usually fell into that trap (or, you might say, into the jaws of The Lion) and he always came out with his reputation all skinned up, covered with the lacerations of humiliation.
If not for the stimulation of competition, we might not have quite the same music from Brahms or Schumann, from Dizzy Gillespie or Charlie Parker, from Lennon or McCartney, from Tupac or Notorious B.I.G., from Michael Jackson or Prince. (In a recent interview about Jackson, the concert promoter Randy Phillips quotes the late singer explaining his insomnia as a necessity of creative rivalry: “If I’m not there to receive these ideas, God might give them to Prince.”) What’s troubling about Guitar Hero and Rock Band is not the presence of competition in the context of music, but the terms of that competition: the values--or more accurately, the non-values--the games promote. The games measure performance almost entirely by two standards: speed and flash (accomplished by use of a whammy bar on the play guitars). The more notes you hit on the games’ buttons and the more rapidly you hit them, the higher your score, the richer you get, and the more girls who thrust their gargantuan digital breasts your way. The imaginative power of the notes or the chords underneath them matter little; what counts most is the notes’ quantity and speed. The music best suited to these games--the outrageously stupid big-hair arena metal that Spinal Tap first parodied twenty-five years ago--is and always has been blandly hyperactive and formulaic. It is music as grotesque as the games’ porny electronic girls in the indiscriminate robot frenzy they are programmed, like Rock Band players, to enact.
The first instrument I ever owned was a little plastic Beatle guitar with four untunable plastic strings. I was nine years old. I coerced my hair out of a part, smashed it down into bangs, and believed I was a Beatle. In early Beatlemania, a great many people--including some in the Beatles’ own organization--conceived of the group as nothing more than haircuts and show guitars. For my tenth birthday, I got what I thought of as a real instrument, a Silvertone acoustic guitar from Sears. Within a year I was in my first band, which my friends and I called the Ryders, for reasons lost to New Jersey grade-school garage-band history. We wanted to play Beatles songs but couldn’t handle the chords in the Lennon and McCartney songs, with their sly harmonic twists; so with the help of an older boy in our neighborhood who played in a Monkees cover band, we learned his group’s repertoire. The Ryders became an imitation of a cover band for a Beatles knock-off, and we had fun, if only as much integrity as I felt I had this fall, playing The Beatles: Rock Band.
Artistry often begins as fandom--as an aspiration, at first, not really to express one’s creative identity but to take on someone else’s. Like a zillion kids my age, I ventured into music wanting to be John Lennon, much as he had started out wanting to be Chuck Berry, who had started out wanting to be Louis Jordan. Real anxiety comes not with influence, but with the imperative to transcend it, which is another part of creative development. For me, being in that imitation Monkees cover group was different than playing air guitar but very much like taking part in a session of The Beatles: Rock Band. I wasn’t pretending to play an instrument; I was pretending to play a Beatle.
The game, in which four players can imagine themselves as John, Paul, George, and Ringo (no user-created Fifth Beatle avatars allowed), makes commendable gestures to capture the group, but ultimately misrepresents and disserves it. Developed by Harmonix with the cooperation of the Beatles’ company, Apple Corps, The Beatles: Rock Band presents the group as something it willfully and significantly abandoned being: a rock band. Giles Martin, the son of the Beatles’ producer George Martin, worked on the game, and he has explained that “what I’m trying to do with this game is make people realize that it’s just the four guys in a room making noise, and that noise comes from them and from nothing else. And you get that from playing the game.” Originally--and from time to time until they broke up in early 1970--the Beatles were indeed a tight, rocking four-piece band. Yet they became something more interesting about halfway into their career, when they gave up concerts and largely abandoned the aesthetic of live performance to innovate the use of studio technology, making the recording, rather than the performance, the art form. Much of the Beatles’ importance lies in the fact they rejected the rock-band tradition. For Giles Martin to claim otherwise is a strange betrayal not only of the Beatles, but of the person most responsible for facilitating their transmutation of pop into a studio art: his father. So much for pop primogeniture.
In the Beatles game, the standard Rock Band “Career Mode” is replaced with “Story Mode.” Of course, the story the game tells is that of the band’s career--or, rather, a simplified, prettified narrative of four boys just happy to make music together and how their joy and camaraderie brought them from the Cavern Club in Liverpool to the Ed Sullivan Show in New York to arenas the world round to fanciful imagined settings that rather nicely evoke the psychedelic era to, in the climax of the game, a blissful final set on the roof of the Apple Corps building in London. (The actual climax of the Beatles’ career was their triumphant return to the studio sensibility, Abbey Road, an album made after the rooftop concert.) The digital Beatles are invariably depicted together, giddily making recordings that the actual fellows made in piecemeal fashion--two Beatles working one day, another overdubbing later, Paul subbing on drums because Ringo walked out, John playing lead because George didn’t show up--sometimes in a storm of rampant egos, conflicting agendas, mistrust, and debilitation. Now, that is the stuff of real competition. It wasn’t very good for the Beatles, but it would make a hell of a video game.
David Hajdu is the music critic of The New Republic.