By Stewart Mandel
Of all the technological advancements our society has wrought this decade — Blackberries, IPods, Facebook, the Snuggie — one in particular deserves our highest praise for its inventors’ vision, genius and downright awesomeness.
I’m speaking of the video game Rock Band.
While lab scientists, marketing gurus and ad execs wring their hands every day trying to figure out our country’s ever-changing consumer tastes, the makers of Rock Band (not to mention its ubiquitous cousin, Guitar Hero) simply tapped in to one of the most universal desires of any suburban-bred American.
We all really want to be rock stars.
The adulation. The groupies. The freedom to wear spandex unironically. For 99.9 percent of us, this wondrous fantasy life will never become a reality (which is probably for the best, since we then get to avoid the accompanying drug addiction, jail time and bankruptcy).
But make no mistake, there are few greater rushes in life than that of crunching a pick across a set of guitar strings and producing an amplified wave of sound that reverberates throughout a room full of shrieking spectators.
I should know.
While you’d never guess it looking at me today — just another 30something professional with short hair, a steady job and little-to-no connection to current popular music — once upon a time, I was the lead guitarist of the highly beloved alt-rock band STEM.
Granted, this was in college, and our fan base consisted primarily of friends and neighbors. Granted, most of our gigs consisted of dorm socials and fraternity parties, and granted our stint as an unabashed Green Day/Weezer rip-off troupe lasted barely into our sophomore year. (It ended, in fact, when I left the band to devote more time to my fledgling career as a campus sportswriter, thus foregoing a vocation ripe with female admirers for another consisting almost entirely of male followers. What a frigging genius I am.)
But for 11 glorious months, albeit on a relatively small stage, I got to experience the very thrill I’d dreamed of from the time I first saw Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen strut around that circular, laser-beam stage in the video to “Pour Some Sugar On Me” (the difference being, I kept my shirt on). I got to feel what it’s truly like to “rock.”
It was an urge that largely dissipated during the years that followed as I sunk further and further into the realm of un-hipness. By the end of college, my guitar sat mostly unused in a closet, and eventually I handed it down to my younger brother (who did in fact become a bona fide rock star in his early 20s, touring in a van and sleeping on basements throughout the Midwest. … Now he’s a real-estate agent.) I’d occasionally feel an old longing to be on stage whenever I attended concerts, but the few times I did pick up a guitar, I found that, much like Marty McFly in Back to the Future 2, I’d lost the ability to play 90 percent of the songs I once knew by heart.
But then, just when I thought rock was officially a forgotten part of my past, along came a magical box filled with $180 worth of toy instruments.
From the moment I tapped my first plastic-generated notes at a friend’s house in Phoenix, I knew my life would never be the same. I bought the first edition of Rock Band shortly after New Year’s in 2008 — the first time I’d purchased any video game in nearly six years. For the next several weeks, I came straight home from work to spend the next several hours jamming to “Gimme Shelter” or drumming to “Black Hole Sun.” I hadn’t been addicted to anything this intently since Taco Bell introduced the Gordita.
Meanwhile, I soon found the game made me infinitely more popular. Because Rock Band can involve as many as four participants (guitar player, bass player, drummer and singer), it makes for a perfect party game. That February, I hosted a “Super Bowl/Rock Band” party, in which we played the video game during halftime and postgame. This would be the first of several such gatherings, each of which followed a similar script. Many of the guests would express visible skepticism/horror upon initially seeing me break out video-game controllers and plastic instruments. But within 10 minutes, most of those same guests would be scurrying to take over the microphone on “Enter Sandman” or try their hand at the drums on “Wanted Dead or Alive.”
Moments like these remind me why I became a fan of rock music in the first place: The unifying power. Back when I was a pimple-faced 13-year-old trying to survive the terrifying halls of Sycamore Junior High School, it was a shared affinity for the popular bands of that era — Def Lep, Guns N’ Roses, Poison, et. al. — that gave me something to talk about with my peers. Whether you were a geek or a jock, an honors student or a home-ec student, you’d undoubtedly seen the video for “Paradise City” roughly 2,147 times.
Fast-forward to adulthood. Most peoples’ music tastes have deviated in any numbers of directions at this point, and oftentimes I’ve found myself having to apologize for my so-called unsophisticated tastes. I never graduated to Coldplay or Jack Johnson or whatever other faux-arty act the critics are hailing these days. I still love the bands with distorted guitars and catchy choruses, nearly all of which reached their musical peak no later than 1995.
For instance, I remain a loyal fan of Weezer — but I have a hard time finding too many other people my age who share this sentiment. Either they associate the band primarily with its more recent hits like “Beverly Hills,” and therefore assume that most of its fans don’t hold drivers licenses, or they’ve chosen to no longer take seriously any band that was popular when they were in high school.
However, I’ve now been witness to at least four Rock Band get-togethers when the song “Say It Ain’t So” comes on, and without failure, nearly every person in the room winds up singing along enthusiastically to every word of the chorus. It takes me back to a time before IPods and XM, deadlines and rent bills, when there were few activities more important in my world than watching MTV and buying/listening to CDs.
Who knew a video game could engender such nostalgia?
The Rock Band/Guitar Hero craze is not the only recent development that’s awoken the teenage rock-star wannabe inside of me. This spring, I attended the new Broadway musical Rock of Ages, which seems like it was written specifically for me (and the people I went to junior high with). The Tony-nominated show is set on the Sunset Strip in the late ‘80s, with the actors performing elaborate numbers to the likes of Journey, Whitesnake and Warrant. By the second act, much of the crowd is standing and singing along like they’re at one of the band’s concerts.
Serious-minded Broadway types have expressed surprise at the show’s rags-to-riches success (it started at a small theater in L.A. four years ago), which seems to me to be somewhat snobbish. There’s a reason these bands once sold tens of millions of records. While the show deliberately pokes fun at the prevailing style (specifically the hair) and sexual mores (that one should sleep with anything that walks) of that era, there is a genuine affection for the music evident in both the performers and the audience.
Riding this wave of resurgent popularity, today one can catch touring bands like Def Leppard and Poison at the same, large summer amphitheaters they played 20 years ago. Like their members, many of their fans have packed on a few pounds, popped out a few kids and experienced any number of life changes, but their songs still evoke that same, familiar feeling of escapism — that inescapable urge to grab a guitar, plug it into an amp and, in the illustrious words of Spinal Tap, “crank it to 11.”
It just so happens that the volume bar on my Samsung plasma-screen television goes all the way to 100, though I don’t normally raise it higher than 40. However, on nights when I know the neighbors aren’t home (and some nights when they are), on nights when I’m feeling particularly rowdy or when some 16-year-old in Vermont thinks he can beat my high score on “Carry on My Wayward Son” (yes, I play against random people online sometimes … don’t hate), you may well see me jack it all the way to 49!
And when the song is over, when I’ve run out of gas for the night, lift the guitar strap back over my head and prepare to turn off the Wii, I take a second to bask in the roars and applause of the video-simulated crowd.
Thank you, apartment walls! You’ve been a great audience. We’ll see you again soon. … GOOD NIGHT!