Guitar Heroes

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Guitar Heroes

Something’s been bothering me about the music industry lately. Something’s been bothering me about the music industry lately. Or rather, the way the music industry is perceived by those outside it. Take for instance the commercials for games like “Rock Band” and “Guitar Hero.” If these games invite a young person (or even an adult) to pick up a *real* instrument one day and actually learn how to play, I think they are great. More often, I think all they do is propagate the clichés of music history (particularly rock), presenting a caricature of an art form that has already become diluted and over-commercialized by shows like “American Idol.” All of these forms of media (video games, TV shows) have changed the playing field for many musicians. Those of us who explore music and sound for its own sake (not for the mythical rock star lifestyle, or the promise of hordes of adoring fans) have gained tremendously from technology and media developments. Digital recording, synthesis, sampling, wireless controllers, portable music players and more have all contributed to far more possibilities in music/audio creation than Alan Lomax would have thought possible. However, some of those same helpful technologies are hurting artists in other ways. Music becomes devalued in terms of both cost and quality. Music becomes manufactured. Many people now expect music to be free. While I am glad that many artists are breaking free from major label control, I am concerned that many listeners now count “Idol” and similar shows as their central musical experience. Rather than discovering up-coming bands in their own back yard or local radio, there seems to be a tendency to follow the TV talent show filter. We’ve had “Star Search” shows before, but how did they become so popular? I always thought these shows were rather corny. Perhaps the Internet has given people the power to truly feel like they are part of the vetting process for new talent. Without the Internet, these shows would be nothing more than gossip points for the few pockets of people who could watch the show. Now that television is much further reaching, and now that the Internet allows people to connect, viewers have more power to make or break an artist. However, such shows lack legitimacy and create an influx of rock-star-wannabes that simply clutter the market for everyone else. The few truly talented people who get through are saved the character-building, dues-paying years of ground work most of us have to do. They are skyrocketed into a world that they may not be able to navigate because they did not have the real-world experience. If they do come out of it unscathed and successful, they have done nothing but reinforce the clichés that got them there. Video game manufacturers are brilliant. After tapping into our sci-fi alien-blasting tendencies and our dragon-slaying dreams, they have finally found a fantasy that so many people – geek and non-geek – can relate to: being a rock star. Americans are particularly susceptible to this, with rock music being such an iconic emblem for everything cool and rebellious in our culture. While the game developers get kudos for being so smart, they may not realize what they have done to the process of learning an instrument, the spread of misguided ideas about music, let alone the value of interacting with musicians who are not connected by wires. We can only hope that people do not forget the original wireless technology – acoustic instruments, percussion and the human voice. Otherwise, one day we may be watching “American Guitar Hero Idol.” That will be a sad day indeed. …

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