The Air Guitar Championships: invisible instruments, real rock

The essence of airness is captured at the Minneapolis regional

What is "airness," and how does one know when "airness" has been achieved? This question, along with many others, was bouncing around my head Friday night as I headed to the Varsity Theater to judge the regional Air Guitar Championships. Going into the event, I was unsure of what to expect, and I was nervous about my qualifications as an air guitar official. My job brings me into contact with people who play real guitars, real pianos, real drums; and, for the most part, I feel competent in my ability to separate the good from the bad. But would I know a good air-ist when I saw one?

As I stood outside the Varsity with fellow judges Brian Oake (of Cities 97) and Rob Chapman (of local publicity company CO5), the organizers explained that we were expected to judge each contestant on three factors: stage presence, technical merit, and the ever-elusive "airness." The rules were explained slowly and clearly, and we were each given a handout to use as a reference throughout the night. As our emcee, 2006 U.S. Air Guitar champ Hot Lixx Hulahan (a.k.a. Craig Billmeier) explained, "We want to make sure you understand everything now, before you get too drunk."

Once inside, we were led to a judging table on a raised platform to the right of the stage, where all our materials for the evening had been laid out in front of us: more copies of the judging handout, white boards and markers for displaying our scores, three microphones, and three shots of tequila. I blinked, rubbed my eyes, and looked again. Microphones. Tequila. This was going to be interesting.

Cami Phillipi, a.k.a. "Airosol," reigns supreme as a two-time regional champion
Daniel Corrigan
Cami Phillipi, a.k.a. "Airosol," reigns supreme as a two-time regional champion

The show was running about 45 minutes behind schedule, so to help pass the time the organizers fed us a steady stream of drinks and reminded us repeatedly of the rules of the competition. By the time Hot Lixx Hulahan appeared onstage to kick off the evening, the room had filled with people, and alcohol was flowing freely throughout the venue (and my bloodstream). Hot Lixx showed the audience how it's done with a sample performance of his supreme air guitar abilities, and then we launched into the first round of competition. Contestants were given 60 seconds each to perform a song snippet of their choosing, and the mostly male pool of performers chose to play mostly testosterone-fueled classic rock songs by the likes of AC/DC, Metallica, and Def Leppard.

As soon as the first contestant finished it was clear that detecting "airness" would be easier than I thought. Somewhere between silliness and deadly seriousness lies the essence of air guitar—like a joke whose punch line depends on deadpan delivery, air guitar can only be pulled off by someone who is intent on selling his performance without acknowledging the absurdity of the fact that he is playing an invisible instrument. It's a fine balance that only a handful of the contestants were able to maintain; some got so carried away with conveying enthusiasm that their hands shot out in all directions to play scales up and down 10 different fret boards, while others were so focused on showcasing their technical ability that they forgot to rock out.

And then there was Cami Phillipi, a.k.a. "Airosol." Phillipi, dressed in tight black leather and sporting a mane of thick black and electric blue hair, exemplified pure, unadulterated airness. Suddenly, airness stopped being a silly, made-up word and started being the only way to accurately describe Phillipi's spot-on invisible technical abilities and pretend rock-star charisma. A perfect combination of Joan Jett, Chrissie Hynde, and Karen O, Phillipi commanded the stage, running from end to end and nailing every note of Van Halen's rendition of "You Really Got Me." My fellow judges looked on in awe, and we all quickly scrawled 6.0 on our white boards, the highest score available.

Phillipi re-emerged during the final round to play Smashing Pumpkins' "Cherub Rock," a pre-selected song that each of the five finalists was required to perform. Though I wasn't sure I could stomach hearing Billy Corgan's whine for the fifth time in a row, Phillipi made the repetition worth it: Though she had no way of knowing which song would be selected for the final round, she pranced, kicked, and slid across the stage with the precision of a choreographed dancer, ending her song with a perfectly timed frontward flip.

"You are an honor to air guitar women everywhere!" I yelled into my microphone as I held up my white board displaying a 6.0 score. At least, I think that's what I said in my tequila- and Summit-fueled haze, before grabbing Brian Oake's hand and rushing the stage to wriggle and wail with the contestants to a grand finale performance of—what else?—"Free Bird."

 
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