- The Washington Times - Friday, March 20, 2009

After I finally laid hands on the video game Guitar Hero, a friend and I had the following conversation about it:

Friend: “So, what do you do with it?”

Me: “Well, you try to press these color-coded buttons in time with the music on-screen, with increasing rates of speed at each level of difficulty.”

Friend: “Do you learn anything about guitar — like, how to play one?”

Me: “No, not really.”

Me, Friend, simultaneously: “What would be the point of that?”

(Laughter)

Fast forward to the other day, when a press release appeared in my in-box touting the six-string prowess of 21-year-old Cetan Clawson.

“Has the Guitar Hero Generation Produced One of Its Own?” it asked, portentously, in its subject line.

How intriguing, I thought, clicking into the body of the e-mail. Had Guitar Hero inspired some young phenom to pick up the real thing? Or, better yet, had said phenom logged Malcolm Gladwell’s (actually, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin’s — but that’s another story) requisite 10,000 hours of practice and magically transferred virtual abilities into real-world mastery?

The answer, I learned, is, not really.

Press release: “When teenagers view punk as the older generation’s music, as something heard on cruise-ship commercials, you can bet a revolution is about to take place. Weaned on fourth-generation pop punk and the open-chord ethos of emo, the ‘Guitar Hero’ generation is pushing back, defining its own sound, one that owes far more to the classic rock that dominates the game’s ubiquitous soundtrack.”

After viewing various YouTube clips of Mr. Clawson, I admit the kid can play. It’s no lie. However, it’s not apparent that Guitar Hero had anything to do with his skills — other than that this video game and its rival, Rock Band, are immensely popular with his age cohort.

There’s even less evidence that Mr. Clawson’s generation has a negative impression of commercially exploited proto-punk anthems such as Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life.” Whether it’s via clever ad campaigns, Disney shows or video games, these kids are consuming more and more music through their televisions. It makes little sense to think they would privilege any era over another when it’s all traveling through the same pipes.

So, what of this “Guitar Hero generation” business?

In a recent article for the Atlantic, writer James Parker mounted a more analytical defense of — or, at the very least, reckoning with — the Guitar Hero/Rock Band phenomenon.

He quoted Greg LoPiccolo, vice president of product development for Harmonix Music Systems, the company that developed both games, on their “educational” potential: “The game does set you up, in a way, to be more receptive to learning about how to create music,” Mr. LoPiccolo said. “You learn about time, you learn about what the parts are — There’s this natural, intuitive knowledge about how songs are composed and arranged that the game totally gives you.

“My guess is that in five years’ time, there’ll be an explosion of garage bands.”

We’ll see.

I played my share of video games as a preteen in the mid-1980s, and if Guitar Hero or Rock Band had been around then, I no doubt would have felt even more strongly compelled to pick up the Martin-imitation acoustic that my mom had abandoned from her days in a Catholic women’s prayer group.

From there to the amp- and drum-clogged garage, however, is more of a stretch.

I often tell parents who are keen on the idea of their young children one day mastering a musical instrument that I wish I had learned to play piano instead of guitar. On the former, the diatonic scale is laid in an easy-to-intuit chromatic sequence. If you know the alphabet, a piano neatly reveals to you the basics of music theory.

On the guitar, meanwhile, one must learn a bevy of chord shapes that have no meaning or use outside of themselves.

Despite this methodological cul-de-sac, if you will, guitar-playing and piano-playing are indistinguishably musical.

Not so with the Guitar Hero/Rock Band schema: When you play these games — which reward hair-trigger reactions to visual and aural stimuli — you surely are acquiring a skill. Yet it’s not clear that this skill fundamentally equips you to play music any better than does riding a bike.

Mr. Parker of the Atlantic ultimately makes a more modest claim for Guitar Hero and Rock Band: They’re the 21st-century’s contribution to the “cycle of simulation” — the cellular process that foments fascination and fandom.

“Rock depends — has always depended — on simulation: Its true tabernacle is the inside of a teenager’s head, that palace of delusion,” he writes. “It’s the very sacrament of rock and roll.”

I won’t quibble with that.

But let’s not kid ourselves with assertions of a generational movement that has reinvented this age-old sacramental exchange. The vast majority of Guitar Hero and Rock Band gamers will be the ones receiving, not distributing, the wafer and wine.

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