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Air guitar, from elaborate lark to utopian gesture

Northeastern students Ben Gram (left) and Evan Burgener demonstrate their air guitar skills at an event in 2007.
Northeastern students Ben Gram (left) and Evan Burgener demonstrate their air guitar skills at an event in 2007.(Vick Virgilio for the Boston Globe/file)

On July 2, masters and hopefuls alike bring their spandex, leather, and best moves to the Middle East in Cambridge for the Boston semifinals of the 2016 US Air Guitar Championships. From ad hoc contests in the 1980s, competitive air guitar has grown into an international sport with 20 countries hosting tournaments, culminating in the world championships, held since 1996 in Finland, the planet’s air-guitar epicenter.

Along the way, air guitar has become its own distinct art form, rich with tradition and innovation. Competitors are judged on both the faithfulness of their air-guitar moves (how well they physically shadow the actual playing on a given recording) and “airness,” a deliberately open-ended measure of how much the performance transcends mere impersonation. As it turns out, the physical elements of virtuosic rock guitar playing — the scurrying fretwork, the windmilling arm — are a fertile vocabulary for choreographic ingenuity, especially in combination with competitive air guitar’s fantastic, unmoored version of rock’s over-the-top theatricality.

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It is, on the one hand, an elaborate lark, the absurdity of which competitors freely embrace. But air guitar rides surprisingly deep cultural currents. Musicologist Byrd McDaniel, who has done groundbreaking scholarly work on air guitar’s historic and aesthetic context, makes a connection to late-19th- and early-20th-century instances of musical pantomime, both in the context of theatrical hypnosis acts — seemingly forcing subjects or audience members to play imaginary instruments — and outright pathology: Such simulated playing was, on occasion, cited as evidence of madness. With the advent of heavy metal, a genre that notably capitalized on traditional tropes of madness and gothic horror, fans reoriented that pantomime as a positive, self-affirming response, a way of embodying one’s identification with the music.

That idea — physically manifesting what others might consider fringe or outré identities — is reflected in the competitions’ stylistic variety, which tends to encompass everything from classic rock to hardcore punk to glam flamboyance. It also, perhaps, feeds competitive air guitar’s cheerfully utopian philosophy, which competitors loudly, proudly, even earnestly espouse: More air guitar can create a more peaceful world. Within its tight-knit, enthusiastic community, air guitar represents perhaps the most faithful manifestation of the too-often unrealized utopian promise within rock’s jumble of social rebellion, fluid sexuality, and everyone-is-invited party atmosphere. As 2012 world champion Justin “Nordic Thunder” Howard has put it: “Air guitar has the ability to unite us all.” Matthew Guerrieri

The Middle East in Cambridge hosts the Boston semifinals of the US Air Guitar Championships on July 2 at 7 p.m. (ages 18 and over). Tickets $15. 866-777-8932, www.mideastclub.com

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Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.