Uninformed commentary is the best kind, no?

So in the course of a talk hosted today by UBC’s Center for Cross-Functional Inquiry in Education, Dr. Suzanne de Castell made a brief aside referencing an article (it might have been this one or this one) called something like “Can Rock Band save rock?” Dr. de Castell summarized it by noting that this new generation of games was turning kids on to classic rock (and if I understood her correctly, made a fairly nuanced point concerning how games can support learning).

For some reason, this observation disturbed me. I’m honestly not sure why, so thought I might explore a few possible rationales for my reaction here. I should note that I have never played Rock Band or Guitar Hero, have never even been in the room with people who were playing those games. But if people can call for the censorship of films they’ve never seen or books they’ve never read, surely I can waste some speculative energy on my own blog?

Scenario one, loss of craft. Maybe I worry that these kids today will be so entranced by the push-button ease of these interfaces that they won’t want to do “the real thing.” On a related note, maybe on some level I wish I had not spent time and money in recent years to become a horrendous guitarist – maybe I would have had more fun gaming. But I don’t think this objection is what’s bugging me. For one, I can believe that at least some kids will be motivated by these games to try the real deal. Certainly my teen nephews (both of whom are very, very skilled musicians) love playing these games. And I’m not such a purist that I can’t at least imagine scenarios where these interfaces and programs don’t advance to the point where real music can be made with them. Who knows, maybe they will be forerunners for the next great genre of rump-shaking, nervous system stimulating grooviness. But that leads me to my second potential objection…

Scenario two, the play-by-numbers thing: if I understand the logic of these games correctly, maybe I don’t like how players work off of an existing song, and are scored by how well they “fit” the program, as opposed to doing something new. But really, most musicians develop by playing the music of others, I don’t get so worked up by the notion of learning by imitation, especially if it’s fun. But this problem does suggest my final worry…

Scenario three, “saving rock”: maybe the game playing is incidental. Maybe what I really don’t like is that the music industry has just found a vital and potent new medium to push its product. What I’ve seen of the musical offerings presented by these games, they seem like slightly hipper versions of commercial rock radio, albiet with more metal and other genres that major labels have never had a problem pushing.

I think what I find most depressing is that a new generation of kids are going to have the rock canon shoved down their throats. That they will implicitly be told (as my generation was) that the music of previous generations is superior to what they and their own peers are doing. Maybe what I object to isn’t “Rock Band” itself, but that it really might “save Rock”. I’m not putting down that music (come to our house, and you’ll hear most of the major old school rock icons), but the idea of “classic rock” needs to die. The music is strong enough to survive without a reactionary ideology and undue reverence.

Just at a moment when digital media promises to open up what music gets heard and how, it appears the money players might have found a way to reapply their chokehold. I should have seen it coming.

9 thoughts on “Uninformed commentary is the best kind, no?

  1. None of these points are ‘wrong’ and they all resonate with me, but I would also urge you to actually give either ‘Rock Band’ or ‘Guitar Hero’ a try, if only because in my own experience it offers an interesting opportunity to reflect more deeply on things like games, fun and learning, alternative interfaces, the ‘experience’ of ‘togetherness’ in music… & probably lots more things. I’ve only played them a couple of times myself, and I can tell you they ain’t nothing like the real thing and won’t stop me from practicing and jamming, no matter how badly I sound, but I did find it a learning experience to try them. And you can always hack them into midi controllers and rock out 😉

  2. I love point three, it’s a nice way to look at the hallowed idea of rock as purely a marketing device to find new marketing licenses. I wonder if rather than “saving rock” it will have the opposite effect by making it for too packaged and it’s ubiquity annoying. I know that’s my problem with classic rock, it’s been pushed down my throat o radio stations everywhere I have ever lived, and the disc jockey’s are always so annoying: “GET THE LED OUT!” and cheap puns like that, it made me tire of the whole genre despite the fact their is some amazing stuff there.

  3. A friend of mine helped design Guitar Hero, and told me that apparently sales of _real_ guitars has skyrocketed as the game became popular. It’s more of a gateway drug than a replacement. Not everyone will learn to play a real guitar, but they can learn some real appreciation, and quasi-pseudo-fake-karaoke “skills” that might lead them down the road to picking up a real axe one day. If nothing else, it’s exposing people to music they wouldn’t normally hear – how many teenagers would _choose_ to listen to a Jimi Hendrix song a few dozen times? But, they learn some appreciation of different genres etc… Nobody that plays Guitar Hero or Rock Band thinks they can really play a _real_ instrument. It’s about fun, not craft.

    Yes, there’s a strong play-by-numbers bent, but any music app will have that. Guitar Hero, at least for the Wii, encourages you to experiment with sound a bit. There’s a whammy bar that works pretty well – you can’t stray from the prescribed notes, but you can add your own style to longer notes – and you can play notes by tapping the fret pad as well. Sure, it’s not a true jam, but it’s a start.

    The mix of songs available by default is pretty impressive – sure there’s the Classic Rock stuff, but there’s also a fair bit of alternative and indie stuff as well – and many more tracks are downloadable (some for free, many not. let the griping begin…)

    Again, hopefully without sounding like a total apologist here, but at least on the Wii version of Guitar Hero, it’s possible to record your own songs, and to freestyle jam with a few instruments. You don’t _have_ to play the music they market with the game, you can create your own.

    Sure, it’s not a real instrument. Sure, it’s not craft. But I view it more as an introduction and a gateway. I know Evan’s much more interested in learning to play a real guitar since we started playing Guitar Hero – and his ability to follow a tune and his sense of rhythm have developed dramatically. That can’t be bad.

    The other saving grace is that there is _NO_ Nickelback on Guitar Hero. None. Thank the fracking gods.

    And, it’s just plain fun.

  4. The best thing about posting uninformed commentary is having a strong suspicion that more informed responses might result.

    I haven’t been boycotting Guitar Hero/Rock Band, when the time comes I will try them. Scott, I want to underline your point about using the interfaces to interface with Midi (or whatever) – that’s kind of what I meant by suggesting these things may end up evolving into a new genre of music altogether. And that is exciting.

    D’Arcy, I appreciate you taking the time to offer such a detailed overview. I hope that I at least acknowledged some of your points in my post (it will be interesting to see in a few years how many kids got into music via gaming). Your Nickleback parry is devastating, and suggests I should not even try to argue with you.

    Ed – thanks for the episode link, I will be watching it when I get 20 minutes together.

    Jim – Your query about whether the hollowing out and monetizing of “Rock” will keep the golden eggs coming, or chop the head off the sucker, is worth thinking about… I know I think about it way too often. Here’s a song just for you (or anyone else who wants to listen:

    The hits keep comin’

  5. So, late reply, i’d been under the weather for a bit.

    But the thing that irks me (and I guess what irks you) is the idea that rock and roll needs to be saved. The rock and roll community that we currently have, the real community, of people that attend local shows and try music based on word of mouth, is one of the most vibrant things going in North American culture today.

    Sure, the mass media version of it is sick. But the most inspiring thing in my small town of 20,000 is that we have between four and six venues that play live music of some sort on weekends. And the people that play don’t give a damn about making money, they do it for the love of the thing.

    Just five years ago this number of venues would have been unthinkable. And we’ll see how long it lasts. But what’s saved our town music is probably has more to do with MySpace than Rock Band, and more to do with illegal file trading than Guitar Hero. A culture has developed which appreciates the imperfect, the quirky, and the local and doesn’t much care if the bands have records or radio-play. A MySpace page is a MySpace page is a MySpace page. If the six tracks on there sound interesting, people will head down.

    So please, please, please — don’t save us. We’re only just recovering from the last time.

  6. Just now finding this.

    I think Scott and D’Arcy are right. Their comments are true to my experience, both as someone who’s played Guitar Hero and Rock Band (a little) and as a parent of a son who’s played both a LOT but who also plays real electric, searches out tablature on the intarwebs, listens to a bunch of different eras of rock, and is no zombie. (Sorry, that last just slipped out.)

    I think of GH and RB as somewhere between board games, the old contortion game Twister, charades, air guitar, and a pretty decent rock radio station. I know Alan Kay is all upset that kids will buy controllers and not real guitars, but as D’Arcy points out, the game is a) a game, b) a real gateway, and c) guitar sales are way up. From where I sit, that all looks good. And here’s the bonus round: some of the skills actually do transfer, at least when it comes to drums. Ian came home for spring break, we set up the real drum kit (it actually belongs to his sister), and we jammed. He could actually play with some flair and drive. I was gobsmacked.

    And you’d be surprised by the repertoire. Over the Christmas break back home, I played for a couple of hours with a family that had just gotten their RB setup deployed. To my great delight, I found the Replacements’ “Alex Chilton” on there. Lots of the classics, too, but that one really warmed my heart.

    Oh, and no one’s mentioned singing yet. There’s that too, and it really does take at least minimal chops (but rewards those of us with choir voices, not rock voices).

    I’m not going to engage with the economic argument.

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