Welcome to the 22nd annual World Air Guitar Championship!
I was so excited for this day to arrive. I’d changed my itinerary just to be able to be here to witness air guitar history. And though the weather was not on our side this evening–the temperature sat at seven degrees all night, and the rain would not let up–revelers banded together and stayed warm by the fire that lit up the stage: Our Air Guitar gods.
Finnish band Temple Balls got things underway in the early evening. I found it absolutely hilarious that there was an actual rock band opening up for a bunch of costumed goofballs pretending to play guitar. Not only that, but the crowd was practically non-existent for the only real musicians of the evening. I could count on two hands how many people were in attendance.
That isn’t to say that they weren’t any good. On the contrary; both the rhythm and lead guitarists were legit guitar maestros. And to their credit, towards the end of their act, the crowd actually did start to take notice that those guys playing real strings onstage were actually really good.
However, the people weren’t there to see Temple Balls.
Before I go any further, let me explain how the Air Guitar Championship works. First, in order to make it to the big stage, one has to qualify in their home country. Canada held regional championships across the country. The winners then gathered at Toronto’s Mod Club for the National Championship to determine who would represent the Great White North in Oulu, Finland at the World Championship. This year, that honour fell to Gen “The Phoenix” LeBlanc from Ottawa. Germany, Japan, and the US also had national championships, and their winners were also headed to Oulu, along with the reigning World Champion–America’s Matt “Aristotle” Burns.
The other ten contenders were chosen the night before the championship at the Dark Horse qualifying event at the local bar, 45 Special. I was never able to figure out exactly how these performers were chosen to participate in the event.
With the fifteen contenders chosen, everything was in place for the championship itself, which has two rounds. In the opening round, performers play one minute of a song of their choosing. This gives them the opportunity to plan and choreograph their performance in order to impress the six judges, who give a score out of 6.0. They judge based on stage presence and the ability to perform something that not only vaguely resembles guitar, but also resembles what’s actually happening in the song. So if, for example, the guitar in the song is shredding a wicked solo, and you’re too busy waving your arm around in a circle like an idiot, you probably won’t do too well. Costumes and personas also come into play, so long as they add to the overall performance. Top and bottom scores are removed to calculate each performer’s final score.
The top 7 performers go on to the second round. However, if you just barely make the cut and you find yourself in spot number 7, the odds of coming out on top are stacked against you for two reasons. 1) In the second round, all contestants have to perform the same song. And this year’s selection was tough! I don’t know what the song was, but it was a shredder.
The thing is, though, none of the contestants know what the song is until it’s announced right then and there. All seven performers get to hear the song once while standing on the stage, then all but unlucky #7 get offstage, and that poor bastard has to do their best to match their performance to the song, after only having heard it once. This means that if you earned yourself the top spot in the first round, you get to listen to the song six more times before it’s your turn. This gives you ample time to plan out your performance.
2) They add the scores of the two rounds together. So not only do you have to knock your performance out of the park after only having heard the song once, you also have to overcome your point differential from the first round.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how your World Air Guitar Championship is crowned.
Now without further ado, I give you the 2017 World Air Guitar Championship:
As soon as these two came onstage to introduce the show, I knew the night was going to be amazing. The guy on the left is Justin “Nordic Thunder” Howard, your 2012 World Air Guitar Champion. Of course, I didn’t know this at the time; I just assumed he was some dude in a Viking get-up. He wasn’t competing today, though; he acted as one of three stage hands, responsible for keeping the stage dry. It seems that once you join this whacky air guitar community, you never leave. The UK’s “Wild Thing,” one of the evening’s competitors, apparently returns practically every year to the finals. Some of the judges and participants in the opening ceremonies were also previous performers/champions.
Nordic Thunder introduced the show with a message of love and unity that carried on throughout the night.
“It doesn’t matter where you come from, or what the colour of your skin is, or whether you are rich or poor. The message of air guitar is universal and the same for everyone. It isn’t about money or power. It’s about companionship, good will, and the right kind of attitude. It’s about world peace, friendships, and nations out of a clean Earth. The spirit prevailing in Oulu dictates that anybody taking a stand against world peace must pick up an air guitar and allow themselves to be carried away by the music. For we all know that no evil can be spread by somebody playing air guitar. So here is our message to all of you here in Oulu for the 22nd World Air Guitar Championship, and everyone around the world: Pick up your air guitar, take a deep breath, and be inspired. May the playing of air guitar for world peace continue!”
We were then introduced to our two MCs, who were dressed in what looked like golden alien outfits and red toques. They had the crowd roaring with laughter the whole night. They were quick and sharp and had fantastic chemistry. They, too, were returning members of the air guitar community. One of my favourite moments was when the guy on the left proudly announced that he was allowed to make dad jokes now because it was his first time hosting since becoming a dad. His kid was just a couple weeks old. He then jumped back perplexed and asked, “Did I hear some people booing?!”
I learned something about myself this night. I’ve always been smitten by female musicians. Show me a woman who can rock out or belt out a tune, and my heart turns to mush. Serena Ryder, Emily Haines, Leslie Feist–they all own a piece of my heart. However, it turns out that a woman who knows how to pretend to rock is just as sexy. Who knew?
Phoenix was one of two female performers. The other was Nicole “Mom Jeans Jeanie” Sevcik. They were two of my favourites. Nicole had a great stage presence and amazing facial expressions. She really worked the mom angle. At the start of her second round, she even made sure to wipe her air guitar clean before kicking into her performance.
And! Her husband was moved on to the final round too! Luke “Van Dammage” Sevcik” wowed the crowd with a blazing and impressive rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” (He also wowed the ladies with roses before his performances.)
Nobody in the crowd knew that Van Dammage and Mom Jeans were married until the hosts mentioned it at the end of the second round, but it made total sense. I clearly remember seeing Van Dammage sneak out to the front of the crowd during Mom Jeans’ song. He threw flower petals up on the stage at the exact right time for dramatic effect. And when Mom Jeans played that final note and struck her dramatic pose, Van Dammage screamed and jumped in excitement. He knew wifey had just kicked serious ass onstage. In hindsight, it was a beautiful and touching moment. Love was in the air (guitar.)
Some of the other performers:
G. Tso Money was the very first performer of the night. He immediately won me over with his song selection: Metallica’s “Battery.” Could there be a better air guitar tune than that?
Han Su “Devil’s Adam” Yong from South Korea was another one of my favourites, but he sadly didn’t make the cut. His brother was in the crowd cheering him on hard. I thought I had taken more pictures of his performance, but I guess my fingers were so numb that they’d gone cold by then, so I didn’t even realize I wasn’t actually pressing the button. That moment that he bit the apple was perfectly done. Just wait until you see the video! He paints his face with blood and just goes berserk! And dude had some seductive moves!
The UK’s Wild Thing apparently comes back every single year to make another run at the crown.
Alexander “The Jinja Assassin” Roberts from Australia was an absolutely madman, running all over the place. He was a man possessed. I didn’t record his opening number, but he came out with a well-earned third place. He upped his game in the second round and bumped himself up to second place.
Show Show was an immediate crowd favourite. He rocked out to a hard funky bass tune. His moves were on point, though–particularly his neck movement! And when the song got loud, my man turned it up! He sumo wrestled the song! Definitely one of the top performances of the night. It was enough to earn him second place at the end of the first round.
He changed things up a bit in round 2:
But in the end, nobody could topple the reigning champ. The man defended his crown and proved why he was the 2016 World Air Guitar Champion. He had flair. He had charisma. He was goofy as shit. He danced, skipped, and bounced his way into the crowd’s heart with a punk version of “I Will Survive.” And he made it look easy.
For winning the 2017 championship, Aristotle’s prize was a beautiful Prince-inspired purple guitar crafted by a local Finnish guitar-maker. (Because of course you’re going to give your air guitar champion a real-life guitar.)
I actually ran into the guitar maker the following morning in the elevator at my hotel. I was heading down to the main floor for breakfast, and I immediately recognized him from the previous night’s festivities; though I couldn’t quite place what role he had played. I initially thought he had been one of the judges. I asked him if he had been at the event last night, and he said that he had made the guitar that was given to Aristotle. That’s when it hit me and I felt like an idiot. He had presented the guitar to Aristotle with his daughter, who helped him make it. His name was Matti Nevalainen. His company is called Flying Finn Guitars.
Matti was really friendly. We talked about our love of music, and he told me about his blues band that he tours with and how he came to be a guitar maker. He gave me a shirt with an electric guitar on it. The shirt read, “I’m Finnish, but I’m not finished.”
There were performers from Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Canada, the States, Germany, Sweden, the UK, Australia, and Pakistan. It was truly an international event. Much like the Summer Olympics, though, it was dominated by the Americans. A third of the performers were from the US. The only other countries with multiple contenders were Germany (2) and Japan (2).
It was great that the line-up for the event was so international, because it went nicely with the themes of the night. The first them was the one that the organizers explicitly promoted, which was environmentalism. Some performers tried to incorporate this message into their acts by writing messages on their bodies or on their clothing.
The other message was the one that Nordic Thunder introduced at the start of the event with his opening speech–peace and unity. As one of the MCs said at the start of the festivities, “If you’re holding an air guitar, you can’t hold a gun.” There were also echoes of “Make air, not war.” At one point, our hosts led the crowd in chants of “Trump sucks!” And at the end of the night, the festivities came to an end with all of the performers coming back onstage and performing the unofficial Air Guitar anthem, “Rockin’ in the Free World” by Neil Young. It was a beautiful sight.
The following morning, I headed down to reception to check out of my hotel, and lo and behold, practically the entire line-up was there getting ready to leave as well–Phoenix, Aristotle, and the whole gang. I almost didn’t recognize Phoenix without her makeup.
I mentioned to her that I was from Toronto, and she suggested that I try out at the Toronto qualifier next year. And you know what? I’m going to do it. As soon as she said it, it made total sense. It wasn’t a suggestion; it was a goddamn prophecy. I am going to be Canada’s next National Air Guitar Champion. I have finally found my purpose in life. This is why God put me on this planet. I’m going to make Canada proud. I hope you’re all there to cheer me on when they day comes. This won’t be the last I see of Oulu, Finland.