Rob “The Marquis" Messel had 60 seconds left to prove he was good enough to become 2019’s Air Guitar World Champion. When the music finally started, a switch flipped in his mind.
“I just get peaceful and focused,” Messel tells Inverse. To anyone else, it probably looked like Messel had totally lost his mind.
Messel was dressed as “The Marquis,” his performance alter-ego. The Marquis is an 18th-century French aristocrat who, as Messel says, time-traveled to 1980, where he became enthralled with glam rock and hair metal, before turning up in the 21st century to play air guitar. His face is eerily deadpan as he slides across the stage on his knees. He caps off his performance with a somersault leading to a star-jump.
This is Not Sports, a series where Inverse explores unique competitive cultures that you'll never see at the Olympics (probably). They're not sports, but they are weird, wonderful, and almost-athletic.
“I’m in a flow state — I’m not really registering what’s happening," Messel reflects. "When I got off stage and I didn’t have immediate recollection I thought, that was probably pretty good."
That performance won him a title, and he’s still the air guitar World Champion — the 2020 World Championships are on pause right now, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. But even with Worlds canceled, the mission of air guitar feels more relevant than ever, amidst this year's onslaught of disease, natural disasters, and a reckoning with systemic racism.
“Competitive air guitar started in Finland as a simple, but deceptively philosophical idea: If everyone in the world would simply play air guitar, no one would be able to also hold a weapon — and therefore, world peace would spontaneously happen,” Kriston Rucker, the co-commissioner of US Air Guitar, says.
“It seems like a joke at first, but the more you watch, the more you feel yourself sucked into the liberating joy and fascinating game mechanics of the world’s most abstract sport.”
Why is air guitar a sport? – In theory, air guitar is extremely simple: You play along to the music of your choice. Wikipedia calls it “a form of dance and movement.” While the grueling acrobatics is one reason air guitar is a sport, it's the performance aspect that truly makes it competitive. You’re judged not just on your technical skill but also on the overall vibe of your performance over the course of two rounds.
In the first round, you select your own music. In the second, the music is chosen by the judges. At the Air Guitar World Championships, competitors hear the compulsory song for the first time right before they go onstage.
"The idea of shredding air guitar in the name of world peace was so absurdly marvelous."
Air guitarists perform before judges who assign them a score between 4 and 6 for each round. They are scored in three categories: technical skill (which is how well your performance matches up with the actual fingerings you would see on a real guitar), stage presence (“anyone can do it in the privacy of their bedroom” US Air Guitar’s guidelines read), and finally “airness” – the most decisive of all three metrics.
Airness, per the guidelines, is the “extent to which a performance transcends the imitation of a real guitar and becomes an art form in and of itself.” In a 2008 article, The Washington Post offered this definition: “kind of like the definition of 'pornography;' you know it when you see it.”
The Michael Jordan of Air Guitar – Messel, the World Champ, has airness (he is the World Champion, after all). Airness comes from a different place in every exceptional air guitarist, but his likely stems from his evolution as both an air guitarist and a person.
Messel was raised in a strict Midwestern military family where five-mile morning jogs before school were the norm. That was followed by a stint at Texas A&M’s ROTC program, and then military service in Virginia and Afghanistan, where he worked as a transportation officer.
After he left the military, Messel found air guitar which, at first, he says, felt like a “dirty little secret.”
“I didn’t want them to know that I did this extremely silly thing that involves me wearing makeup and wigs and tights and stuff,” he says. But when he came forward, his coworkers were supportive. One even drove him to his first competition ever in Boston.
Air guitar, and the character of the Marquis, is an artistic extension of Messel that he had been ignoring in favor of the hardened exterior of a military service member. Air guitar allows for those subdued feelings to shine through.
“We all know what it’s like to be kind of black sheep in certain situations,” he says. “A lot of us have something that’s painful to us that we're afraid to share with people for fear of being judged. Once you get past that, it's freeing.”
The history of air guitar – Air guitar’s rise to popularity (if you could call it that) probably stems from Joe Cocker’s seminal “air” performance of “With a Little Help from My Friends” at Woodstock in 1969. But Florida State University is credited with some of the earliest Air Guitar competitions, performances that happened in the 1970s and 80s.
In 1996, the Air Guitar World Championships began in Finland as part of the Oulu Music Video Festival, says Hanna Ikonen, the “head of everything” for the Air Guitar World Championships (per her email signature). Ikonen tells Inverse she’s actually the producer for the Air Guitar World Championships and has been since January 2017.
It started as a sideshow and the idea is credited to Finnish pop musician Jukka Takalo. Takalo also came up with the air guitar ideology: you can’t destroy the planet, or harm one another if you’re too busy shredding. It's extremely Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure.
“The idea of shredding air guitar in the name of world peace was so absurdly marvelous,” Ikonen says.
Decades later, Rucker says that some things have changed, for both Air Guitar and the world. There’s less of a focus on guitar rock, which was enjoying a resurgence in the mid-nineties. More countries have taken part, the competitive bar has been raised.
“World peace hasn’t happened yet," Rucker admits. "But who’s to say the world wouldn’t be worse if competitive air guitar didn’t exist?”