In times fraught with weighty issues ranging from the economy to global extinction, it's comforting to know that some folks are consumed with nothing less than being the best at playing an imaginary guitar.
Tongues firmly planted in cheeks, these mighty competitors meet tonight at the Cuervo Black U.S. Air Guitar Championships in San Francisco to see who will earn the right to represent the USA at the Aug. 20-22 world championships in Oulu, Finland.
Will it be the 2005 king, the Rockness Monster, or 2006 maestro Hot Lixx Hulahan? Or maybe it's time for last year's U.S. winner to repeat.
"This is the stiffest competition I've faced yet," says defending champ William Ocean, 29, whose stage moniker is a goofily formal take on '80s crooner Billy Ocean (Caribbean Queen).
Ocean is a corporate events planner in New York; he's Andrew Litz to his fan-tastic parents, who have been known to show up at competitions toting foam fingers to cheer on their son. "My mom likes to say that the kicks she felt in her stomach were really me doing windmill strums."
And Ocean and his dad used to do Keith Richards/Mick Jagger air duets at family weddings. Seriously.
Watch Ocean in action on any number of YouTube clips and you see a mix of Spinal Tap's grimacing Nigel Tufnel and some of Jimi Hendrix's more outrageous moves. Sometimes it does look like he's playing a guitar that's invisible, but mostly it's all about the posing and hopping around like a madman during a 60-second, custom-edited track.
"There's a big debate in air guitar circles about whether it's better to actually know how to play guitar or not," says Ocean, who does not. "I think knowing the instrument makes you overly concerned with technical elements."
But that very skill, he admits, is likely why he hasn't risen higher than 11th in the world rankings: "The judges at the world championships tend to reward technique over theatrics."
One man who has come close to nabbing that world crown — finishing second five times — is Dan Crane, 37, who wrote the book To Air Is Human. The Los Angeles writer/musician explains that the Finns, who pioneered this "sport," also are known for such offbeat competitions as wife carrying and cellphone throwing. "They have very long winters up there," says Crane, who as Bjorn Turoque (get it?) will serve as Master of Air MC at this year's Finnish showdown.
And just what is it about playing air guitar — famously enshrined in pop-culture lore when Tom Cruise had a go in his underwear in 1983's Risky Business— that strikes a universal chord?
"It's a completely atavistic response to hearing music, much like dancing is," Crane says.
Which brings up an interesting question: Does Keith Richards play air guitar?
READERS: Which song would you love to rock on the air guitar? Leave your selection in the comments below.