Man, this looks good:
Those avatars can really swing. It’s like you’re in a wax museum and all of a sudden the wax figures come to life and you’re like jamming with them on a wax guitar.
Seriously, though, the release next month of The Beatles™: Rock Band™ is shaping up to be the cultural event of the year, if not the millennium to date. The making of the game was the subject of an epic article, by Daniel Radosh, in the Sunday New York Times, which featured comments from Paul and Ringo as well as John’s widow, George’s widow, and George Martin’s son. Apple Corps, reports Radosh, hopes the game “will be the most deeply immersive way ever of experiencing the music and the mythology of the Beatles.” The CEO of Harmonix Music Systems, the company engineering the game, says, “We’re on the precipice of a culture shift around how the mass market experiences music.” Adds Radosh, hopefully: “Playing music games requires an intense focus on the separate elements of a song, which leads to a greater intuitive knowledge of musical composition.”
Rob Horning, PopMatters’ resident stick-in-the-mud, isn’t ready to join in the celebration. To him, Rock Band is a means of distancing rather than immersion. It’s yet another sign of the commercialization of the intimate, the replacement of real personal experience with a purchased, preprogrammed replica of experience. Hold that guitar/controller in your arms, yeah, you can feel its disease:
The mix of social, cerebral and sensuous elements in my response to music is most satisfying when it seems immediate and fused, a kind of physico-cognitive dance that occurs spontaneously with the sound … I don’t want a game to mediate music to me when music is already mediating other, more profound experiences—memories, dreams, secret pathways into the hearts of friends or imagined strangers, sheer abandon to sensory stimuli. These are enough to hold my attention; I wouldn’t want those experiences endangered or compromised or supplanted by the discipline enforced by a game that measures your attention. That seems to me like covert industrial training.
In the 1950s, paint-by-number kits were all the rage. Everyone became an artist, diligently filling in the numbered areas on prefabricated canvases with specified colors. Today, even as we celebrate the contrivances of Rock Band, we look down our noses at those kitschy paint-by-number kits. Yet I’m sure that somebody back in the fifties wrote about how paint-by-number “requires an intense focus on the separate elements of a painting, which leads to a greater intuitive knowledge of artistic composition.” I’m sure it was thought that paint-by-number liberated people from being passive observers of art, that it allowed them to participate, in a deeply immersive way, in the act of painting.
We shouldn’t be too harsh on our fads. After all, the reason they become fads is that they’re fun. Still, a fad will always tell us something important about the times in which it occurs. “Paint-by-number,” wrote Brennen Jensen in a 2001 article, “is all about conformity. Indeed, there is perhaps no greater metaphor for America’s Leave It to Beaver, I Like Ike, Man in the Gray Flannel Suit 1950s than this ‘digital art’ craze that roared through the decade, promising neophyte brush-wielders ‘a beautiful oil painting the first time you try!’ … Painting, ostensibly one of the most creative and individualistic endeavors, is rendered rote – a matter of manual dexterity, not inspiration.”
Rock Band is the aural equivalent of paint-by-number. It’s musicianship-by-number. It’s also a fad. Ten or so years from now, we’ll look back on the game with a mixture of nostalgia and embarrassment.
But, like paint-by-number, Rock Band is also a metaphor. As even a cursory glance at our cultural touchstones will tell you, we live in an Age of Vampires, and The Beatles™: Rock Band™ is nothing if not vampiric. Take another gander at that YouTube trailer. What’s creepy about the game isn’t the faux guitar necks with the color-coded digital frets (that’s just rock-by-number). It isn’t even the waxworks avatars (though they are certainly ghoulish). No, what’s creepy about it is its cynical, paint-by-number rendering of sixties counterculture, from, progressively, the Ed Sullivan go-go soundstage to the trippy mindscapes of psychedelia to the flowerchild fields of the hippies.
Given that our culture is fundamentally consumerist, every countercultural movement is by definition anti-consumerist, a quixotic attempt to create an imaginary space that exists outside of and in opposition to the marketplace. Counterculturalism is a doomed attempt to maintain innocence in the face of the market’s all-consuming cynicism. Once the Beatles, and particularly John Lennon, became aware of their power, they dedicated themselves to sustaining the countercultural dream of the sixties, even after the dream had evaporated. The Beatles™: Rock Band™ makes a particularly good vampire. The blood it sucks is the blood of the innocent.