Guitar Hero, Barbarians, Mediocrity, and the Decay of Culture

Guitar Hero, Barbarians, Mediocrity, and the Decay of Culture

Denver : CO : USA | Aug 20, 2009 at 12:01 PM PDT
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It’s become the fad in recent years to disparage American culture, or lack thereof. American citizens are increasingly seen as poorly educated philistines who prefer to remain ignorant of current events, rarely read and would rather stare vacuously at a TV screen than take up an instrument or go to the theater. And to a great extent this is true. But the problem here is much greater than simply poking fun at affluent barbarians; when culture, particularly its artistic expressions, become diluted to the point where mass appeal is the norm and economic success is the priority, the very nature of what constitutes a worthwhile pursuit is thrown into question. It is somewhat akin to the Jews forgetting the law of Yahweh- the building block of their culture- and instead supplicating before a golden calf. Beyond material priorities such as health care and economic reform, Americans should also be concerning themselves with creating and fostering a vibrant and unique culture with increased appreciation for the arts. And nothing seems to be a greater example of the degradation of art than the atrocities that go by the names Guitar Hero and Rock Band.

At first glance, one might think that the extraordinary success of these video games makes a positive statement about Americans gaining an increased appreciation for music. Those who are unable, or more commonly unwilling, to actually play an instrument can have some form of active engagement with music. Kids who would normally be listening to the blithering of Soulja Boy or the cretinous drone of the Jonas Brothers instead find themselves playing along to “YYZ”, “You Really Got Me”, or “Rock You Like A Hurricane”. In addition to that, actual musicians find an added source of revenue from royalties in an economy where artistic success is increasingly difficult to attain. Furthermore, studies have shown that video games, and presumably Guitar Hero in particular, improve hand-eye coordination and reaction time. From all this, one might wonder what the harm could be in this franchise that has produced thousands of living room rock stars.

The problem emerges when one considers what a “higher art form” signifies. Higher art forms are certain modes of artistic expression so widespread throughout history that they can be seen as an integral human tendency- a part of human nature, if you will. Being such integral tendencies, they signify the greater ability of humans to create beauty and novelty in an otherwise utilitarian world. Painting, sculpture, theater, literature, film, poetry and music are all examples of these higher art forms. And as such, art then is seen as an end and not a means. True art is created for its own sake and not for the sake of economic success, nor for whatever tastes might appeal to the masses at any given time. If an artistic production incidentally happens to appeal to many people, and enjoys economic benefits therefrom, than all the better. But the greatest artists we have seen in history are not those who produced what they knew the masses desired at any given time; they were those who created works of such dazzling beauty and originality that the public could not help but be awed by them. Da Vinci. Michelangelo. Shakespeare. Bach. Mozart. Goethe. Chopin. Dostoyevsky. Tolkien. Wagner. Stravinsky. All of these figures and countless others advanced our artistic pursuits by creating new paradigms, not conforming. But this is exactly the ideal that the Guitar Hero paradigm is in complete opposition to.

The nature of a video game is itself an art form, and intrinsically related to other art forms. But there is a fundamental difference between engaging with a different art form to enhance the creativity of the game itself, and of exploiting another art form because it already holds mass appeal. Creating a wholly new video game experience is an extremely risky endeavor for any game developer, economically speaking, and because of this most developers tend to make shallow learning curves and general appeal a priority. Nintendo Wii is a prime example. The point here is that Guitar Hero and its deformed offspring simply take what previous artists have produced, dilute it into a prepackaged form, and rerelease it for economic gain. This is a catachresis of music at best, and is only differentiated from plagiarism because it functions in accordance with copyright laws. Not only that: the radical alteration of the music itself into Guitar Hero format is often grotesque, for example as can be heard in the hideous remix of “Pride and Joy” by Stevie Ray Vaughan. Had the man been alive today and heard that, he would likely be smashing his guitar out of indignation. The fact that Guitar Hero is by definition an exploitation of music should itself be sufficient cause for concern in any cultured individual. But unfortunately, the problem does not end here.

If the productions in the Guitar Hero paradigm were simply idle fancies that did not interfere with access to music for its own sake, then perhaps there would not be such cause for concern. The fact of the matter, though, is that Americans’ exposure to music is increasingly determined by mass-produced corporate interests, and as such Americans willingly buy into what capitalist agendas dictate for artistic success. We are not so far away from the ancient myth of the events on Mt. Sinai; we have subjugated music, film, and all other art forms to the golden calf. Or the paper or plastic calf, perhaps. American Idol. Guitar Hero. Rock Band. MTV. VH1. All of these are vulgar parodies to true artistic pursuit, and should leave an unpleasant aftertaste in any cultured individual’s mouth. What the point of all this comes down to is that Americans have come dangerously close to forgetting culture and art for its own sake, and instead gobble up whatever is thrown to them in Super-Sized portions. We are giving credence to the stereotypes of Americans as being homogenized, vulgar drones. This extends far beyond the video game in question, but Guitar Hero is certainly the most distasteful example of cultural decay.

What then, for culture? Instead of the Guitar Hero paradigm determining how we relate to music, we should be focusing on music itself and relegating Guitar Hero to the lowly, trivial place it deserves on the artistic hierarchy. We should focus more on artistic creation from ourselves and for its own sake, as every human has the capability to do. We should take a long, hard look at ourselves and ask whether there really is more to a meaningful pursuit than a plastic controller and a TV screen. We need not remain barbarians, but we have to realize it first.

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Guitar Hero
The abomination expressed.
Jack Bouchard is based in Denver, Colorado, United States of America, and is a Stringer on Allvoices.
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