Axes of Fire

Guitar Hero fans attempt to look sexy while playing video games. Results are inconclusive.

Zoologists and rock critics alike have lately observed the sudden glut of panda bands: Panda, the Pandas, the Panda Band, Panda Bear, Panda Watch, Bye Bye Panda, We're an American Panda, Pandas Are Progress, Hot Panda, Bloody Panda, Death Panda, Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad, etc. I only made up one of those.

This sort of animal fixation crops up occasionally—who among us doesn't fondly recall the Great Wolf Surplus of 2005? (Nadir: AIDS Wolf.) But the panda boom is particularly apt. Like actual pandas, the generation of young, fashionable Lower East Side denizens that comprise your typical panda band's target audience are cute, fragile, docile, inarticulate, primarily vegan, hygienically questionable, frequently shiftless, and endlessly fetishized by the media. Furthermore, the sexual encounters of both groups often occur between complete strangers, and are usually awkward, joyless, unfruitful affairs clumsily facilitated by third parties.

Let me show you what I mean.

It is Tuesday, 'round about midnight, and the strains of "Sweet Child O' Mine" beckon us upstairs to the lounge at the LES club Pianos. For the moment it's sparsely populated, offering clear sightlines with which to observe two grown men playing video games on a giant projection screen. The same video game. Guitar Hero. Guitar Hero II, actually. You are familiar with this, yes? Combining the principles of Simon, Dance Dance Revolution, and rock, Guitar Hero II involves manipulating a toy guitar—with five fretting buttons to form notes and chords, a clicker to strum up and down, and a whammy bar—in time with the color-coded and precisely timed actual songs whizzing by on-screen. This can be painfully simple or, at the "expert" difficulty level, painfully hard, if one is susceptible to hand cramping (Detroit Tigers pitcher Joel Zumaya missed games in last year's playoffs because of pain from playing too much Guitar Hero).

Late last year there was a sudden surge of Guitar Hero mania—MTV, for some reason, decided this was the future of its programming, via such detritus as live celebrity contests (two people with two toy guitars can rock the same song simultaneously and vie for higher accuracy). Not much has come of this. Understandably so. No one watches karaoke on television. This shit was meant for bars, for drunken, preposterous nights on the town. The sequel's release on Xbox 360 was announced by an evidently righteous PR circus a few weeks back at the Times Square Virgin Megastore, presided over by Gene Simmons (Kiss's "Strutter" is in the game), and with version two comes a renewed surge in this direction. The party, the bar event. The romantic accoutrement. Maybe.

So two young ladies sit at the Pianos bar, sipping demurely, the aura surrounding them fairly open and inviting. They are watching two gentlemen with toy guitars play the Pretenders' "Tattooed Love Boys." There are worse songs to have selected in this circumstance. (Warrant's "Cherry Pie," say.) There are probably better. The gentlemen thrash around valiantly. The young ladies watch absentmindedly, not terribly impressed by the skill on display here. Their aura darkens. Midway through the song, they get up and leave. The gentlemen do not notice. What is known in the business as a missed connection.

Perhaps it's remarkable that there are women here at all. "There's actually girls here!" marvels the weekly party's host, a filmmaker-promoter known professionally as Lord Easy, a few days afterward. "I'm thinking to myself, I'm like, 'OK, whatever, we're gonna start this video game party, and it's gonna be me and, like, 15 dudes.' But girls have been there!"

Lord Easy spends his evening on the mic, herding nervous patrons toward the sign-up sheet, singing along when the mood strikes him (he particularly enjoys "Heart-Shaped Box"), and offering to each round's winner a free shot of Cuervo Orange, which most winners seem wise enough to decline. And true to his word, there are girls here. There's one right now, a rank amateur, gamely wobbling through Spinal Tap's "Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You Tonight." And two more have arrived, taking up the spot vacated by those who fled in terror during "Tattooed Love Boys."

Incidentally, I may have neglected to mention that I am here to kick some ass.

Mine is not an amorous sojourn. As a moderately skilled Guitar Hero player myself, I seek to crush my enemies, see them driven before me, and hear the lamentations of the women. Not their phone numbers—their lamentations. But no, I am paired first with Adam, a tall, lithe dude who stretches out beforehand but is too unfamiliar with the game to engage in mortal combat. Adam speaks to me.

"Your head is in the way."

Indeed, my head is blocking the projector. I adjust and ask, "What do you want to play?"

"Something awesome."

" 'War Pigs' is pretty awesome."

"Isn't there any Rage on here?"

Why yes, Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name" is on here. Lord Easy gets so excited during the ensuing shredfest (the game cannily edits around the repeated "Fuck you, I won't do what ya tell me" chant) that I'm pretty sure he knocks over a few beers. Adam spreads his legs impossibly wide and throws down to the best of his ability. At the song's conclusion, he is pleased with the results. "We rocked each other's faces off!" he announces. We awkwardly shake hands. A made connection.

Meanwhile, the two replacement ladies stand up. It turns out they are both sisters and very, very good at this game. They bash through a raucous version of the Foo Fighters' "Monkey Wrench," the best head-to-head battle of the night, one beating the other with 93 percent accuracy to the loser's 92 percent, thanks to precise use of the "star power" feature. (Let's not get into it.) The substantially more crowded room fills with whoops of approval.

Things are heating up. I approach Lord Easy and formally challenge the best player in the place. He recommends Shandi.

Shandi is six feet tall or so and even more lithe than Adam. She is dressed in a red sleeveless Mötley Crüe tour T-shirt ( Theatre of Pain era), a black miniskirt, and knee-high boots in some sort of argyle skull pattern. As I lean in so I can hear her spell her name, she bonks me in the head with her Slash-esque top hat.

I prefer to hear the lamentations of my enemies' women, not the lamentations of my female enemies. This, too, will be a friendly match. As for the song, I consider suggesting Matthew Sweet's "Girlfriend," an excellent tune written and performed by a man with the approximate body type and sex appeal of a guy who has bothered to play Guitar Hero for weeks on end.

Better not. "Cherry Pie" it is. I prevail, sheepishly. Shandi is gracious in defeat.

Lord Easy's party, which has raged for a month or so, is a rousing success; Guitar Hero's status as an aphrodisiac is inconclusive. I suppose we'll give the last word in this regard to Marcus Henderson, the real-life guitarist who has recorded 50-plus tracks for the Guitar Hero games—quite literally, it is Henderson players wish to emulate. Reached via e-mail, Marcus is dismissive of other video games. "Search the lost lands of who-gives-a-fuck for a mystical scroll with your guild? At least you don't have STDs to worry about," he muses. "But Guitar Hero? Nothing's sexier than undulating and thrusting about with a plastic guitar while standing on the bar destroying drinks and eardrums. You're not gonna get that action with a keyboard and mouse. Guitar Hero is the swarthy, bare-chested, ass-kicking rocker of video games, and that ain't no controller in its pocket—it's a stuffed cucumber! Will GH help you attract the opposite sex? Absofuckinglutely."

He is compensated well for his enthusiasm, but it's enthusiasm nonetheless. Mate away, dear pandas.

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