For last week’s sold-out spectacle of fingerpickin’ fakery—the New York bracket of the 2008 U.S. Air Guitar Tour, in which imaginary axmen compete for a trip to the world finals in, of course, Finland—Bettie B. Goode had the brave idea to stage-dive. Air-guitar chicks never stage-dive, she explains, and it looked so fun being hoisted up by a sea of cheering fans, spraying beer all over the crowd, just feeling the love. (Literally. Like between your thighs.) She tailored that night’s costume around the plan—short shorts, limited jewelry, flat boots instead of heels—and chose an appropriately rousing song to get in the mood (“Tick,” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs). “I’d even mentally prepared myself to be groped,” she admits. And though she got a little panicky, she went for it anyway, leaping off the stage into the open arms of a legion of supporters.
So she thought.
“I felt the immediate give, and I was like, Oh, no,” Bettie begins. “But then I felt the rebound, and I was like, Oh, yes . . . And then I felt the give again.” The circle of bodies opened, and Bettie—who’s just a slip of a thing—fell from heads and shoulders to knees and toes.
I would’ve just stayed on the ground. Seriously. But Bettie bounced up, struck a pose for the cameras, and carried on, filling the remainder of her 60-second slot.
Thing is, she knows that while a number of factors can negatively affect an air-guitarist’s chances of winning a competition (lame judges, poorly chosen songs, having to take the stage first), a memorable—if unanticipated—moment isn’t one of them. Sure, performances are scored on technical merit, but also by stage presence and that most nebulous criterion, “airness.” Consider that Bettie’s introduction to the culture was just two years ago, and she’s one of the circuit’s few competitors who doesn’t actually play the guitar—like the real one, the physical incarnation. So she has to lean on other strengths to advance: stage tricks, elaborate costumes, and—let’s be honest—her looks. Homegirl’s hot.
Despite the spill in New York, Bettie still earned a finalist position, but in round two had the misfortune of following Hot Lixx Hulahan. Hulahan, a 2006 U.S. champion, rappelled 15 feet down the stage’s curtain into the crowd, earning a near-perfect score. Tough act to follow. At the end of the night, Bettie—the only female performing, as usual—finished fourth.
Undeterred, she tried her luck in Philadelphia a few nights later, with similar results. A scene-stealing first-round performance—wherein she jumped onto the judges’ table, then slipped on their spilled drinks and cracked her tailbone—had her in the lead. (“I’m starting to think that falling is my signature move,” she says wryly.) But she choked in the second round and lost the advantage, returning to New York without the prize. Next up: Phoenix on June 28, and if she doesn’t win there, Brooklyn on July 9. (There’s actually another girl slated to perform in Brooklyn. Says Bettie: “I have better hair.”) The winners from the regional competition will meet at the U.S. Finals in San Francisco on August 8; the champion then heads to Finland to compete for the world title.
Of the upcoming competition, Bettie cites Shreddy Mercury (whose wife is known for stripping off her clothes in support of her beloved spouse) as a major concern. “He’s one of the hungriest,” she says. “Air guitar is something he thinks about year-round, and he’s a crowd favorite who just gives it 110 percent. I definitely wouldn’t count him out. Also, Six-String General—he’s from D.C., and a consistent final-round runner-up.”
I can’t help but giggle at her seriousness. Luckily, so does she.
“You think it’s just some silly hobby, and then it sucks you in,” Bettie explains. “All of a sudden, you’re staying up nights considering songs, practicing moves, getting really excited about spandex tights. And then you reach the point where no matter what conversation you’re having—world politics, the financial crisis—you’ll find some way to bring it back around to air guitar. It’s incredible.” At this point, she says, her friends and family lapse into dismissive you’re-boring-us nods and mm-hmms the minute she even opens her mouth.
So forgive me for asking, but what exactly is the draw of competitive air guitar, particularly for an attractive 27-year-old girl who manages a special-events space and maintains a healthy social life?
“The camaraderie, for starters,” explains Bettie. “The whole backstage experience is just so hilarious and fun. You’ve never seen a larger group of straight men fret over makeup and spandex. And since I’m the only girl, I’m usually somehow designated the backstage stylist—I mean, I’ve gotten phone calls before and the guys are like, ‘OK, so I’m at Sephora. What kind of eyeliner should I buy?’ Really, though, everybody looks out for one another. I mean, you’re going onstage to be verbally eviscerated—so that support before and after is pretty great.” (Not that they won’t poke fun at each other, of course. Bettie admits she had a good laugh over the website for Air to the Throne, the guy who won the New York competition. “It’s definitely got some theater-geek action,” she confides. “Like . . . he has pictures of puppeteering. I’m so dead.”)
There’s also the consideration of air groupies, who, um, exist. Apparently, if you’re in possession of the hair and the swagger, you don’t so much need musical talent or skill to capitalize on rock-star appeal. In Philly, a skinny kid with glasses pelvic-thrusted his way into a finalist spot, earning the nickname of McLovin and some advice from the vets: “Don’t beat off just yet,” Hulahan recommended after the round-one performance. “You’re gonna get laid tonight.”
And then, of course, there’s the great allure for any true performer: just the balls-out freedom of going crazy in front of an adoring audience. “I mean, I don’t play the guitar, and I’m not in a band,” says Bettie. “And yet I’m onstage by myself in front of a sold-out crowd at Bowery Ballroom. Who else gets to say that?”
The 2008 Cuervo Black U.S. Air Guitar Championships (presented by TouchTunes) come to the Music Hall of Williamsburg (musichallofwilliamsburg.com) July 9