Beatles Rock Band

[18 August 2009]

By Rob Horning

Though it has a great hed, Daniel Radosh’s article on the new Beatles Rock Band game reads like a long infomercial, or like a textual equivalent of one of those fake-documentary shows that gets made to promote movies, with interviews with the stars and the director that can be clipped out for use on Entertainment Tonight or get thrown on the DVD as bonus “features.” (Though I can understand why Radosh took the assignment—who wouldn’t jump at the chance to interview the last living Beatles?) It did nothing to allay my confusion about music-based games. Changing radio stations in the stolen cars in Grand Theft Auto still seems a more meaningful musical gaming experience to me than playing Simon to the beat on plastic mini-guitars. I still think I may as well try to play guitar and suck, or simply play air guitar rather than try to master the irrelevant and counterproductive ersatz fretwork of Guitar Hero. (Guitar playing involves raising to the level of instinct the movement of your fingers up and down the fretboard along with the rise and fall of melody. Guitar Hero seems capable of thwarting that development.)

And I continue to think statements like this one—“Playing music games requires an intense focus on the separate elements of a song, which leads to a greater intuitive knowledge of musical composition”—are pretty ideological, wishful thinking asserted as nebulous fact by the game’s marketers. (“Knowledge of the alphabet leads to a greater intuitive knowledge of poetic composition.”) This tepid endorsement has the same hopeful vagueness: “Olivia Harrison, George Harrison’s widow, who stopped by Abbey Road while Martin was working, recalled her surprise upon first playing Rock Band a few years earlier. ‘You feel like you’re creating music,’ she marveled. ‘It must engage some creative part of your brain.’ ” Of course, you are not making music and are only simulating creativity vicariously. But if the game satisfies the brain’s creative impulses, why not just call it real creativity, the same way we might call crack-induced euphoria “true happiness”?

My interaction with music has always been a different sort of game, in which I scored points with myself for memorizing lyrics and remembering song titles and the names of the musicians in bands that most people had barely heard of. Music trivia seemed the natural game to play to me, and the rewards didn’t seem to cancel out the pleasure of listening but instead enhanced it with context. That trivial information could buy my way in to some conversations and establish bonds with people who otherwise would have ignored me is a happy by-product. The games circumvent all that; it houses the information and its interfaces commandeer the social engagement.

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 tap my hand, maybe imagine an album cover, sing along in a way that makes feel as though I am merging with the music and its mood. I wouldn’t want someone or something to judge my ability to keep time with the drummer while I am tapping my foot or measure the synced-up relevance of my air-guitar strumming. This makes me more self-conscious rather than less, seeming to defeat the whole point of immersing myself in a song. I’m “inside the music” in a ineffably complex way that seems direct as opposed to mediated.

So I just don’t get Rock Band. 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.

Maybe if I could get over the scorekeeping component and think of it more like karaoke, I would understand it better; as this explanatory comment of Radosh’s made the most sense to me: “What nonmusicians want, it turned out, is a sense of what it’s like to perform the music they already love.” I understand that desire, though it seems strange gratified in this form, largely free of the effort and frustration that actual collaboration and mastery entails.

I don’t quite accept the argument that Rock Band is akin to things like Flight Simulator games that let you pretend to be a pilot without having to actually learn. Music appreciation is richer and potentially deeper than simply getting to pretend to do something you can’t actually do. So the music games seem to be ruining richer soil, precluding the deeper engagements for a mediated, preordained, regulated one. It’s the apotheosis of Adornoesque fears of debased, administered culture squelching the free space of aesthetic creation in which resistance and protest could still be mustered. Instead we’ll get Rock Band: Woody Guthrie.

The need for spaces in which interactivity is not preprogrammed and which allow for an unbounded sort of imaginative engagement seems crucial, akin to the information-free zone Jason Zegerle posits in this TNR post.

I like to learn covers of songs on guitar, and I think it has something to do with this, retracing the steps of musicians you have come to think of as being beyond merely creative—it seems almost unbelievable, miraculous, that you can actually just play “Dear Prudence,” that your fingers are retracing that immaculate moment of creation that John Lennon had when he discovered it and it actually sounds sort of the same for you. It’s like touring a holy land, or standing in some spot where a famous speech was delivered.

But I don’t feel like I become these legendary rock figures when I play their songs on guitar. It seems like the video games are trying to promote a much more direct sort of vicariousness that cuts out the other potential pleasures of music, as if the reason to love music is simply to imagine yourself being loved by an audience, being someone else.
What McCartney says at the end of Radosh’s piece is pretty incisive:

The teacup clattered quietly on its saucer, and McCartney thought about the changes he’d seen in the music world. “There were no cassette recorders” when he and Lennon first started writing songs, he noted. “We just had to remember it. Then suddenly there were cassettes, then we were working on four track instead of two track, then you got off tape, then you’ve got stereo — which we thought just made it twice as loud. We thought that was a really brilliant move.” After the Beatles came CDs, digital downloads and now video games. “I don’t really think there’s any difference. At the base of it all, there’s the song. At the base of it, there’s the music.”
And the future? “In 10 years’ time you’ll be standing there, and you will be Paul McCartney. You know that, don’t you?” He made a sound like a “Star Trek” transporter. “You’ll have a holographic case, and it will just encase you, and you will be Paul McCartney.” He paused and then said, “God knows what that will mean for me.” Then he added slyly, “I’ll be the guy on the original record.”


The Beatles game makes him more famous, more relevant, more real. It makes those of us playing the game more anonymous, more immaterial, more unrealized. And the games of the future will make us able to become anyone but ourselves.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/beatles-rock-band/