Battle of the Bands

"Mama Said Knock You Out" becomes a whole different song when sung by a jug band.

Publisher: THQ
Genres: Music/rhythm
Price: $49.99
Multimedia: Battle of the Bands
Platforms: Wii
Number of players: 1-2
ESRB rating: Teen
Developer: Planet Moon
US release date: 2008-04-21
Developer website

Personal identity is so grounded in group identity. Race, gender, nationality, class, and even loyalty to regions, cities, and schools mark individuals from birth, stamping them with a variety of aspects of identity that is difficult to ignore personally and publically. Interestingly, most of these markers are ones which cannot be ignored because of their inalienable qualities. They are identity markers that we are born with either because of genetic makeup or because the choice of where we are born or how much money our folks make just aren't things under our control.

Of course, self-identity and its relationship to those things that make us different from others but also bind us to a group grows more complicated as individuals themselves grow. Choices about what and with whom we affiliate ourselves begin springing up especially in adolescence.

This may be one of the reasons that adolescents seem so interested in and enamored with music. It is one of the first markers that is freely chosen by the individual. Okay, maybe not entirely freely, as some of the aforementioned markers may limit exposure to or influence musical choices; nevertheless, it is most often a place that allows people to differentiate themselves from, at least, their parents.

Teens cling to their musical tastes -- love of bands, genres, etc. -- with a near nationalistic fervor. The choice of listening to and becoming an aficionado of hip hop, country, alternative, etc. says something about who a teenager is, what they like, and how they see themselves.

Thus, the notion of a game that uses a "battle of the bands" for its premise that allows players (unsurprisingly, given its rating from teens upwards) to pit groups of varying genres against one another for a battle of not simply musical but genre supremacy seems an astonishingly brilliant way of tapping into the rhythm game market. This is especially clever given the way in which that market has been so readily embraced in the last few years by some of the youngest of the current generation of gamers.

THQ's approach to a market in which Guitar Hero and Rock Band are dominating is a smart one. Rather than rehash a style of game where the two aforementioned juggernauts have already succeeded, why not build on the mechanics and style that developers like Harmonix have established with their games by bringing both something old and something new to the mix?

In a nutshell, Battle of the Bands takes the now familiar scrolling note line, the "beat track," long familiar to fans of games like Harmonix's Frequency and Amplitude as well as more recently to players of games like the Harmonix designed and influenced Guitar Hero and Rock Band, and puts a Wiimote in the hands of the player in order to play and score that line of notes in time with the track.

However, the first twist on this now familiar approach to the genre is that your band is always sharing the stage with an opposing band (either another player or a computer opponent). Both you and your adversary play a given song, but -- and here is the second twist -- each band attempts to wrest control of the song themselves. Thus, the song changes hands and styles as it progresses. You might have a marching band and a country band playing a cover of "Brick House" at the same time. Not only is the song removed from its funk and disco roots to begin with, but, as it is played, its sounds shift from that of a full brass band to twangy guitars and twangy southern accents.

The pleasure of the game is much like the pleasure derived from jamming along with a favorite tune in Guitar Hero, but its additional pleasure is in giggling along to a marching band belting out a Ramones song or a mariachi band singing a Spanish-language and Spanish-influenced version of the Georgia Satellites' "Keep Your Hands to Yourself."

Additionally, there is the very basic identity component that allows you to transform music that normally you don't identify with into a genre that is more to your liking. The Georgia Satellites a little too country rock for you? Turn them into a hip hop group.

At times, you'll be amazed how the shifting tone of the lyrics of a song can so completely change their meaning based on the "attitude" of the genre ("Mama Said Knock You Out" becomes a whole different song when sung by a jug band). At other times, you'll be amazed at how little those attitudes actually differ despite said differences ("Brick House" seems an awfully urban form of misogyny; When hicks sing it, it may be rural misogyny, but it ain't that different).

The game boasts five major genre "styles" -- country, hip hop, rock, ranchero, and marching band -- but with eleven bands full of caricature-styled band mates, a number of more subtle differences still manage to emerge that even further differentiate group identity via the sub-genres of these styles. For example, the rock bands include standard hard rockers, a heavier metal group, and even a group that I would associate more with "death rock" or screamo. The country bands include a more traditional group of cowboy-ish artists that one might expect to hail from Texas and a band of hillbillies complete with a jug player that I think would be more likely be from somewhere like West Virginia.

This transformative element and the battle for a dominant sound leads to an interesting slate of songs. Other rhythm games that I have played usually leave me feeling mixed about their playlists. Some tunes I love but some songs are grating for me to get through just based on my own personal taste. Interestingly, this set of songs becomes almost universally palatable through its emphasis on difference. This is both because it is fun to hear certain tunes played in absurd ways but also because the game allows the player to make the song into something more familiar to their own record collection. It is easy to overlook the fact that you normally don't like a given song since it can be played in a "familiar" way.

Such personal tastes may not be so easily accommodating to players only familiar with rhythm games played via customized controllers (à la the guitars and drums of Guitar Hero and Rock Band). The game plays through the Wiimote and is largely a very physical affair as a result (more physical, at least, than the guitar controller).

The movements of the Wiimote, which require you to flick it down, left, and right, and stab it occasionally at the screen to hit notes, may be less like taking on the role of a rocker than a conductor, which may lose some of the pleasure of the physical similarity that simulates taking on the role of a "guitar hero," which seems in part to have drawn so many recently to the rhythm genre.

Such "baton waving," too, takes a physical toll on the player as many Wii games seem to do. You may leave an extended session of Battle of the Bands with a rather sore upper arm from waving and waggling at the screen.

Nevertheless, the level of humor, style, and innovation and especially the fun of dueling musical identities up there on the screen serve as an engaging representation of the desire to both belong to something and to be willing to fight for it. Battle of the Bands suggests that musical identity, like other group-based identifiers like national identity, can lead to some sometimes spectacular and sometimes absurd battlegrounds for human conflict.






A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.