Sleater-Kinney's guitarist tests out Rock Band.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Nov. 27 2007 3:07 PM

Rock Band vs. Real Band

Sleater-Kinney's guitarist tests out the new video game Rock Band.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

The game Rock Band has been haunting me like a bad ring tone. It gets stuck in my head and momentarily effaces all that I love about music. I first learned about it during a short stint at an ad agency in Portland, Ore., where I was asked to come up with a few ideas to help promote the game. This seemed easy enough; after all, I had more than a decade's worth of experience playing in a rock band and being around other bands. I flew to Los Angeles to work on the ideas with a comedian friend of mine. We wanted to capture the notion that Rock Band would bring disparate elements and people together for a wholesome Devo-meets-Jane Fonda type of fun. But we didn't want to resort to depicting four dudes (OK, three dudes and a female bass player) sitting around acting like a band. For one, anytime you see a movie or TV show or commercial with a fake band, it is painfully embarrassing. Second, Rock Band is more like Stairmaster than it is like rock 'n' roll—it's the same steps with different degrees of difficulty. We came up with two ideas: The first involved a pair of hapless label execs, and the other took place at the U.N. General Assembly. The creative directors told me that the ideas were funny but that I "wasn't putting rock on a pedestal" in a necessary way. Apparently, the other writing team took music more seriously than I did. It was like waking up and realizing I had been in Spinal Tap all of these years.

It turns out that the more you know about music, the less qualified you are to sell Rock Band. I get that now. Rock Band isn't about music or about being in a band, it's about pretending. But instead of pretending alone, as you might in karaoke or Guitar Hero, you pretend with other people. Rock Band is Guitar Hero for people with more than one friend. It's a theater group set to music, and just as nerdy.

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Rock Band was dropped off in person at my house by Brad (not his real name), a PR guy from Electronic Arts, one of the companies (along with Harmonix and MTV) behind the game. Brad was already in full sales mode when he walked in. "What have you heard about the game so far?" he asked. I told him about the ad agency experience and about witnessing a promotional video shoot done in Portland. Thankfully, that saved me from getting Brad's full evangelizing pitch.

One by one, he pulled out the game instruments. The bass and guitar are exactly the same (which is a slight dis for bass players, but I suppose the only other option would have been to make the bass piece 10 times heavier). The guitar/bass is made by Fender and looks like a smaller, plastic toy version of a Stratocaster. Brad told me that if you view it from a distance, you might mistake it for the real thing. The prospect of a real guitar tech accidentally handing out a Rock Band guitar in the middle of a set seemed unlikely. On the other hand, the minute I mistake that thing for a real Fender I will succumb to the meds I know I need, so it does serve as a handy litmus test. The mic looks like a real mic, which is because it is a real mic. The drums are the best part. They would look at home in a 1980s Flock of Seagulls video—four color-coded circular drum pads and a kick pedal. Drum stool (aka throne) not included, but, as I discovered, a coffee table works just fine. Brad kindly set up Rock Band in the middle of my living room, a typically austere space reserved for reading (except that I never read there), and one kept tidy in case I invite friends over (which I rarely do). Even so, littering the space with guitars and drums was strangely intrusive. I felt like the mother of a teenager. How long was this band planning on hanging out, and why was their stuff lying around all over the place?

Brad wanted to make sure everything was working, so he got on drums, I picked up a guitar, and we started the game. I quickly discovered, as other real guitarists have, that knowing how to play guitar in no way qualifies you to play Rock Band (or Guitar Hero). It's the same way that being a doctor doesn't make you good at the game Operation.

We started with one of the easier songs, Weezer's "Say It Ain't So." Rock Band uses the actual master recordings, so if you are hitting the right notes, your performance should sound exactly like the real song. But if you hit the wrong notes, the instrument you're playing drops out of the song for as long as you keep messing up. Basically, you get to sound experimental and avant-garde for one moment before you get kicked out of the band. If enough of you are playing poorly, the song ends in an abject moment of humiliation. The music comes to a screeching halt, like someone bumped the needle on a record player; on screen, your avatar either insouciantly shrugs off the incident or appears to be pointing an accusing finger at another band member (some aspects of the game are more realistic than others).

Rock Band. Click image to expand.
A Rock Band avatar rocks out

The band that Brad and I formed, called "a" (it's not easy to type in letters using a guitar), played for about an hour. He showed me how to tattoo my avatar and how to warp the tattoo to make it look unique (or more like the mask from Scream). When I took a turn on the drums, he told me that Rock Band emulated the experience on a real kit and that he thought the game had taught him how to play. We tried "Maps" by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I conjured Brian Chase in my head, trying to hit with both bombast and precision, which didn't help much. After flunking out a few times and needing Brad to save me (other players can bring you back from the dead if they are doing well), I managed to complete the song. It wasn't until later that I saw Brad's point, that the drums could be instructive. I might be delusional, and my drummer friends will laugh when they read this, but I think I'm at least good enough to post a "Musicians Available" ad on Craigslist, despite my experience being limited to four dinner-plate-sized rubber drum heads that I banged on from the comfort of my couch. The drums are the most fun Rock Band instrument to play, and they're also the most obnoxious to others: Since you are actually hitting a drumhead with a drumstick, you get an audible tapping sound on top of the real music that is hard to drown out unless you test the limits of your TV volume (not advised).

After drumming along while Brad sang a respectable version of Radiohead's "Creep," he left me alone with the console. I have never had more than a passing interest in video games. Growing up, we weren't allowed to have Atari, Coleco, or Nintendo. And though I enjoyed a few hours of Super Mario Bros. at friends' houses now and then, no permanent affection for the medium took hold. Once Brad left my house, I immediately packed up the system and my TV and moved everything to the den. Now I could relax, wait to play until the party I'd planned, and return to my refined pre-Rock Band life.

The feeling of superiority was fleeting. At approximately 8 p.m., I plugged in a guitar, selected solo tour mode, and played Rock Band for three hours straight. I was sweating, quickly developing a callous on my thumb, and had a splitting headache. Still, I could not stop. My "band" had worked its way up from our hometown of Paris all the way to New York! We had a manager, a tour bus, and were able to afford better clothing and fancier instruments. Even though some of my band mates—all avatars—had green dreadlocks or belly button rings (things that I usually find offensive), it didn't matter; we were good, we were going places. And probably the best part about the tour with my Rock Band band was that even though I went to sleep feeling like I had been inside a shopping mall for the past few hours, I slept in my own bed that night.

I had some friends over to play Rock Band a few nights later. We didn't cluster into formal bands but instead took turns on the various instruments. The allure of Rock Band seems to break down not by people's interest in music or their skills at playing it, but by people's love of either karaoke or video games. One friend stayed on the vocals for a number of songs, scoring 100 percent on a Queens of the Stone Age tune, and, at one point, calling out for someone to grab him a beer. Feeling like obsequious roadies, we obliged. The roles do go to one's head after a while. But after a few hours, most people's enthusiasm for the game diminished. When I looked carefully, I realized I was having a party where people were sitting around playing video games. And, really, if you are going to play the game with a group of friends for more than a night, shouldn't you just form a real band? There is something sad about the thought of four teenagers getting Rock Band for Christmas and spending all of their after-school time pretending to know how to play.

Here, then, are the differences I have surmised between a Rock Band and a real band:

Setting up your gear

Rock Band: Easy. Pick up your feather-light instruments and plug them into your Xbox with a USB cable that you should know how to use even if you've never seen a computer.

Real band: Easier. Especially if a roadie does it for you. Or insanely more difficult if you are your own roadie and you have a fused vertebrae or slipped disc from schlepping your gear across the country.

The playing experience

Rock Band: Tetris meets Simon meets karaoke. You need to have hand-eye coordination and be moderately literate (if you are the singer). There are no monitor mixes to fuss with, and your sound is consistent. Actually, your sound never changes, which kind of gets old. However, if your band messes up, you are mercifully and magically removed from the gig and you get to start over.

Real band: It's hard to beat the visceral high of playing live and creating something spontaneous. But if your band is having an off night, you still have to stand there in front of a crowd and finish the set.

The band dynamic

Rock Band: Volatile. Skill levels can vary, and though each player can select his or her own level, it's frustrating to get stopped in the middle of a song due to someone else's screwup. You do get three chances to bring a player back from the dead, which, sadly, doesn't happen in real life.

Real band: Volatile but with far more payoff. And band fights about set list order and how the guitar is always too loud are more justifiable than fighting over someone accidentally hitting the "pause" button in the middle of a song.

The touring life

Rock Band: You never have to convince yourself that Ruby Tuesday is a good restaurant or that five days is an acceptable amount of time to go without a shower. Your spouse, significant other, dogs, and kids all get to come along without making anyone mad. One major drawback is that you haven't actually left your house, nor has anyone actually attended your shows. You do save on gas.

Real band: You see the world, you see your friends, you try different foods, and you meet new people. Getting out on the road is the way you discover that you're not alone.

I suppose it's pointless to try to break it down in this way, into a dualistic Rock Band vs. real band. Not even the creators of Rock Band could possibly believe that playing the game is tantamount to making your own music. There is, however, a sad similarity between Rock Band and some actual bands, and that is the attempt at realness. With so much of music blurring the lines between ersatz and authenticity, at least the Rock Band game is a tribute to rock, rather than an affront. In the realm of fakery, I would choose Rock Band over American Idol or over any of the other flimsy truths masquerading as music. With Rock Band, you can play along to Black Sabbath or Nirvana and possibly find new ways of appreciating their artistry by being allowed to perform parallel to it. Rock Band puts you inside the guts of a song.

These days, it might be easier to exalt the fake than to try to make sense of the genuine. But maybe by pretending to be in a band, there will be those who'll find the nerve to go beyond the game, and to take the brave leaps required to create something real.

Carrie Brownstein was a guitarist and songwriter in the band Sleater-Kinney. Her writing has appeared in the Believer and Pitchfork, and she writes a music blog called Monitor Mix.

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