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What’s more American than air guitar?

Nothing, apparently. On entering the 9:30 Club on Friday, it wasn’t immediately clear whether the venue was hosting the U.S. Air Guitar Championship or a political convention. Bunting hung from the balcony, “God Bless America” and other patriotic standards blasted from the PA, and a cache of red-white-and-blue balloons cascaded from the rafters as the event began.

It was an election, of sorts. Some of the competitors even had delegations—most noticeably Sanjar the Destroyer, whose supporters wore white-and-black tees reading “STD: Sexually Transmitted Destruction”; and hometown favorite The Shred (i.e. Lance Kasten), the 47-year-old construction worker whose ankle-breaking plunge from atop an amp stack at last year’s finals aptly summed up the straight-faced absurdity of this new American pastime.

The contestants effectively transformed the act of air-shredding—previously the dominion of amateurs unable to appreciate a guitar solo privately—into performance art. The absence of actual guitars (and the need to actually play them) freed them up to focus on physical stunts and prop gags. These elements, more than technical verisimilitude, appeared to be the keys to the craft. As it turns out, competitive air-guitar routines are less like rock ‘n’ roll solos and more like floor exercises. On cocaine.

Somewhere, Jack Black was grinning cartoonishly.

Veteran and pantomime extraordinaire William Ocean took the crown, though the competition seemed tantamount to the spectacle. The evaluations of the half-drunk judges—former champion Hot Lixx Hulahan, WaPo sportswriter Mike Wise, and “Daily Show” correspondent Jason Jones — were somewhat arbitrary. (“If you show us what’s under there, I’ll give you extra points,” Jones told one kilt-wearing competitor, prompting him to give the audience a full-frontal. “Just kidding,” Jones said afterward.) Jones showed up late “smelling of beer and sadness,” as the USAG’s official liveblog put it, but still held a comedy edge on Hulahan, who mostly stuck to technical criticism, and Wise, who mostly stuck to dated cultural references (e.g. “It’s on like Donkey Kong!” and “You guys remember Austin Powers? She looks like one of the femmebots…on steroids!”).

The bill was 25 air-guitarists long, and things did get a little redundant, creativity notwithstanding. But it certainly never approached “dull.” The event had a strange quality of being completely over-the-top and yet almost completely irony-free. One could imagine these men and women up late at night in their dens, painstakingly stitching together garish spandex superhero suits, choreographing moves, rehearsing spins and split-kicks. Not because they’re gifted musicians, or naturally athletic, or good-looking; but because they knew if they put in the time then they too could be rock gods, if only for a few moments.

And what could be more American than that?

Photo courtesy of Flickr user brianmka.