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To air is human, to air guitar, profitable: What started in 2003 as a cult competition between east coast and west has grown into a fierce 24-city tour, and last night, the 2008 Cuervo Black US Air Guitar Championships Presented By TouchTunes — can something invisible sell out? — rolled into L.A.’s famed Troubador for a night of grown men unabashedly embarrassing themselves in front of a capacity crowd. With 2005 NYC champ and “oft-runner up” Björn Türoque (aka Dan Crane, pictured) serving as Master of Air-emonies, the evening was a showcase for moves once relegated to the privacy of the bedroom and the headphones, now writ large and sweaty on the public stage. Genius in its simplicity and totally laughable in its dumbness, I can honestly report that you have not seen air guitar until you’ve seen competitive air guitar– which may or may not be of enormous cultural significance, the more you think about it.

In front of a judging panel comprised of comedians Greg Proops, Jeff Davis, and (Flight of the) Conchord Bret McKenzie, somewhere around a dozen dudes kicked out one minute’s worth of jams before being subjected to the official USAG judging criteria and scored on a 4.0-6.0 figure-skating scale (which takes into consideration Technical Merit, Stage Presence, and Airness; Türoque defines the latter as “the extent to which your air-guitar performance exceeds the imitation of guitar playing and becomes an art form in and of itself”). Though one woman entered Thursday’s battle — named “Iroq,” she began her performance wearing a burka, then stripped to turquoise vinyl pants in a move best left unseen by some of our more devout Islamic brothers and sisters — the night was pretty much a sausage fest, thanks to the male-dominated culture of the sport. “I think the phallic nature of the guitar generally makes men gravitate towards it as a kind of phallic extension,” Türoque says of this gender divide. “And the air guitar is even more of a phallic extension, because it can be as big as you want it to be. You’re not limited by the wood.” (It should be noted that Türoque — who has officially hung up his ephemeral axe after attaining colossal levels of air celebrity thanks to his book and his role in the Air Guitar Nation documentary — now travels in a large tour bus with his picture on the side, which is unquestionably the biggest phallic extension of all.)

After the jump, some highlights from last night’s competition, which began with an overload of humiliation, yet ended with a stunning and exhilarating upset. And if you’re suddenly feeling inspired to strap on the spandex, there’s still time: the tour has stops in San Diego, Phoenix, and across the great state of Texas before the finals in San Francisco on August 8, at which point we will crown our nation’s representative to the World Championships in Oulu, Finland, later that month. This, too, will be hosted by Türoque — the first time a non-Finn has been asked to preside over the proceedings, and, some believe, a real breakthrough in American foreign relations, all things considered.

The notion of an air guitar competion was born 12 years ago by a group of industrious Finns who believed if everyone in the world were holding an air guitar, they wouldn’t be able to hold a gun. This is ridiculous, but if you think about it, it’s also true, and kinda deep. Still, I could’ve done without the first several contestants’ attempts at world peace. Up first was “Willie Smalls,” who rendered Van Halen unwatchable, then someone named “Livin’ La Vida Rocko” (I think), who was either left-handed or had never seen anyone play guitar before. Both were booed by the crowd, and Mr. La Vida left Proops feeling “sick and dirty.” Not thinking it could get any worse, we were then shocked into an air guitar coma by “Johnny Balls,” who chose some kind of Sum 41-sounding crap and was clearly more into pelvic thrusting than any kind of technical proficiency or coherence. “I don’t know if there’s a lower score than f— off,” replied Proops, while McKenzie gave him a “4.getatighterjumpsuit.” (McKenzie went on to turn his nose up at virtually everyone who took the stage — “Turns out Bret’s kind of a dick,” mused Türoque at one point — but rather than simply being snooty, it later became apparent that he was just saving his approval ammo for when it would blow our effing minds.)

From there we saw “Iroq” (“The burka brought out your eyes,” concluded Davis), and the first revelation of the night: “The Caplickster,” who wore a codpiece, a t-shirt with the phrase “Backstage Passes” and an arrow pointing to the codpiece, and who rocked the handy trick of literally setting his fingers on fire. Fire is cool, and I think The Caplickster may have been the first to break the 5.0 barrier. Meanwhile, Johnny Balls and Willie Smalls were at the bar, drowning their air sorrows in what we can only hope was Cuervo Black, and I was sort of clueing in to the fact that the majority of the entrants seemed to have confused “air guitar” with “put on the loudest death metal song you can find, rip off your shirt, and thrash around with your tongue out.” By the time “The Air-Conditioner” ruined “Thunderstruck” forevermore by going the shirtless and suggestive route (“Gay-C/DC! 4.3!” judged Proops), I decided it was time to stop taking notes and start drinking.

I did get the answers to a number of probing social questions as the night wore on:

Q: What if someone stagedove, and no one cared?
A: Well, the stage-diver in question would most likely land with a crushing thud in the middle of the floor, and then we would all laugh at him.

Q: What do American Idol and air guitar competitions have in common?
A: Song selection is everything. And at least one of the judges might be drunk.

Q: What does air-playing-guitar-with-your-teeth look like?
A: Sorta like air-eating-corn-on-the-cob, which was a refreshing change from the air-awkward-masturbation techniques that had dominated up to that point.

Long story short, after enduring a mime, some sort of zombie redcoat, a dude in a helmet, and one gentleman in a tux who played a Loverboy song (and who was, truth be told, really quite good), we finally arrived at the night’s big marquee name: The Rockness Monster, our 2005 US champ, undefeated in Los Angeles over the course of his illustrious career. To the strains of something we decided was maybe the Deftones, he began with a spectacular slo-motion lick, then climbed halfway up one of the stage trusses and finished by taking center stage and backwards-Jesus-diving into the crowd. (Unlike some, he was enthusiastically caught.) It was a glorious performance, and I finally realized what this art form was supposed to look like: hypnotic yet elusive, like a unicorn on speed. And then, as the judges tabulated the scores for the finals, we were treated to a halftime performance from none other than C. Diddy, our first-ever national champion as well as the first American to win the World Championships — and, in Air Guitar Nation at least, Björn Türoque’s arch-enemy. None of their old competitive hostility was on display last night, however, as the two monsters of the medium came together for a triumphant performance of the theme from Top Gun, C. Diddy towering over the crowd in his signature Hello Kitty breastplate, damning most of the Los Angeles regional competitors to shame. What a sight, PopWatchers. What a moment.

Anyway. The finals always consist of a surprise compulsory song that the top five must perform; last night, it was the top seven, thanks to a tie (and the judges’ obsession with The Caplickster’s fire fingers). They were tasked with one minute of “Hocus Pocus” by Focus, and given a single listen before the round began. No need to run through the results of this, as only one man mattered: Surprise finalist “Houston Rockit,” who’d wowed the crowd with his fake pornstache and pink hot pants during the prelims, and seized upon his final minute to dash through the audience to the Troubador’s back wall, climb said wall, and finish the song WHILE HANGING UPSIDE DOWN BY HIS KNEES FROM A METAL PIPE LIKE A FRUITBAT. I tell ya, PopWatchers, I’ve never seen a crowd so electrified. (Okay, maybe I have.) As he climbed back down from the heavens, the crowd chanted his name… and the judges wrote it into legend: Proops gave him a 5.8. Davis a 5.9. And then Bret “Lowball” McKenzie stunned us all by dropping the night’s lone 6.0. Chaos! Pandemonium! A winner had been crowned, no question, despite the fact that the Rockness Monster had yet to compete! The poor formerly-undefeated champ was desperate; he walked atop the crowd and stood held aloft by their adoring hands, yet this was no match for the fruitbat. Houston Rockit became the L.A. Regional Cuervo Black TouchTunes Jose Air Guitar 2008 Tequila Jukebox Champeen, and the Rockness Monster headed home, probably to cry on his Air Guitar Hall of Fame induction certificate. I caught up with him on the way out, told him he’d done all he could, that nothing could have topped the fruitbat’s spark of vertical genius. “Yeah,” Rockness sighed. “I thought about climbing the truss as high as I could and just jumping, and if I die, I die…” I used my very most loving voice to tell him this would not have been a good idea, and wished him luck in San Diego, where he’s planning on giving it another go tonight.

As is air-guitar tradition, the whole shebang wrapped up with contestants, judges, and scattered audience members coming together on stage to perform an enormous version of “Freebird” (natch). As Houston Rockit’s girlfriend leapt into his arms for a passionate victory kiss, Bret and Björn shredded back to back, and assorted women gave their best lascivious licks to fake fretboards (ladies! why did you not enter?!?). When the Skynyrd nightmare/awesomeness was over, we all walked into the L.A. night with our ears ringing. Air guitar may be invisible, but it’s not quiet, and I’ve now got the hearing damage (and commemorative sweatband!) to prove it. Air guitar is also a deceptively difficult skill to master, and, in its purest form, rock n’ roll joy incarnate. But what about you? Has anyone seen their local regional? Has anyone entered? And what do you reckon would be your song/alias, if you did?