Monday, November 24, 2008

Nickelback vs. Guitar Hero (and Rock Band)

I've heard bits and pieces of this story over the weekend, but when I tried to look it up at work, I kept getting the "naughty site" warning from the company net nanny, which I expect from MTV and gaming site/blog Kotaku, which I wouldn't try anyway (though one day I might, you never know what those net censorship tools block and what they don't), but it seemed like every site which was hosting the story about Nickelback blasting Guitar Hero, no matter how obscure, was blocked. Except one blog which had a partial quote. When I get home, I'll try to find the actual site that first posted the story (done!). (I guess it wasn't newsworthy enough for someone like Associated Press, Reuters, New York Times, etc., "safe" news sites that are not blocked.)

Censorship cynicism aside (hey, I'm happy they let me on the Net at all), apparently, Chad Kroeger of Nickelback has gone on record, perhaps after numerous requests from the band's fans to license their songs for one music game or other, and has said something to the effect of, that there aren't as many good, solid rock bands coming out this year or last year, as, say, a few years ago, or maybe the last decade. And he's placing the blame solely at the feet of the Guitar Hero games, and by extension the more innovative Rock Band, which adds the ability to sing and play drums, as well as bass guitar (Guitar Hero was only lead guitar and rhythm guitar, although the new Guitar Hero World Tour adds drums and vocals and drops rhythm guitar as well). He's effectively saying people need to stop playing musician-simulating games and learn to play real instruments.

Following this announcement, I'm seeing a lot of the "cool" kids saying that Nickelback is neither good nor solid to start with and have no room to talk. By "cool" with quotes, I mean a bunch of hypocritical (and most likely virginal) losers who follow the Billboard Top 100 (or however many) charts and popular music news and tabloids with the passion of any Hannah Montana fan, but for the purpose of going online and pretending to hate whatever ranks high on the charts, yet they can't stop talking about it. Something that isn't popular or doesn't chart, they pretend to love (more accurately, they take up for), but as soon as that band or movie or whatever becomes popular, they flip on it. The same people who thought Nickelback were great until they hit it big, and now "hate" them. They seem to believe that anyone who has attained a certain degree of popularity is completely devoid of talent, as if anybody could do what the most popular artists or filmmakers do, but these people were "chosen" as opposed to earning their way. (Some of this is valid... Hannah Montana might not be anyone if her dad wasn't the "Achy Breaky Heart guy" (Billy Ray Cyrus) and Eragon most likely would never have gotten published (the word "plagiarism" would have come up once or twice) had the kid's parents or aunt or uncle or whomever had not run a publishing company and had not been in bed with a movie studio... but these are the exceptions, not the rule.)

Yeah, I like Nickelback. They make songs that sound good to me. It could be rightly said that I don't ask for a lot in music. A song has to sound good, and it's got to move me a little. "Photograph" takes me back to my younger days (precisely the point of the song). "Animals"... interesting story there, it actually makes me think of WWE personalities Edge and Lita, back in 2006 when the former was perhaps at his best (that I've seen - only been watching since late '05). They were heels (villains) but they pulled it off well, it was very cool, the song came out around that time and it just seemed to me they should have used it as their entrance theme, but they never did. The connection stayed with me, and when I hear the song, I think of them... I guess you could say if you have a friend or friends in love and they adopt a song (or have a song often dedicated to them) you grow attached to it. By the same token, my wife and I adopted "Far Away" as our song. Not for the reasons given in the video, but we attributed a more literal meaning to it: that we lived far away from one another and kept having to leave to go home, and when I finally moved in with her, that was the end of the goodbyes. It might not make sense to someone else, but it makes perfect sense to both of us. And "Someday", even though it shares its basic rhythm with another Nickelback song, reminds me not of that other song, but the Twilight Zone-inspired video, where the guy thinks his girlfriend is breaking up with him, she's ignoring him, so he follows her around. There are clues as to what's really going on, but they're easy to miss if you get caught up in the drama. She gets in a car and drives away, and he's chasing her... Eventually the car's hit by a semi, she's killed instantly... and she emerges from the wreckage, finds the boyfriend, and they embrace. We then see a newspaper in a newsstand about how he was killed the day before. So she wasn't leaving him, she was trying to move on - and they're reunited in death. It's a good story (for being told in under 4 minutes) and the song reminds me of it every time. I don't give two shits about how popular they are or aren't, and I'll still love these songs long after the band is inevitably forgotten by most.

Kroeger does have a point, though, but he's severely misinformed about what these games do and how they do it. About ten years ago, Aerosmith sponsored a computer program that would teach you how to play guitar. It came with a cheap electric guitar that would hook up to a computer, and you'd play Aerosmith songs on it. It would show you how, and would rate your performance. An early Guitar Hero? Not exactly. With this, you were actually playing an actual guitar, with strings. With the Guitar Hero and Rock Band guitar controllers, there are only five buttons. Mastery of a real guitar and a guitar controller both require talent, but the talent is different. The talent required to play the game is more like the talent of typing (fast). It's repetitive, and it does require rhythm, but it's nowhere near the league of playing an actual instrument. The Aerosmith program didn't sell well at all. I would even go so far as to say that Guitar Hero: Aerosmith (the Aerosmith-themed Guitar Hero 3 spinoff) most likely outsold this previous game in its first week or two. If that. So Aerosmith learned their lesson this year. Making a program that teaches fans of a popular music group to play a real instrument is not going to be as popular as a video game which simulates playing music in a fun way based on the same band.

The big difference is talent and musical inclination. I can play video games moderately well. The new Castlevania game on the Nintendo DS wasn't out three weeks when I beat it. I'm not bragging - some beat it in days. I'm nowhere near the best, but I'm no slouch when it comes to finishing a game I really enjoy playing. And I don't enjoy playing Guitar Hero and Rock Band as well as I sometimes let on - I think it's more the concept than the actual execution that I enjoy. I am able to and enjoy playing three songs on bass (the easiest instrument) on Expert (the highest difficulty) on Rock Band (which is easier than Guitar Hero). I'll name 'em, too: "Say it Ain't So" by Weezer, "I Think I'm Paranoid" by Garbage, and "Creep" by Radiohead. Can't do squat with them on lead guitar, on the drums, or singing. So for Chad Kroeger to look at someone like me and say "stop playing music games, get a real bass guitar" - it's kind of ridiculous. (Now, I've always wanted to play a real bass, long before these games, but I'm also well aware that I lack the artistic ability to create original tunes and the discipline to master the instrument.)

However, someone who can play every song or just about every song on Expert and get five stars or (five) gold stars, yes, I think that person should seriously consider learning to play the real instrument if that's something they'd be interested in. Especially drummers, since the drums is the most literal translation from the original work to the game's note track. I mean, you can go out and get the five drums that are emulated (bass/kick drum, snare drum, hi-hat, and whatever the other two are) and you can play the songs by the note track (put on No Fail mode and mute the TV) and play along with it, and you're actually playing the song. You can't do that with the guitar controllers. Wikipedia says there are 12 notes, but I count 13 on their chart. I once heard a radio DJ say a guitar has eleven notes (and it's what you do with them that counts). 11, 12, 13, it makes no matter because a Guitar Hero or Rock Band controller only has five note buttons, so the guitar stuff is simplified by more than half. You take someone who can five-star "Through the Fire and Flames" or "Green Grass and High Tides" and all you have is someone who can play a video game well; the person might even be a savant. But what you don't have is someone who can necessarily pick up a six-stringed guitar and jam out the same songs with the same level of perfection. Furthermore, speed metal band DragonForce's guitarist Herman Li tried to play his own song, "Through the Fire and Flames" on Guitar Hero 3, and failed at 2%. His own song. And only on Hard. Also, progressive rock band Rush got together and tried to play "Tom Sawyer" on Rock Band, and they failed out, though much later in the song (96%). (Me personally, I'd love to see Eddie Van Halen try to play "Hot For Teacher" from Guitar Hero World Tour, on Expert.)

The point I'm getting at is that, A) playing real musical instruments is MUCH harder than playing Guitar Hero or Rock Band, and B) real musicians are not necessarily good at Guitar Hero or Rock Band, despite being able to do the more difficult task. Therefore it's given that C) Guitar Hero and Rock Band experts should not be expected to necessarily do well on real instruments. It's simple logic. Not that I would attribute solid logic to a musician; usually artistic ability and creativity do not go hand in hand with arithmetic skills and logical comprehension - two sides of the brain and all. So, long story short, Chad Kroeger has no idea what he's talking about. He might be on the right track (thinking that there aren't enough good bands coming out) but he's barking up the wrong tree. StJoeNews.com out of Missouri reports that, "Microsoft revealed this month that "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band" have sold about 45 million song downloads to gamers." (1) Those song downloads cost $2 apiece. So that's $90 million dollars brought in by these games. And on top of that every purchaser has spent at least $60 on each game they have. And that's just for the disc. We paid $90 for Guitar Hero 3 because it came with the guitar. We paid $179 for Rock Band, which included a guitar, a drum set (and sticks), and a microphone. We paid $189 for Rock Band 2, with the same stuff as Rock Band 1 but more durable, plus the guitar and drum set are now wireless. OUCH! But we haven't spent nearly that on CDs. Matter of fact, we haven't bought hardly any CDs over the last year or two. Sure, we get them here and there, but not like we used to.

As they come, Guitar Hero and Rock Band games pull you in with just a few songs on the track list on the back (which is itself incomplete) that you like from hearing on the radio or CD or whatever, and you think that song would be good fun to play in the game. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. But as you play (most likely you have to go through the game's Tour mode to unlock the song(s) you want) you realize that songs you wouldn't have paid attention to (like me with the Weezer, Garbage, and Radiohead tracks) are actually really fun to play. Maybe you come to like the song, but maybe not, but you enjoy playing it. The game could almost guarantee to expand your musical horizons. To that end, we recently hosted a Rock Band party. We had about 2500 Microsoft points left (enough for 15 songs, anyway) and what we did, we passed the controller around the room and let everybody pick a song. Nobody was criticized for their choices really, although everyone had something to say about every song that was previewed, and in the end, the songs that were chosen weren't all songs I'd have chosen or Jen would have chosen, but we added a level of diversity to our setlist we wouldn't have gotten choosing on our own.

It's a shame, though, that we won't be getting any Nickelback DLC (downloaded content, such as songs for Rock Band). We'd buy their songs if they came out, especially the ones we like. We've bought nearly 60 songs so far. I try not to think about how much money we've put into playing Rock Band (I haven't gotten into what we paid for the TV, the Xbox 360, or the home theater system), but we are most certainly supporting the music industry (as well as the electronics and gaming industries) and it's a shame Nickelback sees that as a threat rather than an opportunity.

Sources for the Nickelback/Guitar Hero story, if anyone's doubting for whatever reason:

MTV ... Kotaku ... G4

1 comment:

Danny said...

Great blog here, my friend, and great points. I coulnd't agree with you more, and I wish Nickelback would come out with more tracks for Guitar Hero, I know I'd be happy to purchase them and support them.