MATT BURNS IS A MILD-MANNERED STATEN ISLAND BARTENDER. GET HIM IN FRONT OF A CROWD WITH AN IMAGINARY AX IN HIS HAND, THOUGH, AND HE TRANSFORMS INTO AIRISTOTLE, THE GREATEST AIR GUITAR PLAYER IN THE LAND
MATT BURNS is playing the same 60-second song for the fifth time in a row. It's a Saturday in early August, and we're sitting in standstill traffic on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Outside, heat radiates from the pavement, thick and humid like a mosh pit. The car's air-conditioning offers a blessed reprieve from the stifling Staten Island apartment that Burns, 29, shares with Mike Katz, his best friend from high school.
Katz, who's driving, slams his hands against the wheel. "Come on," he says to the Chevy truck in front of us. He doesn't want to be late for something as important as the U.S. Air Guitar National Championships. Katz has to win in order to represent his country at the world championships in Finland in a few weeks. The stakes tonight are lower for Burns. As the two-time defending world champ, he automatically qualifies.
The song Burns has on repeat is a mash-up of theme music of WWE superstar the Undertaker, The Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way" and "Right Now" by SR-71—classic songs from his adolescence. He strums a few fake chords. Tonight he's playing the halftime show, and he's using the performance to test the crowd's reaction to a few moves he might break out in Finland. Burns firmly believes that a performance must have a beginning, a middle and an end, and it's his job to perfect his act to be sure he takes the audience on that very quick trip.
"No one wants to see someone do this for more than 60 seconds," Burns says. "It's really hard to keep people's attention for longer with literally nothing."
Only four other people have won back-to-back worlds since the competition started in 1996. The idea was that if everyone in the world held an air guitar, they wouldn't be able to hold a gun, and world peace would ensue. No one's ever won three times, so Burns will be the best ever if he can win again next year.
Well, technically Airistotle will. Airistotle is Burns's air guitar name, a character he describes as a 15-year-old kid who just got detention for the first time. Everyone who competes in air guitar assumes an alter ego; some of the all-time greats include Shreddy Mercury, Bjorn Turoque, Nordic Thunder, Windhammer, William Ocean, Hot Lixx Hulahan ... you get the idea. Burns is good friends with all of them.
We finally get to Brooklyn and head to a Duane Reade. Katz's air guitar character, Brozone Layer, is a fratty tough guy, so Katz (who is not a fratty tough guy) wants to buy a bottle of Axe to spray in a celebratory cloud at the end of his performance. Burns needs to buy Croakies to secure his glasses to his face; they keep flying off when he headbangs.
Burns is tall and lanky, still skinny in a teenage way, with thick dark hair and a smile that takes over his whole face. He peppers his speech with what sound like ad-libs from a rap song. Excited Hell yeah's and Let's go's bookend his sentences even when he's hungover, which he is today. Over the past three days he's been partying with competitors who have flown in from all over the country.
It's sometimes hard to tell where Burns ends and Airistotle begins. But there's no question as to who he is when he sees five of his fellow air guitarists milling around outside the door of Rough Trade NYC, the Williamsburg venue that is hosting the event. Airistotle stands up straighter as he strides toward the group to give each person a hug. They greet him with admiration and a touch of reverence, the son of a secretary and an accountant from Staten Island who has become the goofy king of playing an imaginary instrument.
IT ALL started at a Best Buy.
Burns was in the store one day in 2008 when his friend spotted a DVD of Air Guitar Nation in a bargain bin. The documentary chronicles the first season of U.S. Air Guitar, the league that Kriston Rucker and Cedric Devitt founded in 2003. After going to Finland for worlds, they couldn't believe that America wasn't represented, so they started competitions in New York City and Los Angeles. Now, regionals take place in 25 cities across the country, with nationals held in a different city each year.
As soon as Burns saw the film, he was hooked.
"I thought, This is the stupidest, dumbest, most gorgeous, beautiful, amazing thing I've ever seen in my entire life," he says. "I was like, Sign me up. I was immediately drawn to air guitar for so many reasons. The best way I've ever heard it described is that it's one-third comedy show, one-third concert and one-third sporting event wrapped up into this one thing. It's like a drag show, but for frat bros."
Burns has always loved performing. He was on his high school's improv team, and the easiest way to hang out with girls was to act in the plays his all-boys' Catholic school put on in collaboration with its sister school. At 19 he was too young to get into the bars where the air guitar competitions took place, but that didn't stop him; he drove down to Philadelphia and sneaked in when the bouncers changed shifts. He hid in the bathroom for three hours until the place got crowded enough that no one would notice he hadn't shown his I.D.
Burns first made it to nationals in 2010 and took home his first title in 2012. Air guitarists are graded on a scale of 4.0 to 6.0; the categories are technical merit (whether it looks like they're playing the proper notes), stage presence (costume, character, crowd involvement) and "airness." Says Burns—or maybe Airistotle, in this case—"By far the most important and borderline impossible to define is airness. It's the It factor, the je ne sais quoi. The best way I've heard it described is that it transcends the act of imitation and becomes an art form in and of itself. So this dude on stage isn't pretending to play the guitar anymore, he's playing the air guitar, and he's in the zone. He looks like he's having more fun than anyone's ever had in their life."
Sometimes, Burns performs at corporate events, and he recently acted in a play his friend wrote and directed about air guitar called Airness. He went to the College of Staten Island for a few semesters but dropped out "because Die Hard was on TV. And then Die Hard 3 was on, and what was I supposed to do?" These days he bartends at the Phunky Elephant, a gastropub a few minutes away from his apartment, but mostly he just practices his moves with Katz and the friends they grew up with. They cut together his 60-second song edits, help him work out his choreography and go to Zumba classes to hone their dance skills.
"Airistotle hasn't just won, he's become our Air Jordan," says Rucker. "Seeing him pull that off has been like watching a slow-motion hurricane that actually improves the aesthetics of the coastline. And when I talk to him these days, I'm struck that he's added a mental dimension to his craft that—combined with his physical gifts—is almost unfair. Listen to him break down the elements of performance: character coherence, 60-second story arc, the power of entrance, how to prepare for a curveball compulsory track, how to rope-a-dope the crowd with faux vulnerability, etcetera."
It's true—Burns is eloquent when describing the technique and gamesmanship. He's also just as happy talking about how much he loves this community. The theatrics drew Burns to the sport, but the people are why he's continued to come back. Why he hopes he keeps doing this forever.
Before nationals, all the contestants gather in the greenroom. They're drinking beers, hugging, putting face paint on each other. Nordic Thunder isn't competing this year, but he's nonetheless wearing his Viking costume as he gives a speech. "This has been a huge part of my life since 2006," Nordic Thunder says. "It's been a place I felt I could be comfortable in my own skin, and I don't get to feel that in my everyday life. And I feel that way around you f-----' weirdos."
Burns claps, nodding as hard as he headbangs, his glasses secured to his head.
"Let's go!" he yells.
THIS YEAR'S nationals' field is wide open, because last year's winner, Mom Jeans Jeanie, gave birth to her second kid 10 days ago. After performances from Dad Bod Jovi, Kit Kat and The Virgin Airy—who, despite her name, is 32 weeks pregnant—Brozone Layer (aka Katz) rocks out. His scores aren't very high. The five judges dock him for spraying Axe everywhere and, in the words of the emcee, "making the place smell like an Uber."
After the first round, it's time for the halftime show. The lights go down briefly, and when they come up, Airistotle's light-blue flat-brim hat is sitting on a stool on stage. It bears the image of Rocko, from the cartoon Rocko's Modern Life, a Nickelodeon show from Burns's childhood. The somber church bells of the Undertaker's music—the ones I heard in the car about 30 times—play. Now the comparison between WWE and air guitar makes much more sense; the heels, the faces, the make-believe, the (yes, seriously) athleticism.
Airistotle moves with frenetic-yet-controlled, chaotic-yet-choreographed energy, hopping from one side of the stage to the other. His expressions of surprise and joy are as timed to the music as the movements of his arms and legs. By the time the last chord hits, and Airistotle stands with his back to the audience, hand raised to the sky, breathing heavy, the crowd is the loudest it's been all night.
I find Burns sitting on a couch in the greenroom after his performance. For the first time since I've met him, he can't speak. He just shakes his head. Finally he says, "I'm still coming down. Give me a minute."
A woman who goes by Georgia Lunch wins the competition. She'll be going to Finland with Airistotle—where he will finish second, edged out by a past champ named Seven Seas in his quest for the sport's first three-peat. Right now, though, he is in the middle of a crowd of competitors and spectators who are on the stage to play along to "Free Bird," a tradition at the end of every air guitar show.
Airistotle is holding a Bud Light, his arms around two of his friends as they sway back and forth. I join in on "Free Bird," shaking my head back and forth, windmilling my arm, miming the fast parts of the song on my hip. When you let yourself get into it, it's euphoric.
Last year in Finland a bunch of the air guitarists went out for karaoke. Someone chose Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." At the end of the song a person who'd never been to a competition before said to Burns, "I never thought about 'Bohemian Rhapsody' that way. You know at the end of the song when he sings, 'nothing really matters?' Nothing"—and they held up their air guitar—"it really matters."
Burns stands on stage drunk, singing, sweaty, surrounded by the people who accept him, who admire him, who understand that he's mastered an art very few even know exists. Who see him as an adult when the rest of the world would say he's never grown up.
And in this moment, nothing has never mattered more.
"I WAS IMMEDIATELY DRAWN TO AIR GUITAR FOR SO MANY REASONS. IT'S LIKE A DRAG SHOW, BUT FOR FRAT BROS."
—TWO-TIME WORLD CHAMP AIRISTOTLE
Check out Licensed to Shred: Behind the Scenes at the U.S. Air Guitar Championships.
For details go to SI.TV