My first memory of Rock Band is my parent’s bewilderment. My brother and I were budding musicians. We had an acoustic guitar and were taking occasional lessons. The Beatles: Rock Band’s release was on the horizon, and as we had to do in those days, we pitched my parents on it. After a few discussions they gave us an ultimatum: The Beatles: Rock Band or a real electric guitar. We chose the latter.
I find discussions of whether videogames are a “worthwhile pursuit” to be self-serving now, but at the time it felt vital. I had to prove to my parents that my consumption was building me into something worthwhile. Videogames had real stories, valid and beautiful, and I had to show them. Within this framework, there was no way to pitch Rock Band to my parents except as a social activity. Most of my memories of Rock Band are at friends’ houses, usually singing, trying to mimic the sound of songs I had never heard before. It was distant from the music I listened to or played.
Before this year, I hadn’t played Rock Band since high school, but starting in March 2020 I occasionally tuned to Alex Navarro’s nigh weekly drum streams. Navarro plays on a real drum set, with electric cymbals and muffling sensor pads on the snare, toms, and kick drum. With the usage of Rock Band 4’s “Pro Drums” setting, it comes pretty close to just watching someone play impeccable drum covers for two to three hours. It’s perfect for having on at work, the kind of thing you can pay half attention to while updating a spreadsheet, especially since it is mostly auditory.
Nevertheless, when my ever fluttering eye moves from one screen to the other, I’m fascinated. I see how the little colors scrolling down the screen match Alex’s movements. I wait with slowing breath to see if he can get through a tricky part without making a mistake. Under it all is the thrill of watching someone do something they are very good at. Eventually, what I saw bled into my thoughts. I would listen to a song and imagine the drum chart scrolling towards me. I would move my hands in a mock theater, swinging my wrists in rhythm. Eventually I remembered that my in-laws had a full suite of plastic instruments gathering dust in a closet. So I picked them up. I figured that if I can’t afford or have the space for a real drum set, this would be the next best thing.
While I hadn’t played Rock Band until recently, I continued to play guitar since I started learning my freshman year. I was in a probably pretty bad band in high school. I’ve played for friends or small groups at house shows. Mostly, though, my music playing and listening is casual. I sing a Springsteen or Joni Mitchell song if I’m in the mood, and occasionally try to rearrange the songs I’ve written over the years. I have a small vinyl collection. I feel that streaming has kind of ruined my relationship with music, but haven’t taken all the steps to fix it yet.
In large part, this is because my relationship with music is gendered and troubled. In high school, I liked Pink Floyd, Radiohead, and The National. In other words, I liked “straight white boy music.” In first trying to set myself apart from other straight white men, and then in the struggle to claim womanhood, I have felt that my music taste reveals something fundamental about myself, some underlying maleness. The result of this is less that I don’t listen to music and more that I just don’t really talk about it. It’s private to me. This coyness about my taste is the echo of my younger desire to make my consumption “productive.” My music taste should show my virtue and since it cannot (it couldn’t ever), I don’t bring it up.
While my motivation for revisiting Rock Band was motivated by similar ideals, I wanted to pick it up to at least kind of learn to play the drums. Instead it worked to make me more comfortable with myself and to listen more carefully. While Alex Navarro’s streams opened the door, actually playing the game forced my feet through. Now listening to a song, I can imagine how my hands might play it on my fake set. The diversity of Rock Band 3’s soundtrack helps me feel out why and how different genres are played. I’m more impressed at a difficult fill, more understanding and aware of both simplicity and complexity of beats. While I would still be clueless in front of an actual set, it is helping my channel my years of listening to music into something I can actually talk about and share. The game is not a way of playing music, but of listening to it.
That is true even with the game’s emphasis on interaction and skill. There is nothing about Guitar Hero or Rock Band that necessitates using anything other than a controller. However, the games insist on giving you an instrument, a thing that channels music. The real reason for this, of course, is upping the price. It makes the games more expensive, more of a hot ticket or prestige item. However, the effect of it in play is a physical relationship to the music, a way of affirming that human hands made these sounds. Playing a plastic guitar with five buttons is playing air guitar with mediation. I can put on a song and approximate playing along on the fake set. The thump of plastic replaces the crash of a cymbal or the sharpness of a snare. It is not the same, but it does show a truth about how music works. Someone’s hands and heart made this. Yours can too.
Music can feel distant. Watching an incredible musician at work can feel like watching a god. Behind all that skill, though, are hearts and bodies, just like yours. Rock Band affirms that music is your own. At least, it did for me. It is not pure, of course. The cultural power of capital, the boundaries of whiteness and Blackness, the oppressiveness of gender and taste, and so much else shape how people make music and which people are recognized for making it. Rock Band is as shaped by those things as much as anything else. However, I believe that music can be something else, if we trust our hearts and hands enough to make it happen. By teaching me to listen, Rock Band reminded me that loving music can be freeing. Maybe I felt that way, so many years ago at my friend’s house, giving voice to unknown songs I would later know by heart.
Grace Benfell is a queer woman, critic, and aspiring fan fiction author. She writes on her blog Grace in the Machine and can be found @grace_machine on Twitter.