Kurt Cobain vs. Guitar Hero, Part 1
The figure on the stage is unmistakably Kurt Cobain. Specifically, it’s just like his appearance in the video “Smells Like Teen Spirit”–scraggly dirty-blond hair, dark green cardigan, ripped jeans. However, he moves with uncharacteristic theatricality and straight posture; his arms rise in a slow sweeping rock salute to the crowd. The stage lights shine on him from behind, and he leans into the microphone and the song begins: “Shot through the heart, and you’re to blame! You give love a bad name!”
In the video game Guitar Hero 5, it’s not hard to replicate this scene, after tackling a handful of challenges and unlocking the Kurt Cobain Avatar achievement. The game uses a plastic controller shaped like a guitar; as the song plays, a series of colored notes direct the player to press the right buttons and follow the song. Behind the notes, there’s a scene of a rock concert, flashing lights and a four-piece band performing. After a successful performance, the avatars take a moment to gloat, and the words “YOU ROCK” flash on screen.
Activision, the makers of GH5, licensed Cobain’s image to appear as a playable character. Courtney Love approved the avatar’s design on behalf of the Cobain estate. Since, she has protested the use in the game via her Twitter, and Internet fans registered outrage with the fervor that only Internet fans can. Maybe Love didn’t think it through: if Cobain’s a playable avatar, then players will put him through the motions of songs that Cobain himself wouldn’t have touched. His Nirvana bandmates asked Activision to remove the option, to recall and re-release the software limiting the use of the avatar, but really, it’s out of the box. Over 400,000 YouTube viewers have seen the video of him performing the Bon Jovi song.
It probably wouldn’t be such a surprise if she’d ever played the previous Guitar Hero games. Ever since Steve and I got Guitar Hero 4: World Tour for our XBox, I’ve found it funny that the stock avatars are not limited to the musical genre suggested by their fashions. You could choose the guy with the mohawk, the chick with the pierced eyebrow and black lipstick, or the hippie wearing round sunglasses, but if you wanted to complete the career mode, you’d still have to work through all the songs.
The release last month of Guitar Hero 5 was overshadowed by another titan of music video-gaming: Rock Band: Beatles, which premiered Lennon-McCartney songs to the plastic-guitar set. The representations of the Beatles in RBB were carefully vetted and approved, and early publicity for the game made if very clear that the game would not be compatible with other Rock Band games–that while the software is similar, there will be no way to switch avatars and songs so that George Harrison would take the lead on “We Got the Beat” or John Lennon would rap out “So What’cha Want.” It was like they were saying, “We know the Beatles are Serious Business. We’re not messing with them.”
The Guitar Hero series hasn’t shown that kind of compunction. They’ve made playable avatars of Ozzy Osbourne, Sting, Travis Barker, and some young lady named Hailey who I’m assured is very popular with the teens these days. The difference, before Guitar Hero 5, is that the playable stars have all been living–with the sole exception of Jimi Hendrix, whose avatar was only playable on two Jimi Hendrix songs in GH4. So there have been weird moments of a known performer and a known song that don’t mesh, at least the performer knows what’s going on. When Ozzy’s avatar is on the stage singing “La Bamba,” we know that–given Ozzy’s transformation from shock-rock bad-boy to reality-show star and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter spokesperson–he probably heard the proposal and payout from the Guitar Hero producers and responded, “Soy capitan!”
There were more protections to the Beatles’ reputation in their video game. In the simulated concerts of previous games, if a player misses notes, the crowd noises change from applause to catcalls, and eventually the avatars get booed off the stage, kicking over instruments and stomping off in frustration. This wouldn’t do for the freakin’ Beatles, so in RBB the crush of failure is replaced by a screen card, “Song Failed.” The Guitar Hero series doesn’t give its stars such amnesty. If you fail a song in the star-studded Times Square performance that climaxes the Career Mode in GH4, Travis Barker stands at his drums and gives you a defensive “the hell?” kind of look, Sting drops his bass in a huff, and Ozzy ambles off in confusion. Even legends fall.
That isn’t what Cobain fans are protesting about GH5. It’s not inconsistent with Cobain’s public image that sometimes he fails; it’s inconsistent that he’d jam out to “Play That Funky Music.”
Yet the game, like many aspects of the music industry today, seems conducive to greater open-mindedness about genres. At first it’s unrealistic when the glam-rock avatar of Guitar Hero performs a Creedence Clearwater Revival song; then I think of the semifinal episodes of American Idol. Once the contestants on Idol are narrowed to a Top Ten, each week presents a themed challenge, a particular genre or criterion of songs. Sure, some themes leave it wide enough open that no one has to stretch genre–”songs from movies” or “songs from the year you were born.” But some of them really do test the contestants’ flexibility, the ability for a Southern-rock musician to perform something from a Broadway musical, or a soulful diva to select a Garth Brooks song. At the very least, the contestants learn to be good sports about it.
It feels like Guitar Hero rewards good sports as well. The most surprisingly enjoyable part of the game for me was finding songs I’d never heard before that are fun to play. My first look at the setlist makes me feel like a grumpy old man, “It’s full of those kids these days and their weird music, like TV and the Radios, and Jimmy Eats the World.” If they aren’t unfamiliar and new, they’re unfamiliar and old. But once I get into them, I sometimes find them fun. Sometimes I don’t, but I give them a try. And there are gems I hadn’t heard before, like “Never Miss a Beat” by the Kaiser Chiefs, or “Escuela de Calor” by Radio Futura, or Blue Oyster Cult’s “Godzilla”–of course, it’s not new, but having never been a connoisseur of umlaut-rock, I can’t recall encountering it until I had a plastic guitar in my hands and saw the multicolor notes cascading on the screen. From Guitar Hero 5, I discovered that the bands Eagles of Death Metal and Vampire Weekend really don’t sound anything like I’d have guessed from the names.
When you play with Cobain’s avatar, maybe it would help to imagine an alternate-reality Kurt Cobain who didn’t die in 1994 but settled in and mellowed out. After a few more Nirvana albums, an amicable breakup and a handful of solo projects, he went on to encourage the kids making new music, and he’d branch out a little himself. Like Chris Cornell, he’d record a Bond theme song. Like Bono, he’d appear as a guest mentor on American Idol. Like Bob Dylan, he’d eventually put out a Christmas album. And maybe this alternate-reality Kurt is even scarier than the Bon Jovi-playing Kurt.
Obviously, a culture clash as broad as this can’t be approached in just one piece of writing. Look for the second exciting episode of “Kurt Cobain vs. Guitar Hero” this Thursday, October 8.