Will Rock Band and Guitar Hero Save Us?

Are rocker videogames the new MTV—and will they help us save the music universe?

A couple of days before the highly anticipated release of Rock Band, I pop into the Best Buy on Los Feliz Boulevard to check out the demo. A posse of skater boys from nearby Marshall High (my alma mater) pounds on the faux drums. An Afro'd teen does a slamming good job on the Hives' "Main Offender." His score comes up at the end of his "set." It's a 95 percent. Now it's my turn. I pick Bowie's "Suffragette City"—which these kids probably recognize from commercials—and begin to tap the color-coded skins (with real sticks) to the corresponding shades that light up on the screen. I suck, the kids next to me smirk, and even the faux fans on the screen look disappointed (they're programmed to react according to your performance). I get a 40 percent.

Rock Band is essentially Guitar Hero with more bells and whistles—not only can you play guitar (lead or bass), you can drum and even sing, either individually or with a group of friends to create a real group experience. The two games are battling neck and neck for sales this Christmas, but this isn't your typical retail war. Band was developed by Harmonix, the same company that originated Hero. But not unlike the drama that comes with fame and fortune in the real rock world, "creative differences" led to a breakup. Game publisher Activision brought in a new company, Neversoft, for Hero III, while Harmonix, now part of MTV, decided to come give 'em a little competition with Band. In group terms, if Guitar Hero is Axl's Guns N' Roses then Rock Band is Slash and Duff McKagan's Velvet Revolver.

Ironically, Slash is now a figurehead for Guitar Hero III. The fuzzy fret-ster's hat-topped mug is all over the packaging, centered directly under the "Legends of Rock" subtitle, and he even had his strumming captured by motion sensors so you can play as him in the game. Also depicted in Hero is Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello—guess Xbox, PlayStation and Wii aren't the kind of machines he's raging against these days.

But is jumping on the virtual tour bus even selling out? Little Steven says no way. "That's just old thinking. That's for people who haven't read the papers lately, frankly," the guitarist tells us via phone (he's on tour with Springsteen). "This is the opposite of selling out; this is a necessity. This is the new marketing. Commercials and videogames have replaced the old marketing of radio airplay or videos. It's totally cool."

And while Slash is surely getting compensated for Guitar Hero's use of his image, Van Zandt says he ain't getting paid for his participation with Rock Band. "They couldn't possibly afford me," he says lightheartedly. "Like, what I do with my company Renegade Nation and my radio show, it's about trying to support rock and roll in all its forms. My main mission for future Rock Band music is to feature stuff from the '50s and early '60s, and eventually new acts too."

Back at Best Buy, my turn for Rock Band has come up again. This time I choose Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive," hoping the slower tempo will be easier. Still paying attention to the colors flashing in front of us, this time I really listen to the music as I pound the drum pads. It sounds pretty good. The blue-shirted employees nod approvingly, and even the skater boys seem slightly impressed. Then I start thinking about something Little Steven said: "The game has an interesting side effect. Unlike the guitar games, this will be creating real drummers. If you're playing the rhythm accurately you will actually have the fundamentals of becoming a drummer."

Visions of bad-ass female pounders (Meg White, Samantha Maloney, Sheila E.) float through my head, and for a couple of seconds, like every other kid who plays the game, I imagine what it would be like to be in a real band. It's the same sensation I had when I noodled the buttons on Guitar Hero a few weeks earlier, except this time it feels even more real. But just as swiftly, the song ends and it's game over. I won't ever be a rock star, but the kid next to me just might be. Maybe I'll write about him someday.

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