Thursday, September 17, 2009

Smells Like Fake Spirit: How the Guitar Hero Franchise Jumped the Shark

When I was an alien, cultures weren’t opinions,” – Kurt Cobain

On September 1st, 2009, the fifth installment of the popular rhythm game franchise, “Guitar Hero” was released to little fanfare, its arrival eclipsed by a similar game featuring a band whose recording career ended forty years ago. While the Beatles were grabbing all the headlines with “Beatles Rock Band” a YouTube user named Corporalgregg2 released a video compilation highlighting some of the new features available in the “Guitar Hero 5” video game. Specifically, the video shows one of its playable characters, the late Kurt Cobain, singing Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise,” Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself” and most disturbing, Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name.” The Guitar Hero 5 shows Cobain rocking out to these songs with mannerisms appropriate to each of the tunes. He jumps around like Flavor Flav during “Bring the Noise” and poses like a poseur during “You Give Love a Bad Name.” Much of the rock community, especially Cobain’s fans, were outraged that his likeness was used in such a disrespectful, humiliating fashion. Blame was mostly laid at the feet of Courtney Love, Cobain’s widow. Love has vehemently denied signing Cobain’s likeness to Activision (the developer of Guitar Hero 5) but has been subjected to countless attacks from all sides since she began making statements regarding the situation on Twitter.

Attacking Courtney Love is easy for many music fans, who tend to blame her for exploiting Kurt Cobain’s death over the last fifteen years. Much like politics, pointing fingers is easy but doing so represents an ideological short cut in which angry fans find a scapegoat for their frustrations (see Barack Obama and tea parties). Love’s band Hole released a phenomenal record in 1994, “Live Through This” which to many rock fans sounded like a Nirvana record – as if the output of Bush and Stone Temple Pilots didn’t. Hole’s follow-up release in 1998, “Celebrity Skin,” was more polished and produced and drew criticism as being a Smashing Pumpkins style record. The era of grunge had passed by the time of “Celebrity Skin” and many bands were releasing more produced material with less distortion. In retrospect, “Celebrity Skin” was a product of its time, as was “This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours” by the British band Manic Street Preachers. Music fans didn’t question the Manics’ motives, nor those of David Bowie when they changed their sound. Interestingly, other female rock artists of the time such as Liz Phair were subjected to the slander of “sell-out.” Phair’s 1998 album “Whitechocolatespacegg” was panned for its lack of an edge compared to her earlier releases, “Exile in Guyville” and “Whip-Smart.” This would be considered an outright double-standard except releases by the aforementioned Bush and Stone Temple Pilots were even crappier than their earlier material. The artists who gained fame during the early 90’s grunge era were growing up and evolving, except for Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. His death left a bookmark to the era which no artist could ever attempt to emulate or surpass.

Cobain’s mystique and reputation as an anti-authority, anti-corporate icon would remain intact for the rest of the 1990’s and into the 21st Century. Much like the late John Lennon, music fans tend to remember Cobain with rose-tinted glasses, forgetting that it was Cobain himself who wanted a more polished version of Nirvana’s sound, which was heard initially in the “Sliver” single and was perfected in the classic album “Nevermind.” It is probable Cobain never thought this step would turn the band into the next big thing as much as a production equivalent of the Pixies or Husker Du. His classic liner notes railing against wannabe fans in the album “Incesticide” confirms this. Cobain was not comfortable with being an icon. Had he lived, it would be hard to fathom him in one of those horrid Grammy Awards duets rocking it out with Kanye West. But like John Lennon, this speculation only exists in the form of what did happen or what we perceive our heroes to be. “Tomorrow Never Knows” can be taken both ways. A hardcore Bowie fan in the 1970’s would never have thought the Thin White Duke could release “Let’s Dance” in the 80’s. People are people, so why should it be that everyone is expected to act stereotypically?

Economically, Courtney Love is fine. She has not only the continual revenue from Nirvana material but also her own. There is little reasoning an individual with a lot of money would exploit the legacy of someone she loves for her own gain, if said gain would not significantly alter her way of life. Yoko Ono is insanely rich through being John Lennon’s widow. Many of her marketing choices regarding Lennon’s estate, such as jewelry, are questionable, but maybe she is doing the best she can to bring more of Lennon’s mystique to a new audience. But bashing Yoko is out of vogue, considering she has maintained a cordial business relationship with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and the estate of the late George Harrison for quite some time. Hating Courtney Love is still a hobby for many Nirvana fans, which has largely been driven by the antagonism between her and Nirvana members Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic. Much of this animosity toward Love derives from the publication of Kurt Cobain’s Journals in 2002. The collection of Cobain’s diaries was thought by many to have been in poor taste and motivated by money. However, most material such as this finds its way into release sooner or later. Private letters and recordings of deceased U.S. presidents are widely considered revelations and are seldom condemned. Cobain’s journals would have eventually have been published by somebody, sooner or later. Why is the fact that Courtney Love chose to do it received with such hatred? Nobody cares that the family of Harry S. Truman released his private papers. Maybe Courtney Love should be commended for supervising Cobain’s journals, rather than leaving them to someone else.

The 2004 Nirvana box set, “With the Lights Out,” seemed to convince many fans that Love, Grohl and Novoselic had at least reached a truce of some sort. The release of Guitar Hero 5 has opened up decades old wounds, with Love, Grohl and Novoselic trading insulting barbs, blaming each other rather than focusing on the true culprit in the debacle. Activision has stated repeatedly they consulted the trio regarding the inclusion of the songs “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Lithium” in Guitar Hero 5 and gave Love final approval on Kurt Cobain’s likeness in the game. Yet it seems they held something back, legalese or not. The term “avatar” meant having Cobain’s likeness included in the game to Love, not letting him sing the songs of other artists looking like a jackass. I challenge Love’s accusers to think about this. What is an avatar? A new movie by James Cameron? An animated show about an air-bender on Cartoon Network? I sure as hell would have a tough time explaining all this to my Dad. Logically, it seems Activision needed more playable characters for Guitar Hero 5 than Shirley Manson and Carlos Santana. In fact, players can humiliate the late, great Johnny Cash in the same fashion as Cobain, yet nobody is complaining – yet. However cool it may be to have the “man in black” sing “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” it is certain many of his long term fans will consider this a bastardization of his legacy. Yet all focus and blame is focused on Courtney Love, who regardless of what she signed or did not sign, had absolutely no intent or desire to humiliate her husband.

Video games, by their nature, have to get bigger or better. The worst review a game can get is “I like the older one.” Games such as Madden NFL improve yearly but do not allow technological advances to sidestep the concept of football. Many game franchises are not as astute. Adding more features sometimes subtracts from the experience. Capcom’s “Street Fighter” franchise was the biggest game on the planet in 1992, the same time Nirvana was the biggest band in the world. Capcom struggled to advance “Street Fighter II,” arguably the best 2-D platform fighter ever made. They created more characters, invented more moves for players, but the initial feel was lost. The attempted to copy Namco’s Tekken into 3-D combat with little success. Capcom introduced tag-moves which confused players even further. It would be difficult to find modern game players lining up at midnight anticipating a new Street Fighter release. Instead of working on what made Street Fighter II a classic game, they chose to meddle with it and as a result turned off the millions of fans who bought the game in the first place.

Sega’s flagship icon, Sonic the Hedgehog, has suffered a similar fate. After making three games of blink-fast speed and control, Sega chose to enter the 3-D market. The spiky blue rodent no longer sped on all levels but walked around and collected idiotic objects in “Sonic Adventure.” Further attempts at modernization only succeeded in making Sonic suck even further. Like Capcom, Sega forgot what made the initial Sonic the Hedgehog games appealing. Other video game franchises such as Mortal Combat, Pitfall, and WWE pro-wrestling have suffered a similar fate. Improvement is not always advancement, new does not always mean better. The desire for more money, however, remains the same.

Activision knew it had to have something appealing to counteract the onslaught on “Beatles Rock Band.” Playable versions of music icons such as Johnny Cash and Kurt Cobain seemed to be a logical step. The geeks in their cubicles thought “more means better.” Customization of licensed characters had been done in professional sports games and pro-wrestling games. What is the difference? The pathetic reality Activision has realized is there is a big contrast between making Brett Farve as great as he was in the 1990’s with a military-rifle arm or giving John Cena high-flying ability than making music icons sing songs they would never sing. Activision just wanted to make people more excited about the new Guitar Hero, just as ABC thought the Fonz would be super-cool skiing over a shark. But it is a converse equation: we don’t like the more, we want the less. Seeing Kurt Cobain singing songs of artists he hated does not widen the appeal of Guitar Hero, it shrinks it. Interestingly, punk icon Iggy Pop has chosen to let himself be rendered in Lego form for the upcoming “Lego Rock Band.” Players can “block-rock” as “the world’s forgotten boy” as they fake strum their way through his 1977 classic, “The Passenger.” It is quite debatable as to who will shell out fifty bucks for this privilege.

Guitar Hero’s CEO Dan Rosensweig states "We care about the artists more than anyone else and we would like to make artists happy in every circumstance.” It is doubtful Rosenswieg cares more about the artists in Guitar Hero than he does about his financial bottom line. It does not seem he cares about the fans of many of the artists included in the game either To many Nirvana fans, the gift Kurt Cobain gave to the world is not a joke, a game or an avatar for amusement. He was a hero to many who grew up listening to his music while they played video games. Regardless of complaints or compliments, the fake music games will fade into history like the “Macarena.” Kurt Cobain would quite possibly be amused by all this silliness, as he often made fun of Nirvana’s stature as a stadium act by doing deliberately horrid covers of “The End” and “Baba O’ Reilly.” He’d want everyone to stop taking everything so damn seriously. We should remember his advice: “Stop your crying – go outside and ride your bike.”

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