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Virtual or Reality Rock Band?
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Virtual or Reality Rock Band?

(Soundbite of song, "Tom Sawyer")

Mr. GEDDY LEE (Singer, Rush): (Singing) A modern-day warrior, mean, mean stride, today's Tom Sawyer, mean, mean pride.

ALEX COHEN, host:

Recognize this little ditty? It's the song "Tom Sawyer," originally performed by the band Rush, but now it can be performed by you and your friends too. That is, of course, if you've got the new videogame called Rock Band.

It's a multiplayer game, and it's designed to let you live out your rock and roll fantasies. Real-life rocker Carrie Brownstein was a guitarist for the band Sleater-Kinney, and she recently wrote a review of the game Rock Band for Slate.com. She also writes for the NPR blog Monitor Mix, and she joins us now from Portland, Oregon.

Hi, Carrie.

Ms. CARRIE BROWNSTEIN (Musician): Hello.

COHEN: So can you explain exactly how this game works? Give us an overview.

Ms. BROWNSTEIN: Well, you have your Xbox 360, and you basically have four pieces. You have your drums, and there are four kind of electronic-looking drum pads. If you remember from those 1980s videos, like in Kajagoogoo was playing something that didn't quite look like a real drum kit, that's what this looks like. You have two guitars - they are made by Fender. They are plastic, and they're about let's say three-fourths the size of an actual guitar. And even though they look identical, one of them is actually a bass. And then, of course, you have a microphone for your singer.

COHEN: And you're kind of playing along with these classic rock songs. What I don't get is how are you singing, like how does the singing part work? Are you actually singing into microphone, and if you're off-key, you're going to get, you know, booed off or something?

Ms. BROWNSTEIN: Yes, it's a very rigid form of karaoke. Instead of drunk people at a bar judging you or most likely not even looking at you, you have the lyrics on the screen. And I believe the game is judging you not only your accuracy of singing the correct lyric at the correct time, but also your pitch. So if you're on the easy level, I think they give you a pretty wide berth so you can veer off a little. But if you're at the expert level, I think you need to be singing just like Geddy Lee of Rush, which is not easy.

COHEN: No, not at all. You know, there's been a lot of debate recently about, you know, videogame music experience as opposed to real music, and of course there's the other big music game out there, Guitar Hero, which I've been known to play every now and then. And there was recently an episode of the TV show "South Park," and they kind of got at this whole music versus video game thing. The kids are playing Guitar Hero and the dad comes in and he tries to play the real guitar and impress his son and his friends. Let's take a listen.

(Soundbite of TV show, "South Park")

Unidentified Actor #1: (As character) I can actually play a lot of these songs on a real guitar.

Unidentified Actor #2: (As character) Real guitars are for old people. Do you mind, sir, we want to watch Dan and Kyle play. All right. Let's try to score 60,000 points this time.

(Soundbite of music)

COHEN: Okay, Carrie, so what do you think? With all these games, are we potentially ruining the next generation of rock and rollers who might be more interested in scoring points than actually making the next great band?

MS. BROWNSTEIN: I certainly had that initial feel, that you know, Rock Band is just another example of our culture's sort of increased tolerance to phoniness, you know, whether it's for the sake of simplicity or out of sheer denial. It's definitely easier to pretend to make art. But I guess my hope with a game like this is that if they get, you know, one visceral glimpse of Keith Moon's frantic genius on the drums or feel how Kurt Cobain's guitar lines were as expressive as his hoarse cry, in some ways Rock Band is better than listening to a lot of the awful music that's out there.

So yes, there is something a little bit sad if you're sitting around playing Rock Band for eight hours a day and you could just go and get yourself a cheap guitar and a cheap amp and learn how to play. And I would hope that some people cross from the virtual into the actual and go out and make something. But I think, you know, it's not just teenagers that are playing the game, as you know, Alex, so we have to give people a little bit of leeway to enjoy the game.

COHEN: Musician Carrie Brownstein writes the NPR blog Monitor Mix. You can find it at our new music Web site. That's NPR.org/music.

Carrie, thanks so much.

MS. BROWNSTEIN: Thanks for having me.

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