A few weeks back, a lawyer friend invited us to attend the Air Guitar New York Championships in Brooklyn. It was described to us as “pretty rad.” We declined to attend, but in doing so, missed out on taking part in an activity that seems to be taking the legal community by storm. ESPN recently described competitive air guitar thus:

Writhing and finger-plucking. Wagging tongues and balcony dives. Oh, and male shirtlessness. Lots of male shirtlessness. All of it taking place before hundreds of screaming, chanting spectators… [It] isn’t about music. It’s about world peace (really). And going to Finland (really). And headbands. (So many headbands). Mostly, it’s about rock. Head-banging, face-melting, soul-devouring rock. The mysterious, ineffable feeling therein. What air guitar devotees creatively call … “the airness.”

So which legal eagles have been overcome by this “mysterious, ineffable feeling”? A Georgetown Law student, a University of Colorado Law professor, and New York Times legal correspondent, Adam Liptak.

Liptak has actually been in the judge’s seat for a couple Air Guitar competitions in D.C. How did he gain his expertise in the air guitar? We caught up with him for a brief interview. When it comes to air guitar jurisprudence, Liptak has something in common with Justices Scalia and Thomas…

Air guitar seems to be en vogue among legal eagles right now. When Georgetown Law student Mike Sacks is not hanging out at One First Street, he can be found shirtless strumming an imaginary guitar under the stage name Juris Rocktor. (For fans of his previous appearances in these pages, enjoy the shirtlessness). And last year, University of Colorado Law School professor Pierre Schlag referenced air guitar in an influential Georgetown Law Review article, “Spam Jurisprudence, Air Law, and the Rank Anxiety of Nothing Happening (A Report on the State of the Art).”

In his article, Schlag declared the death of legal scholarship, comparing it to the strumming of an imaginary guitar:

Now, having no great texts, no sophisticated methodologies, no great questions, and nothing else of any fundamental intellectual value, the discipline of law is organized as a kind of mimesis—specifically, the imitation of judicial idioms, tasks, gestures, professional anxieties, and the like.

In the paper, Schlag footnoted a 1985 New York Times piece:

During the rock n’ roll era (circa 1955–1980), young males developed a habit of imitating their favorite rock stars by pretending to play a non-existent guitar. This behavior became known as “air guitar.” It was a practice of dubious value: On the one hand, air guitar produced no real sound. On the other hand, no one playing air guitar ever struck a false note. The definitive article is Adam Liptak, Playing Air Guitar, N.Y. TIMES, Sept. 1, 1985, at A40.

Adam Liptak

Adam Liptak is a name you surely recognize. Much has changed for him since 1985, the year he left the New York Times to go to Yale Law School. After stints at Cahill Gordon & Reindel and in-house at the NYT, he began covering the legal beat for the paper in 2002. Now, he pens the legal column Sidebar and covers the Supreme Court beat (which he took over from Linda Greenhouse). Liptak doesn’t tend to rock out as often these days, but he has been tapped twice to judge the Air Guitar Finals. We caught up with him by email about his turn as a rocking judge:

ATL: In your 1985 essay, you wrote: “There is something peculiarly American about making the intimate public and competitive, something reassuring at first but in the long run repulsive.” Have your feelings on air guitar as public spectacle changed?

LIPTAK: I suppose I have coarsened along with the culture.

ATL: You’ve now been a judge twice for the U.S. Air Guitar competitions. Do you bring any special abilities/insights to the table as a judge given your full-time job covering the Supremes?

LIPTAK: My work as an air guitar judge has deepened my appreciation for the difficulty, dignity and majesty of the task of adjudication.

ATL: Performer Juris Rocktor (Georgetown law student Mike Sacks) described “airness” to ESPN as being “like Justice Potter Stewart’s quote about obscenity — you know it when you see it.” Can you offer a better description?

LIPTAK: I must respectfully dissent from that view. I simply apply the standard of airness, as understood at the founding of the rock era, to the performances presented. I leave my policy preferences, personal history and musical taste outside the doors of the 9:30 Club, and I just call air balls and air strikes.

For those about to mock, we salute you [ESPN]
ABOUT MEN; PLAYING AIR GUITAR [New York Times]
DC SHAKES THE FREE WORLD EPILEPTIC [Air Guitar Championships]
Spam Jurisprudence, Air Law, and the Rank Anxiety of Nothing Happening (A Report on the State of the Art) [Georgetown Law Review]
Legal Scholarship Is Dead. And Richard Posner Is On The Case. [Faculty Lounge]


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