Can barroom debates over the respective merits of David Lee Roth and the Van Halen brothers teach us about the meaning of life?
For writer/critic Steven Hyden, rock 'n' roll rivalries reveal deeper truths, ones he explores in new book Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me. Beatles vs. Stones. Biggie vs. Tupac. Kanye vs. Taylor. Prince vs. Michael Jackson, with its epically chaotic ping-pong culmination.
Hyden — recently hired by UPROXX, formerly of Grantland and the A.V. Club — dives into those beefs and others with smart, funny, pop-culture-savvy prose. The ultimate goal? To discover what our entertainment obsessions and alliances say about us.
If we're to believe the blurbs, Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me, released last week, delivers in a major way. High praise from Seth Meyers, Bill Simmons, Adam Scott, Chuck Klosterman, Craig Finn, Rolling Stone, and Pitchfork adorns the book's dust jacket.
The Wisconsin-born, Minnesota-based Hyden will read from Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me on Tuesday at Magers & Quinn in Uptown. He rapped with City Pages via email ahead of the event.
City Pages: Describe the thesis of your book and why you felt it was worth exploring.
Steven Hyden: In a nutshell, the idea is that rivalries matter for reasons that go beyond music. Throughout pop history, people have felt compelled to compare two artists operating in a similar lane because it’s a way for them to work out their beliefs — whether we’re talking aesthetics, politics, philosophy, etc. — in a relatively harmless forum.
Sometimes this is a conscious choice — people that love punk rock tend to adopt of a set of ideas and fashion choices that go beyond just the music. Other times it’s more subliminal — if you were annoyed when Kanye West snatched that VMA from Taylor Swift, or if you thought it was awesome, that might suggest a certain way of looking at the world. That’s what I was most interested in exploring.
CP: To paraphrase the High Fidelity line: It’s not what you’re like, it’s what you like that matters most. Do you tend to agree? How important are media choices with respect to our personalities and worldviews?
SH: I don’t believe that — I did when I was younger, but not so much anymore. But I certainly subscribed to that High Fidelity idea for a long time. In a way, this book is about recognizing how limiting that idea can be. In the social media era, it’s so easy to curate your public persona, and pop culture preferences play a role in that.
Performative love or hate has become very common — the last Super Bowl halftime show with Coldplay and Beyonce is an obvious example of how people are eager to publicly voice their affection (or disaffection) with pop stars, and how that’s a form of self-expression.
Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter if you think Beyonce is the best and Coldplay is the worst. It might affect how you perceive someone in your Twitter or Facebook feed, but nobody would knowingly prefer to be judged that way.
CP: When arguing about band rivalries, what are the most constructive outcomes and conclusions that can emerge? How about the most destructive?
SH: Well, I think this is all fun and sort of trivial, so words like “constructive” or “destructive” seem a little misplaced. But to me, when I’m in a music conversation, I much prefer a celebration to an argument.
That thing that a lot of music fans do when they’re young, where you get into these heated debates about which band is better, I’m beyond that now. It’s just not fun. But if you want to talk over a few beers about how great Oasis was at writing B-sides, I’m in.
CP: You write that music rivalries don’t matter until they matter to you personally. What band rivalry has affected you the most, and what did you learn about yourself?
SH: Probably Oasis vs. Blur, just because it happened when I was in high school, when I was most likely to be invested in something like that. I liked Oasis because they represented an ideal that I wanted out of music – they were just a loud, brash, drunken, half-dumb and half-genius rock 'n' roll group.
Before that, I was a big grunge fan, so I was used to bands that treated fame like an infectious disease. Oasis embraced the bigness of rock music in a way I hadn’t seen since I was a preteen Guns N’ Roses fan. It was very seductive at the time. Since then, my tastes have changed somewhat, but if a band like Oasis came out today, I’d probably be more excited than I was even at 17.
CP: Give us an idea of the mindsets of #TeamKanye and #TeamTaylor.
SH: There’s a recurring dynamic in my book, where you have a very popular artist or band that becomes inescapable in the culture, and then you have an artist or band that reacts to that inescapable thing. I didn’t intend for that to be a recurring thing, but it was impossible to miss when I looked at the book when I was done.
To me, Kanye positioned himself as Taylor’s foil that night at the 2009 VMAs, and feuding has been great for both of them. It makes Taylor seem more sympathetic to one segment of the pop audience, and it re-enforces Kanye’s outsider cred for another segment.
CP: What did you find most interesting or surprising about the Prince vs. Michael Jackson rivalry?
SH: In the '80s, Michael Jackson was the uber-mainstream, family-friendly star, and Prince was this weirdo outsider. Twenty years later, the dynamic had flipped — in the early ’00s, MJ was reviled, whereas Prince became this universally popular figure, thanks to his successful Musicology album and tour, and things like Chappelle’s Show.
It’s easy to forget how controversial Prince was in the '80s – he got killed in the press for not doing “We Are the World,” a project that Jackson spearheaded. History was obviously kind to Prince, as it should be. But it’s important to remember how hard it was for Prince at times, even when he was one of the biggest pop stars in the world.
CP: What’s the most genuinely vicious rivalry you encountered, whether it’s between the bands themselves or between the fanbases?
SH: Well, Tupac Shakur vs. the Notorious B.I.G. is the one rivalry where people actually got killed. Nobody will ever take a pop rivalry that seriously again. Let’s hope not, anyway.
CP: Follow-up: Most overblown rivalry?
SH: Probably Oasis vs. Blur, funny enough.
CP: For our shoehorning Minnesota into everything purposes, care to talk about any other MN-centric rivalries? Replacements vs. Hüsker Dü comes to mind.
SH: Based on what I’ve read, that was fairly short-lived. It was sort of a big brother/little brother sort of thing. I actually considered writing about U2 vs. the Replacements, based mostly on [Paul] Westerberg writing “Kids Don’t Follow.” I thought it would be interesting to compare and contrast how those bands navigated their careers. But in the end, all I had to go on was “Kids Don’t Follow,” so I quickly set it aside.
CP: Beatles or Stones?
SH: Stones, though I have a personal rule about never ranking the Beatles.
Steven Hyden reads from Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me: What Pop Music Rivalries Reveal About the Meaning of Life
When: 7 p.m. Tue, May 24.
Where: Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Ave, Minneapolis
Tickets: Free; more info here.