For a couple of years in the mid-2000s, I had the pleasure of working as a music critic for an alt-weekly in Nashville — a town sprouting a dizzying number of bands that would soon catapult toward the mainstream. It also happened to be the precise moment when music blogs had just hatched, and battling within the comments sections — largely fueled by anonymous trolls — had just come alive.
I soon found that my job was only in part about spending four to six nights a week at shows, writing about those shows or editing reviews of those shows. It was far more about Being Good at Rock Talk than I could have ever anticipated — requiring that I good-naturedly debate and defend whether those shows and bands were any good. Not just in comments sections, but with almost everyone I came into contact with — at bars, at parties, at shows, in line at a meat-and-three. And as you would guess, it was 99 percent men doing the challenging.
As a result, and having been a lifelong fan of music, I not only got really good at shouting over very loud music about why I unabashedly love the wrong Bruce Springsteen record (Tunnel of Love) or think Britney Spears’ “Toxic” is a great song, but I took great pleasure in my opinions — having them, crafting them, setting them up for a slam-dunk and then leaning back all coy on my bar stool with a smug, self-satisfied look. The more offbeat the opinion, the better it felt.
In other words, I was an asshole.
The truth is, I’d have done at least half of that arguing without getting paid a dime, and so would most of the die-hard music fans I knew. Because there’s something deeply satisfying about making a case for a pop act, or a genre in itself, whether anyone agrees with you or not. In fact, it’s even more satisfying when no one agrees with you, but you still find a way to sell the idea. Or, if that fails, at least to shout down the other person you’re arguing with.
I had not thought about the pointless absurdity of such endeavors in a long time, but reading Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me from former A.V. Club and current Uproxx critic Steven Hyden — an insightful, funny collection of essays — resurfaced it. It also humbly upended everything I thought I knew about popular rivalries. What’s more, in laying out some of the most controversial ones — the Beatles versus the Stones, Skynyrd versus Neil Young, Blur versus Oasis — Hyden reveals that such arguments are really just a mirror for our own quest for identity.
“Let’s be real: Musical rivalries are never totally about music,” Hyden writes in an early chapter in the book. “They’re about sympathizing with a particular worldview represented by an artist over a different worldview represented by an ‘opposing’ artist. You are what you love — and also what you choose not to love.”
This means, according to Hyden, that if you were a middle-schooler or high-schooler when grunge broke, you probably aligned yourself with Nirvana or Pearl Jam based on your own personal notions about authenticity in the genre — the members of Nirvana were “real” musicians; Pearl Jam was a grunge band for frat dudes and jocks. Or, if you think Oasis is a better band than Blur, you probably prefer the reckless, sexier abandon of Noel Gallagher’s nihilism as a worldview over that of the more serious Blur. If you’re a Southerner alive any time in the last few decades who fancies a redneck anthem, you likely regard “Sweet Home Alabama” as a good-time, simple endorsement of the slow-to-embrace-change Southern way. If you like Hendrix over Clapton, you likely think rock stars, by definition, should burn out rather than fade away.
In each of those instances, you would be right without necessarily being accurate. It turns out that Eddie Vedder has long lamented the fact that he and Kurt Cobain never had a chance to hang out and woodshop. Skynyrd frontman Ronnie Van Zant once campaigned for Jimmy Carter, and Neil Young loved “Sweet Home Alabama,” in spite of its diss that the “Southern man don’t need him around anyhow.” He even covered it live. Meanwhile, Clapton is a survivor, and though that will never be as exciting as Hendrix’s blaze of seminal talent, it doesn’t diminish Layla or Journeyman.
But that’s precisely the point of Hyden’s book: You don’t know what you’re talking about when you spout off about which bands are great or not; you just know what you think. Whether those artists really hated each other, or the rivalries were about what you think they were, is not the issue. This isn’t about them; it’s about you, and your own idiosyncratic notions. Our affiliations are about our identities as people, particularly when we’re young and have no better shorthand for who we really are than, say, the mechanical-pencil drawing of Iron Maiden’s Eddie scrawled on our notebook. (That I’m conversant in obscure ’90s indie rock bands from the Chapel Hill area is a badge of how cultured I am — not to mention unpredictable!)
Such revelations appear subtly throughout the chapters as Hyden deep-dives into the minutiae behind the beefs. “Some people will say these things aren’t really rivalries — that there’s not a lot of actual tension between the artists,” Hyden tells me over the phone from his Wisconsin home. “For me, it’s about what exists in the public imagination. I wanted some real-life conflict between the involved people, but it’s more about what people project onto these things.”
And project we do. Hyden plots those self-serving notions carefully throughout Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me, weaving in unexpected film references (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a proxy for “getting” Toby Keith), politics (Richard Nixon is precisely the sort of unrelatable nerd who, weirdly, helps explain Billy Corgan) sports analogies (loving a band maniacally in spite of its losing streak is no different than, say, loving the Green Bay Packers because you’re from Wisconsin) and personal anecdotes about awkward adolescence to make the case. It reads like a smart, funny conversation with a bona fide music nerd who, miraculously, doesn’t feel the need to be a total dick about how much he knows. (For anyone who has spent time with any music nerds, arguing over whether Brian Wilson is really a genius, this is anathema.)
What’s so silly and absurd about these arguments is that we treat them as though they have winners or losers, which they don’t. Hyden’s book is like the sincere version of a 1997 wonder called “Rock, Rot & Rule,” a fake call-in radio show about a fake book from a fake guy who posits that he has written the “Ultimate Argument Settler” to finally put a stop to endless debates about rock greats. The Beatles, for instance, don’t rule — they only rock, because, after all, they “wrote a lot of bad songs.” The show’s callers, only half of whom were aware the whole setup was a prank, were apoplectic. And that, beautifully, is the point. Such proclamations themselves, regardless of the side you take, are the hallmarks of assholes.
Hyden isn’t remotely snide about it, but he demonstrates repeatedly that there are no right or wrong answers here, just highly personal sides to take, nearly all of which are ill-informed or more about your age or demographic than a well-honed hot take.
Take the Miley Cyrus v. Sinéad O’Connor scoldfest of 2013, to which Hyden devotes one of the most interesting chapters of the book. O’Connor read in a Rolling Stone interview that year that Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” video was inspired by “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which led her to write an open letter to Cyrus warning her that that the music business “doesn’t give a shit about you,” and the men ogling you “don’t give a shit about you.” It was framed as motherly advice from Cyrus’ inevitable future, but it came off like a blowhard telling a millennial to put her clothes back on.
If you sided with Cyrus, you likely subscribe to the “lol, nothing matters” sentiment of pop music fandom today. If you sided with O’Connor’s cautionary finger-wag, you are probably, in a nutshell, old. Nevermind that O’Connor is right about the way the music business treats young women; she just missed the memo about women having the agency to play a more calculated role in that dysfunction on their own terms.
In other chapters, the beefs speak to our cultural notions of gender for men. In a chapter about why Jack White of the White Stripes and Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys can’t be friends, Hyden wonders why two men, both born in the 1970s in hardscrabble Midwestern towns, both in two-piece blues rock bands, both indebted to the same influences, both living in Nashville (with children who attend the same private school), would rather beef than hang out and talk shop. In a series of emails released by White’s ex, Karen Elson, it’s revealed White is the one with the problem. He can’t stand the idea of “a possible twelve fucking years [of their children’s presumed academic coexistence] I’m going to have to be sitting in kids chairs next to that asshole with other people trying to lump us in together. He gets another free reign [sic] to follow me around and copy me and push himself into my world.”
Hyden concludes that while there’s certainly some artistic ego involved, if you scratch the surface, it’s not too far apart from what similarly aged men do all the time in their efforts to connect with other men. He draws a parallel to his own experience with fatherhood, and the fruitless playground search of a new dad trying to find a relatable dude in the midst of little-kid situations. By puzzling over that rock rivalry, he’s forced to concede that perhaps he’s just confounded by his own difficulty in making dad friends, or male friends in general, and how efforts to connect often turn into dumb posturing. “You’re trying to show how strong you are and at the same time men want to connect, they just don’t know how,” he says. “The way they connect with each other is often arguing, which isn’t a way to connect with another person if you’re just yelling.”
But this points to what is arguably the bigger takeaway from Hyden’s book: If you’re still arguing with people about music, you probably just haven’t grown up that much yet.
“I don’t argue about rock music anymore,” says Hyden, who just turned 39. “At my peak in my teens and 20s was when I really wanted to argue about music. That was one of the things I used to define myself — I’m a guy who knows a lot about music. But at the end of the book, the chapter about Toby Keith and Dixie Chicks, that’s where I’m at now. I don’t want to fight with people.”
In that chapter about the public beef that pitted Keith and Natalie Maines as red- and blue-state approaches to one’s love of country, Hyden makes a salient point about the provincialism of music snobbery and using bands as a shorthand for identity. “ ‘Your taste in music absolutely says something about who you are as a person’ is a central tenet of music geekdom,” he writes. “However, it’s obvious to me now how self-serving this belief is. The music geeks get to define what ‘good’ taste is, as good taste will line up with whatever they like. It’s not so much about judging others as it is about puffing out your chest. You define yourself against what you assume other people are like, which is what everybody does when they’re young.”
Nowadays, Hyden appreciates Keith’s bar-loving hits for their own merit, and prefers instead to talk to people about music for the point of connection, not division. “I hate talking about music with people who want to argue,” he says. “If it’s someone I can commune with and we can love something together, great, but if it’s someone who will tell me that everything I like sucks, that sounds like torture to me.
“Those are arguments that can go on all night long and go in circles and there’s really no point to it,” he continues. “It’s about taste. There’s no answer to any of this.”
Personally, I haven’t spent much time lately arguing about rock music since I left the alt-weekly, became a parent and shifted my values (yawn) to more Serious Matters. I will still, on occasion, come across the occasional bold provocateur at a bar or party who busts out a big rock-talk pronouncement — that yet another widely celebrated artist (Prince, Bowie) wasn’t really a genius. The Cure sucks, or Fugazi was actually a really cheesy band.
Like some Pavlovian defense mechanism, my brain will still just begin calculating the argument — it’s half out of my mouth, I can hear my pitch change, my voice get louder, my heart rate speed up. And then I stop, and take a second, and realize that I don’t care in the slightest what this asshole thinks about anything, and furthermore, I have no need to prove him wrong.
That said, anyone who thinks Prince wasn’t a genius is still a moron.
That’s just a fact.