Buried in the final paragraph of the penultimate chapter of his book Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me, Steven Hyden makes an interesting admission. While attempting to argue that the murders of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls had the indirect effect of reducing early deaths among other music superstars of the day, he says “Overanalyzing pop rivalries is enjoyable escapism, because most of them are harmless.” He goes on to distinguish the Pac/Biggie beef because of its tragic consequences, but that observation is true of Hyden’s pithy, but minor tome. I get what Hyden is arguing for. I’m a Deadhead who would not attend a Phish show on a dare, but his attempts to extrapolate larger societal themes from supposed rivalries between the likes of Pearl Jam and Nirvana or Taylor Swift and Kanye mostly fails to launch.
“Rock rivalries” are often less than the sum of the imagination of the fans who get invested in them. The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones is a rock nerd’s touchstone, but fire up the Beatles performance of “All You Need Is Love” and you will see Mick Jagger, cross-legged and swaying along with the rest of the hippies grooving out to the soundtrack for the Summer of Love. The uncut version of Pulp Fiction has Mia Wallace asking Vincent Vega whether he’s an Elvis man or a Beatles man (because you cannot be both) but that type of self-identification is facile and often untrue. Hyden makes much of the enmity Kurt Cobain felt toward Eddie Vedder, but stylistically, the differences between Nirvana and Pearl Jam were minor, and I doubt many people would refuse to listen to one band because of their devotion to the other.
What Hyden describes as rivalries are not Hatfield and McCoy fights; rather, they are just people who make music differently. Toby Keith was not at war with The Dixie Chicks, but the artists’ music reflected differing political agendas after September 11th. That does not make them rivals, it just makes them artists with different points of view. Madonna and Cyndi Lauper were not rivals any more so than Britney Spears and Christina Aguilara were battling to avoid being dubbed the latter or desiring to be crowned the former, yet Hyden spends a chapter trying to make these connections. Madonna’s supposed passing of her torch (with lips, not hands) at the 2003 Video Music Awards is pointed to as some sort of iconic moment - the camera freezes on Spears but misses Aguilara’s lip lock entirely - but the shape shifting that Madonna pioneered and perfected eluded both younger pop stars, who neither reached the heights of Madonna’s career nor the reductive, one-hit wonder dismissiveness many have of Lauper.
Similarly, a long jag on Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd is predicated solely on what were then perceived to be dueling diss tracks - Young, with “Alabama” and “Southern Man” and Skynyrd’s retort with “Sweet Home Alabama.” But Skynyrd’s relevance as a band died with three of its members in a plane crash in 1977 while Young went on to record dozens of albums of various musical formats (and quality) since then. Ironically, Hyden points out that Skynyrd’s original lead singer and Young were friendly and many have misinterpreted “Sweet Home” as defending Alabama, when in fact, that lyrics suggest otherwise. How this qualifies as a “rivalry” is beyond me.
Hyden is strongest where the proof is most obvious - in grudges held by former bandmates from Van Halen to Pink Floyd. But squabbling among rock stars can only carry a book so far. David Lee Roth’s enmity toward the Van Halen brothers is as well known as the brothers’ dismissal of Michael Anthony for the high crime of playing gigs with former front man Sammy Hagar. Roger Waters and David Gilmour had a decades-long falling out but, like Roth and Van Halen, they found their way back to one another in the not too distant past (you can add Axl Rose and some of the original Guns N Roses line-up to that list as well).
What you are then left with is stretching faux beefs, like the one between Sinead O’Connor and Miley Cyrus (seriously, does ANYONE even remember this?) into a larger point about what happens when a musician crosses an unwritten line, alienating their fans and torpedoing their career (O’Connor, by tearing up a photo of the Pope or The Dixie Chicks saying that they were embarrassed to be from the same state as President George W. Bush). But Hyden misses the mark on what could have been a different book. His knowledge of music is both granular and expansive, but instead of trying to elevate the music stylings of Prince and Michael Jackson into some meta theme, he should have just stuck with a more straight forward examination of the catalogues of the performers he writes about, discussing the strengths and weaknesses of each without trying to them into some deeper societal analogy. After all, as the saying goes, opinions are like assholes, everyone has one.
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