This next read was a welcomed departure from my previously scheduled reading list which, given the current state of the world, was looking a bit too heavy at the moment. I needed something to lighten the mood a bit and this 2016 release seemed to be just what I needed. Its author, Steven Hyden, certainly had some interesting credentials as well, having worked as an editor and writer for Grantland and AV Club, as well as appearing in Rolling Stone, Slate, and Saloon.
Music rivalries don’t matter until they matter to you personally. When that happens, it’s as vital as protecting your own sense of identity.
The book is divided into sixteen chapters, each more or less a standalone discussion about how a particular musical feud (real or imagined) between artists and/or their fans speaks to larger philosophical and psychological issues in our society and what the sides we take reflect about our sense of identity. Drawing examples from American popular music of the 1970s through early 2010s, Hyden’s topics include the likes of Eric Clapton vs. Jimi Hendrix, Roger Waters vs. Pink Floyd, Prince vs. Michael Jackson, and Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam along with what is considered requisite coverage of The Rolling Stones vs. The Beatles, Biggie vs. Tupac, and Kanye West vs. Taylor Swift.
This book covered so much ground no musically and culturally I’m not going to even attempt trying to unpack it all in this review. I will say, however, that I found it to be an incredibly fun and enjoyable read that was both lighthearted and insightful. My opinion is undoubtedly swayed by the fact that I am perhaps squarely in the book’s core demographic by virtue of being roughly the same age as the author, having a similar worldview, and sharing at minimum a passing familiarity and connection to nearly all of the artists covered. Not surprisingly, I most enjoyed those sections that focused on artists that I had the deepest connection to, though I was nonetheless captivated by Hyden’s humor and knowledge throughout. To offer up some sort of recap, here are a few of the highlights for me in no particular order:
1. As a big fan of Nirvana, I really enjoyed the sections in which Kurt Cobain appeared. Most notable of these included a chapter on the somewhat one-sided rivalry between Nirvana and Pearl Jam which served as an excellent reminder of Cobain’s humor and, well, occasionally righteous snark. That Cobain’s dismissal of Pearl Jam’s music as inauthentic fueled a segue into Bruce Springsteen’s repeated public dismissals of Chris Christie was an added bonus. There was also much discussion throughout the book about the absurd confrontation between Cobain and recurring villain Axl Rose at the 1992 Video Music Award (more on this later) and was enthralled at the lengths the author went to in unpacking it all.
2. I likewise was very interested in the chapter featuring Billy Corgan. Despite having loved them as a teenager, I find it incredibly difficult to re-listen to the Smashing Pumpkins. Part of it is getting over a lot of that angst, but it’s mainly on account of Billy Corgan’s distinct voice making it nearly impossible for me to separate his “real life” descent into the alt-right from the music. While he was likewise repulsed by the singer’s politics, I found the way the author framed Corgan’s lunacy as that of an awkward, insecure Midwestern guy trying (and failing) to fit into a scene he was otherwise a star of. He concludes, however, after a lengthy and surprisingly not entirely unsympathetic comparison to Richard Nixon that:
It’s not the system, it’s him. His insecurity over cool people believing he’s awful has made him awful.
3. Finally, the author quickly succeeded in selling me on his unrestrained love of the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards by finding a new way to bring it up in nearly every chapter. I’m officially inspired to do a YouTube dive for it at some point during the Great Quarantine of 2020 by endorsements like this:
The ’92 VMAs are just the best. You had Nirvana vs. Guns N’ Roses. Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam. Dana Carvey as Garth Algar playing drums with U2. You had Bobby Brown performing “Humpin’ Around” and Elton John performing “The One” on the same show.
The one place where I really disagreed with the author was over his thoughts on Kanye West, though in fairness I will say that this chapter simply did not age well. At the time of his writing in 2016 he assumed it was over and done with. How could he imagine Kanye going completely off the rails of sanity, good taste, and ego to keep this tire fire burning? That said, I do still think Hyden was overly charitable about both Kanye’s intentions and musical abilities. His perspective did, however, bring remind me of a point long since lost in the whole debacle about how it was originally perceived:
For those inclined to view awards shows as fundamentally prejudiced against artists of color (an impression supported by the historical record) Kanye interrupting Taylor…seems like a righteous “fuck you”….For those inclined to view awards shows as fundamentally prejudiced against female artists (another impression supported by the historical record) [it] seems like another instance of a man saying “fuck you” to a woman…
And I could easily go on. If you have any interest at all in American popular music from the 1970s through early 2010s I highly recommend giving this a read. It’s fun, irreverent, insightful, and full of fantastic stories about some of the biggest musicians and rivalries of those eras.