Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me

Perhaps owing to my sports fandom, I tend to think of things in terms of competition. I watch award shows the way one would watch a game. I have the “teams” I root for (the films or music or TV show that I liked) and I want to see them succeed like I would want to see my favorite teams win. I also would, when discussing my favorite bands and music with friends, defend my choices like I would talking about who the best player in baseball was or who was going to win the Super Bowl that year. It’s irrational, there doesn’t have to be a singular champion in whatever form of art we’re talking about like you have in athletic competition, and there’s ultimately no way to determine an outcome (there isn’t the equivalent of playing the games as there is in sports), but it’s just how I think of things.

Because I approach popular music and my preferences in that realm in that way, I was perhaps a particularly receptive audience for Steven Hyden’s book Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me: What Pop Music Rivalries Reveal About The Meaning of Life. I knew Hyden from his writing at Grantland when that was still a thing (I was particularly fond of his piece Overrated, Underrated, or Properly Rated: Bruce Springsteen, something that was written with a clear knowledge and understanding of Springsteen and thus I found myself agreeing with all of this conclusions). I followed him on Twitter and, while also leading me into his great Celebration Rock podcast, I was aware this book was coming out, along with it appearing in the “Books You Might Like” section of Amazon. I picked up a copy while I was back home at the Books Inc. in Alameda and, over the course of two days, made my way through the book. To put it quite succinctly, I really liked it. As I said, I viewed the popular culture landscape in a way that was very accommodating to Hyden’s focus on the rivalries that exist in popular music and popular music fandom. If you’re attuned to viewing things through this prism of sports watching and fandom, the idea of rivalries and those rivalries carrying a great deal of importance is not terribly foreign.

There are so many standout parts and chapters to this book that saying those that particularly stood out to me would be an exhausting and comprehensive exercise, but my personal favorites were the chapters on Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam (as I remember growing up in the post-grunge landscape when I would have these great arguments about this very subject), Hendrix vs. Clapton (as someone who really appreciated and liked Clapton and always felt like he got a bit of the short end of the stick when it came to the guitar gods.. I mean, for chrissakes, listen to “Layla”!), and Oasis vs. Blur (though I’m on the side of Pulp, the third party in the Battle of Brit-Pop). Those certainly aren’t the only good chapters in the book, as those on Smashing Pumpkins vs. Pavement and The White Strikes/Jack White vs. The Black Keys/Dan Auerbach are also top notch.

One of my favorite parts of the book is actually not one of the rivalries Hyden focuses on but a smaller part within one of those chapters. Specifically, Hyden writes about Chris Christie and his Bruce Springsteen fandom, highlighting the seeming and potential conflict between Christie’s being an enormous Springsteen fan and his political beliefs. In an interview to promote the book, Hyden said “A lot of people [say] Chris Christie is missing the point of Springsteen’s music for that reason.… [But] for him, Springsteen is an example of a guy who pulled himself up by his bootstraps and made his dreams come true — that conservative cliché about America. And then he just overlooks all the stuff about lack of economic opportunity and wars. [He] conveniently overlooks that because it doesn’t fit his worldview or how he sees Springsteen. A lot of people do that — they mold the art that they love to fit the contour of their own lives.” I’ve often thought about Christie and how difficult it must feel to have your favorite artist be so seemingly conflicting with your worldview and ideology. I’ve certainly thought about this as I know there are plenty of artists in all mediums whose works I like but do not share certain views or beliefs that I do, but for Christie and Springsteen it’s so profoundly apparent. But what Hyden describes, that we fashion a view or opinion of an artist that fits with our own, is something that is both profoundly true and gets into what is most interesting about this book.

I’ve focused on the “rivalries” component of Hyden’s book, but what I think the book does an even better job is in the “reveal about the meaning of life” part. It goes without saying that music plays a large role in who we are and how we approach the world. What Hyden highlights is the way in which the choices we make in terms of what artists we like, particularly when it involves taking a side in an argument or rivalry, are motivated by how we like to see ourselves and how we see the world. While aesthetic preferences certainly factors into those things we like, there’s also a way in which those things represent other things that are true or that we would like to be true. It gets into how we create our sense of selves in the modern context through those things we like and identify with. This is something that assuredly has existed for as long as there’s been art in its myriad of forms, but in the modern and popular context it feels so essential and vital to how we define ourselves and the world around us. Hyden does a good job elucidating that throughout this book and its considerations of the greatest rivalries in popular music and what makes this a must-read for the popular music connoisseur and Hyden an exemplary writer on the subject.

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