Steven Hyden on What Feuding Musicians (and Their Fans) Teach Us About Ourselves

In his new book, Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me, music critic and Steven Hyden explores 19 famous, and sometimes infamous, music rivalries from pop and rock, to rap and heavy metal, and what they reveal about life. Early on, he makes it clear he isn’t interested in trying to settle the tiffs between, say Team Taylor and Team Kanye, or Team Biggie and Team Tupac, but is more excited to explore why music fans are drawn to these disagreements and how often these debates stem from a larger conversation occurring in our culture. We asked him a few questions about music and loyalties and the meaning of life and, naturally, which feuding musicians he would hang out with if he could.

1. Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me looks at rivalries between several popular music artists and their fan bases as a kind of lens into the highly passionate world of music. Who was your favorite rivalry to research?

I don’t know that I had a favorite rivalry to research, but my favorite rivalry to write about Clapton vs. Hendrix, just because I feel like I discovered a lot about myself in the process. I went into it sort of expecting to make a lot of jokes at Eric Clapton’s expense — out of all the boomer-era classic-rockers, Clapton has always seemed the least cool and most disappointing. But once I made the (kind of obvious) observation that Clapton vs. Hendrix is the ultimate “burning out” vs. “fade away” metaphor, I found myself empathizing with Clapton far more than I expected. Jimi Hendrix will always be this untouchable archetype of rock and roll cool, whereas Clapton seems less and less God-like and more human as he gets older. To me he’s the ultimate signifier of what we all go through as we mature. I might hate the bossa-nova version of “Layla,” but I respect that Clapton figured out that shooting heroin for breakfast was not a palatable long-term life plan. Clapton embraced lameness in order to survive, as we all do.

From there, I somehow ended up making a connection in my mind to Ween’s second album, The Pod, a record I will always associate with the worst period of my life. I could try to explain how Clapton is related to The Pod, but it’s better if you just read the book.

2. Who is your favorite band? Did you have any personal loyalties at stake when writing this book?

My favorite band of all time is Guided by Voices, though the Rolling Stones are probably 1a. I have scores of personal loyalties, are you kidding?!? The point of writing this book was to figure why those loyalties exist, not just for me but for everybody.

3. Your book blends music journalism with pop psychology as you look a little deeper into some of these loyalties and rivalries. Sometimes these feuds seem to be less about the music or the band, and more about the people who identify with them — what have you found is usually at the heart of these conflicts?

One thing I did not intend — but became clear to me after I wrote the book — is that nearly every rivalry in the book has the same dynamic, where you have a mainstream band/artist that is hugely popular, and then you have a less mainstream band/artist that is somehow reacting to the popularity of the other artist. That goes directly back to the Beatles vs. the Stones — the Beatles were the biggest band in the world, and the Stones carved out a space for themselves by essentially counterprogramming against what the Beatles represented. I feel like there’s some element of that in most of the other rivalries I write about, whether it’s Michael Jackson vs. Prince, Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam, or Taylor Swift vs. Kanye West.

4. If you could be in a room with two of the rival musicians you talk about in the book, who would it be? Why?

I guess I have to say Michael Jackson and Prince, since they’re both dead now. How amazing would it be if they actually weren’t dead?

5. Not to ruin the ending, but what can you tell us about pop rivalries showing us about the meaning of life?

I think what this book is about the arc that many of us follow from adolescence to adulthood — when you’re a kid, you’re trying to define yourself, and that usually involves deciding what you are not. You rebel against your parents, you rebel against the people you see as representing the status quo in your community, and then you rebel against the figures in pop culture that you perceive as being oppressive in some fashion. Being young typically involves drawing lines in the sand, and coming out strongly in favor of your side. And then you get older, and I think you gradually lose interest in that, and instead you want to find connections between people and things that might otherwise appear to be divided. I try to trace that arc in this book, and make a lot of jokes about Axl Rose along the way.

Bonus: What are you listening to lately that you l o v e?

I think the greatest band in the world right now is Sheer Mag, a punk group from Philadelphia that sounds like they’re trying play “We Got the Beat” and “Jailbreak” simultaneously in every song. I can’t imagine anything greater than that.

Steven Hyden has written for Grantland, The A.V. Club, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Slate, and His book, Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me: What Pop Music Rivalries Reveal About the Meaning of Life is out May 17 from Back Bay Books and is available here.

Don’t miss Steven Hyden and Rob Sheffield in person at Strand June 6 for the launch and signing of Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me.

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