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Steven Hyden Gets Philosophical About Music Rivalries

on May 19, 2016, 10:00am

When most fans think of music rivalries, they think of losers and winners; of who’s right and who’s wrong; of who they side with and who they despise. Luckily for the rest of us sinners, Steven Hyden has turned his celebrity bloodlust into something more useful, moving past the visceral appeal of beefs and using them as a means of examining any number of larger topics.

In his new book, Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me, the former Music Editor at The A.V. Club, contributor to Pitchfork, and staff writer at the now-defunct Grantland mines his pop-culture knowledge to write about fights as metaphors: Kurt Cobain vs. Eddie Vedder explores the frustration of hero worship, while Jack White vs. Dan Auerbach explains the intricacies of male friendship.

The book digs deep into these various feuds and their philosophical implications, but we wanted to dig even deeper by talking to the man himself. Shortly before the book’s release this week, we spoke with Hyden about rivalries that got left out, rivalries that are still ongoing, and how today’s rivalries might have a different outcome if they had occurred in the ’90s.

You can also check out Hyden’s weekly podcast, Celebration Rock, currently airing every Monday over at 93X.

book cover hyden Steven Hyden Gets Philosophical About Music Rivalries

Several of the music rivalries in Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me have had further developments since you finished writing. Taylor Swift and Kanye West immediately come to mind. Does that make you want to go back and do any rewrites? 

When that stuff was going down, I was definitely like, “It would be great to go back and add 500 more words.” It’s funny because … well, it’s not really funny, but there’s another chapter about Sinead O’Connor and Miley Cyrus. [After I wrote it], there were stories that she had either attempted suicide or was contemplating suicide. Obviously, I’m concerned for her as a human being, but the author in me was like, “If she died, that would also affect my book.”

That’s the weird thing about writing a book, especially if it’s about contemporary people. Things are always changing. I started writing this book in 2014 and finished it over a year ago. It’s been a long lead time just for this book to come out. I feel like I’ve been waiting for the book to come out longer than it took to write the book.

But yeah, when the Kanye/Taylor stuff was going down, there was a part of me that wanted to go in and add some more. But it was too late, unfortunately.

kanye taylor Steven Hyden Gets Philosophical About Music Rivalries

Does their reignited feud alter your thesis for that chapter? The idea of him being this outspoken guy who’s also somewhat right?

The thesis of that chapter is talking about Taylor Swift being this established pop star and Kanye West positioning himself as the outsider. I think him attacking her again just reinforces that. In a way, it’s good for the book. For a while, it seemed like Kanye and Taylor had made up. I think I even say that in the chapter. And [when] they reignited everything, it reinforced the idea that those two will always be connected in some way. Their narratives are always going to intertwine.

So it doesn’t change my feelings on [their rivalry], but it would have been fun to include it. You just want your book to feel as up-to-date as possible. The difference between writing a book and writing something for the Internet is that a book will hopefully last. Hopefully you’ll be able to read the book in 10 years, and it will still be entertaining because of how things have changed with the characters.

steven hyden Steven Hyden Gets Philosophical About Music Rivalries

So much of the book is about how these rivalries reflect our own lives, with each chapter tying to a concept that’s not about music at all. Did you know that you wanted to arrive at these bigger-picture ideas from the very beginning?

I knew going into the book I wanted to use music rivalries as a jumping-off point to talk about anything I wanted to talk about. I felt like this was an idea that was specific enough that I could sum it up in one sentence and people would understand what it is. But on the other hand, it was flexible enough where I could use it as a platform to write about things other than music. Music fans will like it, I think, but the hope is that if you’re a casual fan, you can enjoy it, too. There are other things about the world and life that are in there that make sense.

A lot of it is about identity, especially when you’re a kid. There’s a subconscious thing where you decide what kind of person you want to be by the kind of music you like. That continues even when you get older in ways that you’re not always aware of. People tend to be tribal with the culture that they publicly side with, whether it’s music or politics or anything that you decide is your line in the sand between you and other people.

Not that those things are unimportant, but there’s this other reality where we’re all human beings and we tend to be more alike than not alike. When I was a kid, I was much more about drawing lines in the sand and arguing with people about what I thought was important. As I’ve gotten older, I’m much more interested in finding the common ground. I think that’s a fairly common arc for a lot of people. You tend to become more interested in finding the connections rather than the separations.

Billy Corgan

That reminds me of the Billy Corgan/Stephen Malkmus chapter. I remember talking to Timothy Showalter of Strand of Oaks, whose favorite band is the Smashing Pumpkins. My favorite band’s Pavement, and when I brought up the feud between their two frontmen, we didn’t get angry at each other. We just laughed about it. 

And Tim and I laughed about it, too. But he also really hates Pavement! It’s not just about the music, but what Pavement represents. Effortless cool is something Stephen Malkmus has. He has this air about him where he doesn’t have to try at all to be cool. He just has it. There are a lot of people who have that thing, and Billy Corgan doesn’t have that thing. I don’t feel like I have that thing. So when Corgan reacts to people who have that thing, I relate to that. And that comes out in his music. It certainly comes out in his interviews.

When Smashing Pumpkins were at their peak, he was writing a tremendous amount of music, just putting a tremendous amount of effort into being a huge rock star. And then to have a guy like Malkmus just come along and casually undercut him so easily — it had to be bad for him. Because on paper, it’d be easy for Corgan to argue, “I’m better than him: I’m a better guitar player, I’m writing more complicated songs, my band is more successful.” There are so many ways on paper that he’s better, and yet — certainly from a critical perspective — this other band, Pavement, whose whole aesthetic is not seeming to try very hard, they get all of the press love. And Corgan is looked at as this overblown joke. I just thought that was a fascinating relationship. And it’s weird how that still sticks in Corgan’s craw, even years later. He’s still talking about it in interviews. When given the opportunity, he still takes swipes at Pavement.

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I interviewed Malkmus a year ago when I was still editing the book, and at the end of the interview, I asked him about how Billy Corgan still seems to have this resentment towards him about “Range Life”. And Malkmus basically said, “I think they won in the end. They were more successful than us.” He talked about how being from Chicago informs Billy Corgan’s worldview — how the Chicago music scene was really competitive in the ‘90s. It was an era where a lot of the bands had chips on their shoulders because they were from Chicago and not New York or Los Angeles. In talking about this, he sort of confirmed my theory, but then the call dropped, and I couldn’t get him back on the line. My idea was that I would get a good quote from him to put in the chapter, but it didn’t really work. But he did seem to confirm this idea of the Smashing Pumpkins/Pavement dynamic being a mirror of a Midwest versus the Coast dynamic, which is the idea of that chapter.

Were there any music rivalries that you thought about putting in the book, but didn’t for whatever reason?

One was U2 versus R.E.M. That’s something that people have actually brought up to me. But I didn’t because, number one, it wasn’t a real rivalry. That was more in the minds of fans, and I liked both bands growing up, so I didn’t really know where I stood. I also didn’t write about it because I already had a fair amount of ‘90s stuff in the book. It’s really easy for me to write about the ‘90s. I could have written a whole book just about rivalries from that decade. But I wanted there to be more diversity.

Also, I wanted to get more contemporary stuff in there. It was important for me to write about Miley Cyrus and Sinead O’Connor or to write about Kanye and Taylor, even though those things are, in a way, still evolving. So if something didn’t get in, it was for those reasons: either because I wasn’t personally into it or me just wanting to have a greater breadth to the book rather than being too heavy on one decade. Some people might look at it and say that it’s already too ‘90s-heavy. But that’s a reflection of where I come from and my background. And I’ll own up to that.

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As a decade, the ‘90s feels like it did have more highly publicized beefs. Maybe it’s because hip-hop feuds were such a big thing at the time.

For me, it’s the Golden Age of rivalries, because the music industry was in such great shape. You had so many stars back then. Even bands that weren’t the biggest bands in the world were really successful. You could have Nine Inch Nails versus Marilyn Manson or something like that. Those are both really big groups, but they weren’t necessarily the hugest groups of the decade. You had so many mid-level bands and mid-level artists. There were certainly a lot of mid-level rappers. You don’t really have that musical middle-class anymore. You’re either a huge superstar or you’re a middling indie group or a middling pop star. Someone like Carly Rae Jepsen, for instance, gets a lot of press, but she’s not a pop star, really. If you were to ask the average music listener about her, they would probably call her a one-hit wonder because they know “Call Me Maybe” and that’s it. 

I also think social media has made rivalries really easy. It’s easy for people to get out of them. But it also encourages people to at least superficially reconcile a lot faster than they used to, just because there’s so much scrutiny now. If a pop star tweets something that’s even mildly provocative or mildly confrontational, there’s going to be 50 music websites reporting on that within the hour. It becomes a thing where either that pop star decides that this is a hill they want to die on, or they’re going to have their PR issue a statement saying “I didn’t mean it” or “My tweet was taken out of context” or yadda yadda yadda.

But if I were to do an updated version of this book, I would write about the Drake versus Meek Mill beef. I thought that was a really fun, interesting rivalry that still seems to be going on. Didn’t Meek Mill attack Drake’s supposed ghostwriter at a nightclub or something?

drake meek mill Steven Hyden Gets Philosophical About Music Rivalries

Something like that. And that’s such a weird, unconventional thing as far as a rivalry goes — the fact that there’s a ghostwriter involved at all.

It really underscores where we’re at with authenticity now in music. The crux of Meek Mill’s attack on Drake is that he doesn’t write his own songs. There was a time when that kind of accusation would have been devastating. If that had happened in the ‘90s, that would have really hurt Drake. But what Drake was able to do in today’s age was come out with two diss tracks back to back. I guess the assumption is because those songs came out so quickly, that Drake wrote them himself. That seemed to be the benefit of the doubt he got, which we still don’t know for sure. He might have still used ghostwriters for all we know.

But it seemed like the reason why Drake was able to come out ahead of Meek Mill is because he’s so much more famous than Meek Mill. Whenever Drake does anything, it’s a huge deal on the Internet. For him to be out these two songs back to back slamming Meek Mill … just the tsunami of attention that that’s going to get is going to wash anyone away, especially someone who isn’t on his level of fame. We used to define authenticity as being a person who writes [their] own songs, a person who’s genuine about themselves.

But that idea, at least among critics, has become totally passé. Critics will fall all over themselves to write a thinkpiece provoking that idea. It really seems like now, the new authenticity is celebrity. If you’re an artist who is famous and popular, then that in itself makes you important. That justifies anything you do. And to me, that’s what that rivalry chapter would have been about: that celebrity is the new authenticity. Maybe if there’s a special edition of the book that comes out, I’ll develop that.

Anyway, that’s a long-winding answer to your question. I think rivalries still happen. But it does seem like it’s more difficult because of the way media is. If Kanye talks about Taylor in a song, people get excited about that conflict existing, but they also condemn him. It’s a weird cycle that we’re locked into of wanting conflict, but getting really upset when it’s there and wanting it to be resolved.

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