When I used be an editor at a hip hop site, articles tagged with "beef" attracted roughly three times as many readers as the average news post. Most beef-related stories boiled down to "X said this-and-that about Y; Y responded to X." These articles didn't require much in the way of investigative reporting. Still, people ate that shit up.
In particular, rivalries between musicians are usually not analyzed beyond deciding who's the victor, and maybe exploring the degree to which the beef plays out across pop culture (remember all the thinkpieces that popped up about Drake's weaponization of memes against Meek Mill after last summer's OVO Fest). Finding deeper meaning in diss tracks and incendiary TMZ clips often seems like a fool's errand.
Former Grantland writer Steven Hydens's new book 'Your Favorite Band is Killing Me' (out May 17 from Back Bay Books) comes with the provocative subtitle "What Pop Music Music Rivalries Reveal About the Meaning of Life." Initially, it seems like a lofty claim, akin to finding a hidden philosophical lesson in the lyrics of "My Humps." Surprisingly though, it's one that holds true through 16 chapters that discuss both the minutiae and overarching themes at play in some of the biggest beefs in music history. Hyden told VICE that he looked "at these rivalries as metaphors for other discussions that happen in pop culture, and really the culture at large."
Each chapter is devoted to one famous rivalry—Beatles vs. Stones, Oasis vs. Blur, Taylor Swift vs. Kanye West, etc.—and, in around 20 pages apiece, Hyden digs into his own music experiences, the surrounding cultural climate, and broader socio-political discussions, revealing that these beefs were about something more than drunken VMA speeches or Noel Gallagher's big mouth.
The music writer explains how beefs come to represent more than just aesthetic differences. Fandom, and taking sides during petty, media-perpetuated pop rivalries isn't just meaningless chest-puffing; it's defining "yourself against what you assume other people are like." Speaking with VICE over the phone, Hyden explained the intricacies of his theory about music rivalries, and how it led him to use criticism as a means to connect rather than alienate.
VICE: Have you always been drawn to tabloid drama between musicians, or is it a subject you've only recently begun closely examining for deeper meaning?
Steven Hyden: I guess I must have been more interested in it than I realized. I wanted to write a book that worked on a straightforward level, where you could read about these rivalries and be entertained by them and learn about the artists involved, but I also wanted to take it to another level with a broader perspective and look at these rivalries as metaphors for other discussions that happen in pop culture, and really the culture at large. The idea of the book is that the reason people are drawn to these conflicts is that they use them as proxy battles to work out various issues, whether they be aesthetic, political, all the way down the line.
I decided pretty early on that I didn't want to write a book where I would be deciding which artists are better than other artists. I think some people who have heard about the book assume that's what I'm doing, but I thought that rather than trying to resolve these conflicts, it'd be more interesting to look at why they existed and why they resonated with people.
You still do let us know where you personally stand on many of the rivalries though, especially in the chapter focusing on all of the mud-slinging between Oasis and Blur during the peak of their popularity battle in the UK press.
I come out as a pretty strong Oasis fan, but the point of that isn't so much to make a case for Oasis, but to illustrate how insane I was as a teenager for caring about this rivalry. An American caring about the rivalry between these two British bands, it didn't have a lot of relevance for me in the real world. In America, they weren't even on the same playing field; Oasis was much more popular. It just illustrates that I was looking for conflict, for an excuse to make this an important thing in my life, a way to define who I was [despite not being British]. For the most part, the chapters don't take a stance, but I'm sure that my personal preferences come through in a way that I don't intend. It's up to people to decide whether that's endearing or annoying.
In writing about your own preferences and taste, did you find yourself shying away from the more hard-and-fast critical edge of your professional reviews and critiques?
I'm definitely a fan of convoluted reasoning when it comes to why you like or don't like something. I'm sure there are people who will find that annoying, especially from someone who's supposed to be a music critic. We're supposed to have really well-defined ideas of what makes a record good or not good, but I tend to shy away from that [in the book] because it doesn't reflect the reality of why people like what they like. It's messy, complicated, and I tried to get that across in my writing because I feel like that is a more accurate representation of how people listen to music and why they respond to it. So the book's loaded with tangents, and to me that represents how people think and talk about music.
I think all the tangents work because the book's larger organization is so neat, with each rivalry confined to one chapter. Was that always the structural approach you had in mind?
Writing a book like this, it's a lot like making a record. In this day and age, you know that people are going to go on some streaming service, listen to each song for a second, and then pick out a few that they really like and listen to them out of order. You hope that they eventually come to love all the songs, but you can't really expect them to listen in the right order. This book is kind of structured similarly.
If you just want to read them as self-contained chapters, they work and they're entertaining, but I definitely see a narrative thread talking about the ideas of identity, and how people define themselves by what they're not. That's an idea that we associate with high school in a way, but it continues into adulthood.
Were there any rivalries that didn't fit into the book? Or recent ones that you think could make great chapters in a few years?
I would have loved to write about Drake and Meek Mill. It was great rivalry, and I think it says a lot about where music culture is right now, where celebrity is the new authenticity. You had Meek making these charges against Drake that he isn't writing his own songs, and in a different time, that would have been devastating. But Drake essentially wins that rivalry because he's so much more famous than Meek, and if he releases a diss track, or two consecutively, that's going to take up so much of the oxygen that even if Meek came back right away, I don't think there was any way he was going to win that... I ultimately decided to focus just on rivalries where the artists interacted in some way, where it wasn't just fans arguing about who was better. That helped narrow the field down significantly.
With lots of the rivalries, you seem to suggest that some aspects of fandom are almost predetermined by age, location, or political alignment. For instance, Sinead O'Connor's generation's generally negative view of Miley Cyrus' sexually-charged VMA performance.
What I thought was fascinating about the Miley Cyrus VMA performance is it started out as a standard backlash against a sexually provocative performance, but quickly evolved into a different conversation about racial imagery and misogyny. It was interesting to me how quickly sex became an afterthought; in a previous era there would have been endless gnashing of teeth about Miley wearing a nightie and grinding on Robin Thicke. People had a very postmodern view of her performance that if you were shocked by it, you were being suckered into being shocked by it. The point of her doing this is to be shocking, so therefore it's not shocking.
You conclude the book with the line, "I'm better now, and I hope to be better still." Does being able to question these pillars of musical opinion make you a better critic?
Yeah, and it's about being a better person too. The book starts when I'm in high school and I'm really preoccupied with the idea of drawing lines in the sand between me and people who I perceive to be not like me, and the rest of the book is about exploring the ramifications of that. When you're younger, it's really important to make it clear where you stand, but as you get older, it starts to shift from what separates you from other people to what unites you. I think that's what I meant with that last line. That chapter's about Dixie Chicks and Toby Keith and how there was a huge cultural gulf between those two, but at the end of the day, there was a lot more uniting them than there was separating them.
At this point in my life, I'm more interested in that. Where are the hidden bonds? It's just about growing up and learning that what separates people is less important than what unites them, because I think people have a lot more in common than they tend to believe, or want to believe.
'Your Favorite Band is Killing Me' is out May 17 on Back Bay Books. Pre-order it here.
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