If you’ve ever told someone they’re a fucking moron for liking band X more than band Y, or for otherwise disagreeing with your obviously superior musical opinion, then Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me is the book for you. Written by Steven Hyden, a former contributor for Pitchfork, the AV Club, and Grantland (RIP), Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me is a thoroughly entertaining excavation of artist-versus-artist pissing contests. The subtitle says the book will teach us What Pop Music Rivalries Reveal About the Meaning of Life. Hyden’s thesis is that, depending on which side you take in any given pop music war, your choice says something about you. Something like Oasis vs. Blur might seem pretty trivial for anyone who wasn’t actively paying attention to Britpop in the 1990s, but in the pages of Hyden’s book, these battles mean everything.
Reading Hyden’s columns on Grantland was always an enjoyable weekly/biweekly/semi-regular ritual for me when the site still existed, so diving into Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me was somewhat like reconvening with an old friend. Hyden is the best of music critics: he’s funny without being snarky and even when he’s taking a hatchet to an artist you enjoy, he does so in a way that comes off as more playful than it is demeaning. (Yes, even the quote about Anthony Kiedis waxing his chest.) Even more importantly for the purposes of this book, he’s not worried about “staying on message” or “just talking about the music,” as many readers claim music critics should do. On the contrary, Hyden goes off on more tangents here than my old music theory teacher did (which is saying something). Somehow, though, he always manages to bring everything back to music rivalries in the end.
I knew Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me would be funny just from reading the description and being familiar with Hyden’s work. I wasn’t disappointed, as the essays about Oasis vs. Blur, The Black Keys vs. The White Stripes, Roger Waters vs. the rest of Pink Floyd, and Axl Rose vs. Vince Neil (especially this one, which sees cameos from the likes of Kid Rock, Tommy Lee, Scott Stapp, and Fred Durst) repeatedly brought the chuckles. I was more surprised at the weighty topics that Hyden explored through the lens of pop music rivalries. Sometimes, the weight was there unintentionally: the Michael Jackson vs. Prince essay was written and sent to print long before Prince died in April, which means the comment about Prince winning the rivalry because he stayed alive feels a bit like a dagger twisting in your side. Other times, though, the weight is very much there on purpose. For instance, the chapter about the Jimi Hendrix/Eric Clapton “guitar god” rivalry plays out as a sobering discussion about the virtues of either burning out or fading away, with Hyden reflecting regretfully on moments of self-destructive debauchery from his own past. The message is simple: some of us are lucky that we didn’t burn out early, Clapton (and Hyden) included.
The toughest chapter to read, meanwhile, is also the most obvious. As Hyden notes in the penultimate essay about Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur, this culture war between East Coast and West Coast hip-hop was both the one rivalry that he absolutely had to discuss in this book and the one rivalry he absolutely didn’t want to write about. It’s clear why he would have preferred to sit this one out. For one thing, the Biggie-Tupac rivalry has been written about time and time again—to the point that there is really nothing new to say about it. For another thing, this rivalry is the one pop star battle in the book that actually escalates to (non-self-inflicted) bloodshed. Tupac and Biggie took the idea of a pop music rivalry to its most extreme possible outcome, and while that fact makes the rivalry a fascinating topic for this particular book, it also makes it a tough one to approach. There are no quips to be made about this rivalry, no jokes about funk-rock frontmen waxing their chests or about the singers from Creed and Limp Bizkit getting into a boxing ring to duke it out. There is only the permanence of death, the senselessness of violence, and the aching reminder of how petty squabbles can turn into all-out wars. It’s testament to Hyden’s sense of craft that he is able to morph the Tupac-Biggie chapter he didn’t want to write into an engaging rumination on why the job of “pop star” seems to have a longer life expectancy these days than it did during the latter half of the 20th century.
The most oft-repeated praise that has been laid upon Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me So Far is that Hyden doesn’t (usually) pick winners for these rivalries. This choice is logical: every reader will have their own sides to take in each rivalry, and there’s no sense in alienating a full half of your readership by awarding the TKO. While Hyden doesn’t choose winners, though, he usually does pick a side: he grew up on Oasis and pointedly ignored Blur for years; he self-identifies as “a Stones person”; he praises Jimi Hendrix’s brief lightning-in-a-bottle discography while acknowledging that Eric Clapton’s is, on the whole, kind of dull. But the most fun thing about the book is when Hyden challenges his own preferences and starts taking punches at some of his favorite bands. He questions why he supported Oasis over Blur when Noel Gallagher was, objectively, a huge asshole; he praises the White Stripes as legendary but questions Jack White’s ridiculously petty grudge against Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys; he spends a fair amount of time knocking down Billy Corgan in the Smashing Pumpkins/Pavement chapter, even though he freely admits that he likes Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie more than anything from the Pavement discography.
Such are the hallmarks of Hyden’s honesty and fairness as a writer. He’s not afraid to recognize that he has opinions, biases, and emotional attachments to the music being discussed—just like the rest of us. He’s also not afraid to recognize the flaws in his favorite artists either—musically or personally. The resulting product is a book that not only teaches readers about pop music rivalries and what they mean in the grand scheme of things, but also one that reminds you to be a little more open-minded about your own musical obsessions or preferred punching bags. (It’s also basically a verbal history of all the ridiculous shit that went down at the 1992 VMAs.) So buy it, read it, laugh, cry, agree ecstatically, disagree profanely, and most importantly, remind yourself not to be the Noel Gallagher in your next heated musical debate. After all, nothing kills a good argument like some asshole wishing the other person would “catch AIDS and die.”