Is Steven Hyden, author of “Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me,” friends with Chuck Klosterman—or are they rivals? Klosterman blurbs the book, and Hyden thanks him in the acknowledgments. But then, in one of this collection’s essays, Hyden says he doesn’t really have any guy friends. Are they secretly enemies? Frenemies? I’m not saying they are, but there’s a case to be made: both about the same age, both from the Midwest, both wrote for the late, lamented Grantland, both obsessed with pop culture and ringing from it the meaning of life. The title is reminiscent of one of Klosterman’s books, “Killing Yourself to Live,” and the structure suggestive of something Klosterman would do.
Plus, they both look like Muppets.
The book purports to be a collection of essays, each chapter considering a particularly rivalry in popular music—the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and Biggie and Tupac being the ideal types, but there are fourteen others. Not all of these are, strictly speaking, rivalries, and certainly not musical ones. Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix didn’t antagonize each other. The spat between Miley Cyrus and Sinead O’Connor was not about music. Taylor Swift and Kanye West—another pairing—shared an awkward moment, but didn’t feud. (The book came out before the recent brouhaha between Swift and Kim Kardashian-West.) A couple chapters try to shoehorn in several different groupings.
The real service of this conceit is to give Hyden a loose enough structure that he can inject lots of personal stories, and his musings as a one-time stoner, now a new father entering his forties. Can his interests be redeemed? Are they more than just teenage self-definition—the way he hewed to Nirvana and Oasis over Blur and Pearl Jam when he was young? What does it mean to have been raised on (radio and) pop culture and now be expected to shepherd another generation into maturity? Are there theories one can find?
Because Hyden really, really likes theories. He likes inventing them based on his interpretation of popular culture. And make no mistake—this is book about what it means to live within popular culture, and not see beyond it, except only occasionally.
As it happens, I saw Cynid Lauper performing last night, just a few days after I finished this book, and its chapter on Madonna versus Cyndi Lauper. She even mentioned Madonna, calling her “my evil cousin.” So there is a rivalry there! But what Hyden sees in the rivalry is that he doesn’t see Lauper anymore. Madonna managed to make herself relevant for years, while Lauper is tied to a specific cultural moment. Haden has little truck with he idea that Madonna survived because she reinvented herself—he thinks it’s the songs: she’s simply a better musician. The point he arrives at is, there is value in being tied to a particularly moment, just as there is value to remaining relevant. But the fact of the matter is, Lauper has continued to produce and perform new music, to expand herself. She’s made a living, even if she is not so intensely famous anymore.
But when you’re inside the pop culture world, fame is what matters. Haden also takes the Dixie Chicks to task, because of their spat with Toby Keith and criticizing George Bush. He’s not so sure about the wisdom of sloughing off fans. Fame is really important—it may be the most important thing, though, in the end, it’s only the second most important thing in what emerges as Hyden’s hierarchy. The real most important thing is what he tries to run away and hide from in the first chapters: authenticity. He loved Nirvana more than Pearl Jam because Nirvana seemed authentic, real, not in it just for the money, the bombast. Haden chides himself for this, recognizes its limitations.
But it still structures his values. Toby Keith is admirable because he’s just a beer-drinking lunkhead. Eric Clapton may not have been the incendiary talent of Jimi Hendrix, but he survived: he just kept working hard and doing his thing. Smashing Pumpkin’s Billy Corgan is a Midwestern boy trying hard, not like those too-smart-for-its-own-good Pavement. Liberal values, progressive politics—these are the things Hyden says he subscribes to, but the actual liberals and progressives—the Dixie Chicks, Neil Young—they don’t seem authentic to him. Neil Young was no different than the re-made Lynyrd Skynyrd that politicked for George W. Bush: both were trapped by their own images, but Lynyrd Skynyrd seemed more admirable.
I remember this line of thought from the early aughts: it was why all the good liberals hated the hippies and, sadly but necessarily, support the War.
It’s why we laugh at Gonzo, but admire Kermit.
One gets claustrophobic, at times, with this theater criticism from the stage—and it can lead Hyden astray. He’s not phoning it in, as late period Klosterman has done, all speculation. His musings on some musicians being tied to a particular time owes something to Klosterman’s theory of nostalgia—which is rooted in the particular forms in which music is packaged, CDs and vinyl more likley to promote nostalgia than iTunes; he is concerned about remaining cool and plugged in, but willing to let it go, too, unlike Klosterman who mourns the passing of his coolness before he can even decide whether he likes something or not. Hyden’s writing is rooted in detail, thickly remembered and re-lived prior to writing—even if that detail is always within the area circumscribed by popular culture.
Which is what causes the claustrophobia, and leads to the most unfortunate part of the book. In the chapter on the Biggie-Tupac rivalry, Hyden essays the theory that because this rivalry ended in real death, it chastened other musicians, made their rivalries and behaviors less intense. Which leads him to counting up the number of famous musicians who have died since Tupac, and then listing those he is surprised haven’t died. He admits it’s a little off-putting—but not so off-putting he doesn’t stop himself. I’d say its straight up nauseating, and the redeeming factor is . . . nothing really. Support for a half-baked theory.
Hyden is at his best when he breaks free from the theories he offers, and tries to see the cultural world from the outside. In the chapter on Prince and Michael Jackson—and I have to say that it is incredibly weird to be reading about Prince, in a book published in 2016, as though he is alive—Hyden brings up the theory that those who were considered quirky in high school go on to become successful, while the popular kids often flame out. But then he rejects this as too simplistic, noting that in real life everyone is high school is an amalgam of quirky and popular, depending upon group dynamics. Which leads him to think that Prince did better than Michael Jackson by surviving—again, weird!—but also that Prince made a kind of peace with the real world, while Jackson became increasingly sequestered.
Similarly, the memoirist-ic portions of the book are some of the most engaging, and probably would have worked well without the focus on rivalries; obviously, popular culture was intensely important to Hyden’s growth and development, so the story could not be told without them, but there was no need to force chapters on enmities-that-weren’t. Hyden is a talented writer. His jokes sometimes flop—they call them dad jokes for a reason, as Fonzie Bear learned avant-la-lettre—but his vocabulary is both wide and precise, his structure loose but dialectical—it’s odd at first, with Hyden seemingly interrupting himself for a tangent but pulls the threads back together at the end. He’s a creative thinker, too, putting together some unusual connections. He’s not afraid to be silly, either—the chapter on missed celebrity boxing matches is funny!
His best attribute is the skepticism he has toward his own easy answers. This can be taken too far—as with the bits on Young, the Dixie Chicks, and his sympathy for Richard Nixon—but it serves him well. He challenges his own love for Oasis because it was so rooted in his self-image, and was less about the music, per se. He knows the bad reputation of the movie “Crash” and so forces himself to re-watch it. He recognizes his sympathy for Sinead O’Connor, in her “rivalry” with Cyrus, is based on his age, and that he’s now a father. He’s unwilling to play the old-white-guy card and dismiss out of hand Taylor and Britney and Xtina. The approach opens the book up and keeps Hyden from tripping over his own quest to be cool and insightful, bringing in a ragged, truthful realism.
It’s fun to be Waldorf and Statler, sitting in the balcony, throwing slings and arrows and quips. But, in the end, everyone has to leave the theater and go home. Even the Muppets.