In “Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me,” his new book expounding on the most interpretation-rich rivalries between music acts, pop critic Steven Hyden names Prince and David Bowie among the planet’s five coolest current residents.
My advance copy of the book identifies Hyden as a current staff writer for Grantland, the ESPN website that boasted some of the sharpest culture writing being published anywhere.
But last October, we lost Grantland. In January, we lost Bowie. And in April, we lost Prince.
Culture seems to change too fast for any object as lumbering as a book to keep pace. All a critic can do is engage with it as openly as his heart will allow and try to describe the view as it blasts by.
Former Grantland readers know that Hyden’s got game in this game. His grasp of the zeitgeist is as firm as any pushing-40 white guy’s could be — a two- or threefold handicap that he acknowledges more than once during this fluent, frequently hilarious, ultimately persuasive attempt to wring enlightenment from old Rolling Stone interviews, unauthorized biographies and video music awards clips. What compensates for his planned obsolescence is his deep knowledge of music and music-journalism history. He’s as entertaining on Eric Clapton vs. Jimi Hendrix (Chapter 7) as he is on Taylor Swift vs. Kanye West (Chapter 5).
In the chapter separating those two battles, he evaluates the Precambrian grudge match wherein the Rolling Stones found it expedient to fashion themselves as the natural enemies of the Beatles. Obviously, Hyden’s book chucks chronology and embraces digression and is all the stronger for it. He’s no less authoritative (or fun) when riffing on the feuds that predated his own lifetime than he is when surveying the ones he lived through as an actual high schooler.
Hyden’s aim is not to rank the rivalries he surveys but to parse what’s at stake in each of them. Some barely qualify as rivalries: For instance, the case of Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam was mostly about Kurt Cobain’s not reciprocating Eddie Vedder’s high esteem.
Even before the heartbreaking news of Prince’s sudden death, Hyden’s chapter examining his competition with Michael Jackson in the mid-1980s stood out as among the book’s most nimble and heartfelt. Hyden uses their ego-driven showdown (including a fabled table tennis match after which Prince quipped that MJ “played like Helen Keller”) as a platform to debunk the myth that “quirkiness” during adolescence is an unusual condition that improves one’s odds of attaining greatness later. “What is weird is being really, really popular,” he concludes.
Hyden’s zeal for argument isn’t rooted in hot-take contrarianism but honest skepticism. “I’m not a fan of Default Smart Opinions as a concept,” he declares. He knows that being too militant in our tastes can make us miss out on something we might truly enjoy. But his impulse to interrogate the preferences we declare so stridently, coupled with the wisdom of 25 years of obsessing about music, is what makes Hyden a critic worth reading.
Chris Klimek is an editor at Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine.
By Steven Hyden
Back Bay. 304 pp. Paperback, $16.99