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Book Reviews Review: Beatles or Stones? Steven Hyden’s Your Favourite Band is Killing Me explores musical rivalries

Steven Hyden argues that loving The Rolling Stones is synanomous with cool, while The Beatles are ordinary in comparison.

Eduardo Verdugo/AP

Title
Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me: What Pop Music Rivalries Reveal About the Meaning of Life
Author
Steven Hyden
Genre
Non-fiction
Publisher
Back Bay Books
Pages
294
Price
$20.49

Your perception of pop culture is inexorably shaped by your upbringing. When you grow up as a white dude in a blue-collar family, a blue-collar town or maybe a blue-collar province, there are a number of things you are systematically taught to believe as unbreakable rules of media consumption. And at or near the top of this belief system is the infinite power of rock.

I lead the least-blue-collar life imaginable – I am literally a mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan (er, national) newspaper – but in the denim-clad corner of Canada where I grew up, it was drilled into me that rock 'n' roll should be the conduit for any and all good times. As a kid, I remember rifling through my boomer father's LP collection and finding Hot Rocks 1964-1971, but not a single Beatles record. I asked why; the Beatles, Dad insisted, were "just too bubble-gummy." So I grew up a Rolling Stones guy.

Steven Hyden is a Stones guy, too. He argues he has to be; in his new book, Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me: What Pop Music Rivalries Reveal About the Meaning of Life, he puts into simple words what is often passed down as inherent wisdom: "The most common signifiers associated with the Stones – sex, drugs, danger, outlaw posturing – are synonymous with cool, and, like everybody, I want to be cool."

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This is, of course, in the context of Stones versus Beatles – a rivalry, Hyden insists, that's really about the Beatles' cultural hegemony. "Loving the Beatles is so ordinary by comparison," he writes. "It says nothing about you other than your unquestioning acceptance of inevitable truths."

But so much of how we relate to music is framed by the sides we take in rivalries. There is joy in this: We root much of our personalities in pop-culture alignments. In Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me, released in mid-May, Hyden tries to draw out universal truths hidden within these very rivalries.

A cultural critic by day – formerly for the A.V. Club and Grantland (RIP) and, starting in July, for the website Uproxx – Hyden masterfully weaves together disparate narratives to reveal the themes we embrace when we pick sides in pop music. Among his proclamations: The dominance and chronological ambiguity of Madonna's music, when pitted against essence-of-1983 Cyndi Lauper, can be cast in a new light by examining music as a scene-setting device in Back to the Future. The tension between Jack White and the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach is a microcosm of inter-male alienation. Pearl Jam's revisionist-history relationship with Nirvana is echoed in New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's unrequited love for Bruce Springsteen, pointing to society's delusion with idols.

It takes a very specific, very neurotic kind of person to draw parallels between Pink Floyd's A Momentary Lapse of Reason and the 1987 NFL players' strike – for reasons far deeper than the coincidence that both were unleashed on the public within a month of each other. That kind of writer – Hyden – was a perfect fit for Grantland, the culture website launched by Bill Simmons that was shut down last fall. The Internet is a sea of scalding-hot takes on pop culture that mostly prove useless and fleeting; at its best, Grantland's takes were slow-cooked to perfection.

The problem with the hot-take economy, though, is that even the best takes cool down. A new story, a new development, is bound to come through. This does not always translate well into a fixed-release book. Hyden clearly put years of effort into Killing Me, but some of his arguments lose strength because the world kept turning after he handed it in.

The cold war between Kanye West and Taylor Swift has re-erupted, for instance, thanks to a lyric on The Life of Pablo. Prince, whose rivalry with Michael Jackson gets its own chapter, is dead, watering down at least a small part of Hyden's argument that Prince was victor: "Prince lived." Justin Bieber is framed as pop's biggest bad boy in a chapter about celebrity deaths; and while that can still be argued, the redemption arc he's foisted upon fans this past year would have made for perfect fodder for Hyden's voice.

It wouldn't be fair to call books and blogs rivals, but when taking on a years-long task, it might be helpful to pick a side. Killing Me sometimes feels like a slick read, but sometimes trips over Grantland-style asides and parentheticals – the stock-in-trade of Chuck Klosterman, one of Grantland's establishing voices and apparently a friend of Hyden's, given how often he's on Hyden's (excellent) podcast. This gives it a hurried, cram-everything-in feeling that occasionally discounts otherwise incisive arguments and unexpected parallels Hyden draws throughout the book.

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Or maybe I'm projecting a rivalry, mentally, that doesn't reflect reality: Grantland was an immense success, and Hyden's writing for it shone. I wrote my own first book fearing I'd sound too newspapery; Hyden clearly embraced his own strengths. Projecting my values on him is like Lynyrd Skynyrd fans hating Neil Young and projecting Republican values onto the band whose original frontman liked Young and supported Jimmy Carter. Sometimes the consumer is wrong, even when they believe with all their heart that they're right.

When I raided my dad's record collection again a couple of years ago, I came across copies of Young's Harvest and Skynyrd's Street Survivors, and stole both. After I read Killing Me, I called him and asked if he ever picked a side between them. "Not really," he said, audibly shrugging. Some rivalries define you; others aren't worth the effort.

Josh O'Kane is a Globe and Mail reporter and author of Nowhere with You, a book about musician Joel Plaskett.

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