The History of Pop Music Rivalries in 10 Songs

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Clockwise from top left, Sinéad O'Connor, Kanye West, Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Noel Gallagher (of Oasis) and Eddie Vedder (of Pearl Jam). Reuters

Kanye vs. Taylor Swift. Blur vs. Oasis. Axl Rose vs. pretty much everybody.

In his new book, Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me, former Grantland and A.V. Club scribe Steven Hyden mines the history of music rivalries not just for cultural criticism but for deep philosophical truths. What, for instance, does Jack White's beef with the Black Keys' Patrick Carney tell us about the struggles of adult male friendship? And does favoring Smashing Pumpkins over Pavement signify a championing of the earnest over the ironic? Also, what does it say about you if you love Oasis so much you refuse to sit through a Blur album? (See a professional about that last condition.)

Rich with unexpected tangents and entertaining insights, the book reveals Hyden's well-established talent for pumping out some of the most thoughtful writing on some of the least-cool artists (at least in critical corners). We caught up with Hyden and asked him to sum up his book in 10 songs. 

1. Guns N' Roses, "Get in the Ring"

You're starting off with one of the least-loved Guns N' Roses songs of all time.
It just seemed appropriate for this book. "Get in the Ring," of course, is the song where Axl Rose calls out specific journalists that he feels have wronged him in the past. I'm fascinated by this song because I feel like if Axl had waited five or six years, he could have maybe written a blog post about these people. 

The song is one of the most explicit musical representations of a feud. Clearly, it hasn't aged well. Do you attribute that to Axl's maturity level?
At that time, Guns N' Roses was sort of the perfect distillation of anger and intimidation. Axl Rose was this very intimidating person. But in actuality, he wasn't that much of a tough guy. When he and Vince Neil had that feud where they were going to supposedly box each other on television, people assumed Axl Rose would destroy Vince Neil. Fast-forward two or three years later, and Nirvana comes along and Axl wants to fight backstage at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards. It's a different era, and that kind of overt machismo just looked silly. Kurt Cobain won that battle by not fighting, basically. Or just pointing and laughing at this ridiculous figure who wanted to fight. I just think it's hilarious that that song ended up on an album that sold like 7 million copies. If the Use Your Illusion albums came out today, Axl just would have tweeted about this.

Right. The song feels like an angry tweet.
Technology didn't give us that kind of outlet back in 1991. So Axl actually had to write a song, book an expensive recording studio and put it on a record. And here we are 25 years later, talking about how Axl didn't like [journalist] Mick Wall in 1991. It's hilarious and also kind of glorious that that turned out to be the case.

2. Oasis, "Fade Away"

Why did you choose "Fade Away" over "Roll With It," which battled with Blur on the charts?
Collecting Oasis B-sides was a huge deal for me in the mid-'90s. I chose "Fade Away" because it was on the "Cigarettes & Alcohol" single. The cover of that single—it's still one of the most indelible rock-and-roll images for me. Noel and Liam Gallagher are in a hotel room, and they're drinking wine and just partying. There's cute girls in the room with them. When I was 16 or whatever and I bought that single, it just looked like what I wanted in my own life.

This was sort of the promise of what rock and roll could be—all that stuff was a mystery to me. It was very dangerous and sexy and also kind of scary. That's what drew me to Oasis. They personified that version of rock and roll. That's why I was also subsequently so against Blur. In my mind, I felt like those two bands have a binary relationship. The band I love is all blue-collar rock and roll. The band I don't love is the artsy, high-minded art-rock band. 

You really go to bat for Oasis B-sides in the book.
Absolutely. That's why they burned out so quickly, I think. Noel Gallagher really put out another album of great material that didn't end up on albums in the space of like two or three years. Maybe if he had been a better planner, he would have spread those songs out a little longer. You look at Radiohead right now—they put "True Love Waits" on their latest record.

Maybe if Noel Gallagher had more foresight, he could have been dropping excellent mid-'90s B-sides on Oasis albums for the next 10 to 20 years. I think you only have so many great songs that you can write. That's not, like, a bottomless well. He wrote great songs on later records, but not as consistently as he did in his prime.

You write about how you refused to listen to Blur for years. Have you gone back and given Parklife a chance?
I've listened to them. I acknowledge in the rational part of my brain that this is an important band and Damon Albarn has done great work for like two decades. But I still have that part of me that's a 16-year-old that will not allow myself to bend on that rivalry.… It's a very stubborn hang-up that I have.

3. Pearl Jam, "Go" (live in Atlanta, April 3, 1994)

You chose a live Pearl Jam track. This was the one where Eddie Vedder makes a comment about Kurt Cobain just before he was found dead.
Yeah. It's sort of an oblique comment; he doesn't mention Cobain by name. But the chorus of that song is "Please don't go out on me/Don't go out on me now." When that concert took place, Kurt Cobain was missing. People were worried about his well-being at that point. Nirvana and Pearl Jam—that's another rivalry I write about.

It feels like that one has been a bit buried to history. I had forgotten that was even a thing.
I think that's been intentional on the part of members of Pearl Jam. If you watch the Pearl Jam 20 documentary, they talk about Nirvana. They show that clip of Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain dancing backstage at the '92 VMAs while Eric Clapton is playing "Tears in Heaven." It makes it seem like they were friends. In reality, Kurt Cobain slagged Pearl Jam a lot, especially when Pearl Jam first became really popular.… He made several comments in the press about Pearl Jam being this corporate rip-off band.

I think what's interesting about those bands now is they really do represent two paths that you can take, where it's the burn-out option or find-a-way-to-survive option. When I was a kid, the burn-out option was much more attractive. I was much more into that romantic idea of sticking around for a couple of years and then disappearing. Now that I'm older, I find a lot of inspiration in a band like Pearl Jam that is able to find a way to endure and even thrive after they've been around for 25 years. 

This recording is sort of the exact moment where Pearl Jam continued to carry the banner and Nirvana burned out.
For sure. Nirvana was a few days from being finished at that point. Pearl Jam, of course, was going really strong. They put out Vitalogy later that year. People always talk about In Utero being this very caustic, anti-commercial record. I think Vitalogy is at least as alienating, at least for a mainstream rock record, as In Utero was.

4. Bruce Springsteen and Jimmy Fallon, "Governor Christie Traffic Jam"

You talk about this parody in your chapter on Pearl Jam and Nirvana.
I write about [Chris Christie] in the context of hero worship. I'm really interested in his fandom of Bruce Springsteen. He's a huge Bruce Springsteen fan. And Bruce Springsteen doesn't give Chris Christie the time of day. Then there's that bridge scandal. Bruce Springsteen went on television with Jimmy Fallon making fun of Chris Christie. In that very specific instance, I did feel sorry for Chris Christie, even though I don't agree with him really on anything.

His love of Springsteen hasn't wavered. Just recently, there were photos of him at one of the River shows.
He's been to like 130 shows. He's a superfan. To his credit, he's not one of these politicians that pretends to like a band—that's been a big part of his narrative too. This idea that he's this Republican politician who loves the ultimate liberal musician. A lot of people [say] Chris Christie is missing the point of Springsteen's music for that reason.… [But] for him, Springsteen is an example of a guy who pulled himself up by his bootstraps and made his dreams come true—that conservative cliché about America. And then he just overlooks all the stuff about lack of economic opportunity and wars. [He] conveniently overlooks that because it doesn't fit his worldview or how he sees Springsteen. A lot of people do that—they mold the art that they love to fit the contour of their own lives.

5. Prince, "Life 'o' the Party"

Your chapter about Prince is a little bit eerie in light of his death. You write about how one thing that separates him from Michael Jackson is that he lived. We all thought he would outlive MJ by more than seven years.
Yeah. To me, what's interesting about that rivalry is that we look at Prince as being this enormous superstar from the 1980s. But the one guy he was an underdog for was Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson was this legacy showbiz kid. He was a star by the time he was 11 years old. By the time the '80s came around, he had already been famous for 10-plus years. Then of course Thriller comes out and is this enormous, inescapable album.

Then you have Prince, who is this guy from the Midwest, from a town that at that point was not very well-known nationally for being a music hub. [He] was essentially a self-made guy. Not just because he came from a humble background, but he was literally making music by himself. He was an upstart to that. Michael Jackson was sort of like the middle of the road and Prince was the guy doing weird stuff on the margins. Outside of Purple Rain, a lot of his records—they sold well, but he wasn't doing Michael Jackson numbers. Prince was clearly following his own muse and was willing to follow that wherever it went.

In the 2000s, when Prince and Michael Jackson were both still alive, it seemed like Prince had aged better than MJ. MJ was sort of a freak show at that point. Prince had come back—he did the Musicology tour, which was really successful; he was on the Super Bowl a couple years after that. A lot of people seemed to be influenced by Prince, like OutKast when they did Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.

This song "Life 'o' the Party" takes a shot at Michael Jackson's nose job. It kind of feels like Prince was taking a shot at MJ when he was at his lowest point?
Well, yeah. That record came out in 2004. That was around the time that he was on trial for child molestation

That's when Prince finally decides to take a shot at him on record.
I think it's fairly good-natured. That's also the same year that Chris Rock did the Never Scared special, where he talks about the Michael Jackson–Prince rivalry and he says that Prince won. At that point, Prince was rising. He had a very successful tour. Musicology did fairly well. That was around the time of Chappelle's Show, and the Prince parody on that show was really endearing. It kind of made Prince more lovable.

Do you think it still feels like Prince won, now that they're both gone?
That's hard to say. Right now it feels like that, because we're still grieving Prince. He's going through what Michael Jackson went through when he died, where all the rough edges of the human being get sanded off. What's left is this sort of saintly afterlife. It's like a saintly totem that we all hold in our hands that represents this great artist.

6. Kanye West, "Famous"

When this song came out a few months ago, were you like, "Oh shit, now I have to rewrite this chapter about Taylor Swift and Kanye West?"
I didn't feel like I had to rewrite it because, if anything, I felt like that song made that chapter a little more relevant. When I was writing that chapter, it seemed as if Kanye and Taylor had reconciled.

Then "Famous" came out and undid all of that.
Exactly. It reignited the rivalry again. Because of that song, that chapter has more relevance than it might otherwise have had.… I feel like when Kanye put out "Famous," that's just explicitly trolling Taylor Swift.

For readers who don't know it, this is the song where he says: "I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/I made that bitch famous." Isn't it completely delusional to think he made Taylor Swift famous?
He didn't make her famous. But I do think that moment at the 2009 VMAs was a pivotal moment for Taylor Swift as far as transitioning from being a country star to being a pop star. A couple months after that, she won the Grammy for album of the year for Fearless. After that, she was just winning awards left and right. The amount of sympathy that she got in the wake of that incident—I think it's clear that that kind of brought her celebrity along.

I think it's better that they're feuding than if they're friends. I think it's a good thing for both of them. It's always hard with Kanye to know how much he plans these things out. In some respects, he seems like he's kind of guileless in a lot of ways. He is the guy who will show how much he loves his wife by making a video where he's riding on a motorcycle with her against a sun-draped backdrop. He is the guy who thinks that's a non-ironic romantic image.

7. Drive-By Truckers, "Ronnie and Neil"

Let's talk about this Drive-By Truckers track. You're using this to represent the feud between Lynyrd Skynyrd and Neil Young.
Right.

Why this rather than "Southern Man" or "Sweet Home Alabama"?
It just seems like that song is a good primer on the relationship between those two. What's fascinating about the Neil Young–vs.–Lynyrd Skynyrd rivalry is that Neil Young and Ronnie Van Zant, they weren't friends but they had a friendly relationship. When Ronnie Van Zant wrote "Sweet Home Alabama," it was essentially a joke song. Lynyrd Skynyrd isn't even from Alabama—they're from Florida. He didn't like the song "Southern Man," but he wasn't maliciously going after Neil Young.

Then the cultural forces take over. "Sweet Home Alabama" becomes this rallying cry for rednecks who have Confederate flags on their trucks. Neil Young becomes an emblem for, like, liberals from the North who believe that every Southern stereotype is true. That dichotomy between the reality of those guys' relationship and the political forces that have turned those songs into emblems of larger conflicts—that's kind of what my book is about, you know?

8. Sinéad O'Connor, "War" (live on Saturday Night Live, October 3, 1992)

What made you gravitate toward Sinéad and Miley Cyrus as a rivalry? It's so different from the others. They were never contemporaries or competing…
It seemed like a good vehicle to talk about one of the oldest cultural rivalries, which is between young people and old people. That echoes throughout so many things in our culture. You're right, they weren't necessarily rivals. That was probably more of a beef than a rivalry. The parallels between their careers were really interesting. Sinéad O'Connor goes on SNL and rips up a picture of the pope and a huge firestorm erupts. It didn't end her career, but it certainly hurt her career tremendously. Miley Cyrus goes on the VMAs and acts outrageously with Robin Thicke and it's a very provocative performance, sexually and culturally, in so many different respects. Not only does it not hurt her career, it kind of makes her career. Then they come into contact, where Sinéad O'Connor is trying to offer motherly advice to Miley Cyrus and warning her against the exploitative aspects of the music industry. Miley responds by calling her crazy and kind of marginalizing Sinéad O'Connor. Which, in a way, is what happened to her in the early '90s—people assumed she was crazy instead of looking at the substance of what she was protesting, which was the church covering up child-abuse claims. 

It feels like Miley won.
The battle between young and old is a battle that goes on continually and young people win every single time. Older people might win in the short term. But younger people always come out ahead. Even if Sinéad O'Connor was right, there was probably no way that Sinéad O'Connor wasn't going to come off as a scold in that situation. It just led to her being marginalized. Young people, they just come out ahead. I think people in the media, they're so scared of looking out of touch that they will always embrace a young person over an older person. No one wants to be like the parents in Footloose.

9. Pavement, "Range Life"

This is the song that is most famous for calling out both the Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots. You think Stephen Malkmus really had anything against Billy Corgan or was he just being an ass for the sake of it?
You have to go by Stephen Malkmus's own words, which were that he wasn't really serious about it. The impression I get is that he was just fucking around in the song and he wrote that because he thought it was funny. To me, what's more interesting is not what Stephen Malkmus's intentions were but what Billy Corgan's reaction was and how he internalized that, and how it sort of represented another slight from cool people in Billy Corgan's life. That probably went back to the time when he was a little kid. 

It feels like a very one-sided rivalry. Like, Pavement made a very off-the-cuff remark and Billy Corgan was the only one who took it seriously.
If you look at any of these rivalries, from a substance point of view, there's not a lot there. I think why these things endure is because of what gets projected onto them. In the case of Billy Corgan and Pavement, it was another instance of a really popular institution being squared against a smaller institution that was seen as being an alternative—in a way, even being seen as a corrective—to this massively popular thing.

Of course, what makes these relationships interesting is that the really popular thing ends up being rooted in insecurity. Sometimes it's harder to be the really popular thing than it is to be the upstart. I definitely think that's true about Smashing Pumpkins. I think Billy Corgan is a guy that's defined by his insecurities. That one song—we can say it's a minor thing and Stephen Malkmus didn't care—but Billy Corgan was talking about it like 15 years later in interviews. When Pavement did a reunion tour, [Corgan] took shots at Pavement and called them a nostalgia act. Would he have done that if "Range Life" didn't exist? I don't think so.

He really, really wants to be perceived as being as cool as Pavement. Or as relevant.
But the thing is that he is! If we're going to talk about relevance, Smashing Pumpkins means more to a lot more people than Pavement does. The songs that they put out define an era for millions of people. For Pavement, it's maybe tens of thousands of people. It does seem like Billy Corgan isn't satisfied with having the masses. This idea that the cool people are never going to accept him, that does seem like the driving thing in his career.… Billy Corgan is way richer than Stephen Malkmus. He can play bigger venues even now. But there's this thing inside of him that's going to make him miserable forever.

10. Toby Keith, "Whiskey Girl"

Why did you choose "Whiskey Girl" over "The Angry American"?
I just like that song. It's such a ridiculous, fun song. In the last chapter, I write about Dixie Chicks and Toby Keith.

It's one of the most political feuds in the book.
It's political, but I also feel like it's pretty personal. The idea of that chapter was kind of learning to overcome your ingrained biases and see the value in something that you would be predisposed to hate. Which for me is like Toby Keith. Politically and socially, he was a guy that, [when I was] in my early 20s, represented everything that I was supposed to be against. Now that I'm older, I actually like a lot of Toby Keith songs. He writes good songs with ridiculous lyrics that are really fun to hear if you're sitting in a pontoon boat in July and drinking Miller Light or something.