Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Bandstand Grandstand

Few experiences can make you either forget your age or remember it as effectually as listening to popular music. Our youthful selves are so thoroughly imprinted by the songs current during our teen years that we remember their lyrics for the rest of our lives. Hearing them immediately takes us back. The first sign of having exited “the younger generation” is thinking that music on contemporary popular radio stations is terrible by comparison. Perhaps that is the second sign; maybe the first is hearing the songs on the radio instead of some other platform.

With all that in mind I picked up Your Favorite Band is Killing Me: What Pop Music Rivalries Reveal about the Meaning of Life by music critic Steven Hyden. He explores various sorts of rivalries within and between bands and also among listeners. There is the age-old rivalry between generations. That often fades but in one direction only: another sign of aging is noticing that our parents’ music (in my case Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Harry James, et al.) isn’t bad. But the most intense rivalries are among coeval listeners. The classic example for my generation was the common question, “Do you prefer the Beatles or the Rolling Stones?” On the surface this seems like a simple matter of taste akin to asking what toppings you like on a pizza. It was understood to be a bigger question than that. An entire worldview and a statement about oneself were inherent in the answer. (I tended to sidestep the question by answering “the Animals,” which come to think of it also was telling.)

Hyden is Generation X so he doesn’t get around to Beatles/Stones until chapter 6, and then only reluctantly as “dad rock.” Mostly he speaks of what had emotional import for him, e.g. Oasis vs. Blur, Cyndi Lauper vs. Madonna, Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam, Biggie vs. Tupac, White Stripes vs. Black Keys, etc. I wasn’t even aware rivalry was a thing for most of his opposing pairs, but I get it. Whether or not it is accurate or fair to regard, for example, Nirvana as outlaw and Pearl Jam as corporate (in the 90s I just lumped them both together as grunge), I can understand what a youthful listener might be trying to project by favoring one over the other – often passionately. It’s all about self-image really, and we are inclined to get passionate when protecting that. Hyden gives fair warning of what can happen if you play Metallica’s Black Album in “a room full of borderline psychopaths waiting for Megadeth to come on stage.” I’ll take his word for it. “Musical rivalries don’t matter,” he says, “until they matter to you personally.”

Some of the more interesting rivalries (touched upon by Hyden only lightly) are over alternate interpretations of songs by fans of the same band, but these are intellectual disputes and less likely to be quite so intense. Not always. As a non-pop example (not mentioned by Hyden) Friedrich Nietzsche developed key elements of his philosophy by arguing with himself passionately over Richard Wagner, first as an advocate and then as his fiercest critic. Even when the emotional volume is dialed down, such arguments can be more revealing than other kinds. For obvious reasons I won’t give a name, but in the late 90s a woman insisted to me in all sincerity that Cher’s Believe single was about addiction. Do you believe in life after love of drugs? For her (though I doubt very much for Cher) it was.

This brings to mind an old high school assignment about which I haven’t thought in decades. Every single school day in addition to other class assignments my senior English teacher required a 500 word essay. “On my desk by 5 PM. That does NOT mean 5:01!” To this day I feel I’ve forgotten something as 5 PM approaches. He usually let students pick their own topics but sometimes he would assign one. On one occasion we were told to interpret the lyrics of some popular song of our choice. My first inclination was to pick something truly weird such as MacArthur Park, Windmills of Your Mind, or Some Velvet Morning. I just about had settled on the last of those when on reconsideration I decided it was too much work for only 24 hours. (This was pre-internet, remember, so you couldn’t just look up interpretations online; you probably couldn’t even get the lyrics in 24 hours unless you owned the record and copied them yourself.) Instead I just went with the Beatles Nowhere Man, which really needs no interpretation at all. It means what it says, so that’s what I said in prose. I felt I was just skating by on minimum effort and was surprised (and oddly discomfited) by a good grade. Perhaps my punctuation was good or something. Then again, perhaps the rest of the class had been just as lazy as I in their choices. As that may be, I now realize Some Velvet Morning would have been a mistake. I hadn’t yet read Hippolytus by Euripides. (In case the reader has forgotten, it is about an ascetic young man who refuses to revere Aphrodite; Aphrodite punishes him in tortuous fashion by making his stepmother Phaedra fall in love with him with tragic consequences.) No one on this continent would write lyrics with the name Phaedra in it without intending the reference. I would have missed it. My well-read English teacher would not have. He would have given me an argument and won. I was better off taking the easy route.

Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra – Some Velvet Morning


  1. Music does take you back. Every time I hear Simon and Garfunkel's Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme or early James Taylor, or just about anyone from the decade I'm transported back to the 60s--and I love that.

    Velvet Morning would have been a good one. Some of the songs were uh, I guess you'd say surreal, which goes hand and hand with the drug use back then. And in truth if some of them don't make a lot of sense you have to fudge it a little for the lyrics to rhyme.

    Last week I watched the Amazon 6-part series on the Grateful Dead, which was quite good if you liked the band. I also saw documentaries on the Doors, and another one I'm forgetting, but again it took me back to the summer of love. It's funny how we remember the essence of the good, but filter out the bad although that was certainly there.

    1. Psychedelia had a huge impact on the culture – far beyond the numbers of people who actually indulged in psychedelics. Alternate (very alternate) perspectives became normalized and distortion was made integral to sights and sounds. They became so normalized that we scarcely notice them anymore except in lyrics where they are hard to miss.

      I wasn’t a huge Dead fan, but I owned some of their albums in the day. A best-of CD is currently on my shelf and still gets occasional play. Then and now I tend to play the Dead as background music, though a few of their classic numbers will usually draw my attention. They do evoke the ‘60s. I liked Oliver Stone's movie "The Doors." Few films get the feel of the decade right, but that one did.

  2. Heh heh, being a gen Xer myself, I recognized a lot of those rivalries. In my circle of friends, I was one of the older ones. I really enjoyed the late 80s rock (big hair and all). So the grunge revolution of the 90s was something disturbing to me. New albums by Van Halen and Metallica were being eclipsed by Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins. As a result, I never really got into the whole grunge scene.

    These days I enjoy both types of rock, but yeah I still sing along to all the stupid lyrics by Poison, or Guns n Roses, or Def Leppard...

    Oh and speaking of odd rivalries. There was also the heated Sammy Hagar vs David Lee Roth battles in the Van Halen fandom. I'm a Sammy guy all the way, but man could that get you some dirty looks.

    1. Hyden does include the Roth vs Hagar thing in his book, and, yes, in some quarters "them's fightin' words."

      The music prevalent when we are formulating and firming up our grown-up identities sticks with us like none other. Some people never like anything else. I'm always finding something new that I like, but I still remember lyrics from songs when I was ages 10 - 22 better than ones I heard last week. The stuff from that range is still "my" music more than anything else ever will be.