Who's better: Springsteen or Bon Jovi?
Bruce Springsteen or Bon Jovi? Nas or Jay-Z? The Smiths or The Cure? Paul or John? Comparing musicians is sophomoric, sure, but it's also irresistible. These contests generate the kind of end-of-the-night, drunkish throwdowns (in my circles, at least) that send people home muttering to their significant others, "Can you believe that guy? U2 is not better than R.E.M."
To guide us through these treacherous waters -- or to stoke our fires -- there is now the book "Rock and Roll Cage Match: Music's Greatest Rivalries Decided." Editor Sean Manning has tapped major music critics to set major musicians against one another -- and determine who rules.
In some of the best pieces, the writers argue with the hyperbole and freedom of someone trying to whip up a pro-wrestling audience. "There are two kinds of people in this world: those who want to have children and those who'd rather eat them," Melissa Maerz writes in "Trent Reznor vs. Marilyn Manson." Comparing NWA and the Wu-Tang Clan, Jonah Weiner writes of NWA: "They'll push a button, and then keep jamming on it until their thumbs bleed." Tom Reynolds begins by showing the commonalities between Kraftwerk and Devo: "Besides their pioneering work with electronic gizmos,they both explore societal disconnection while creating music that's intentionally soulless. They also like robots and are out of their minds." Russ Meneve calls "Born in the U.S.A." "Bruce Springsteen's most commercially sucksessful album -- an album in which Bruce's horrific screams could make Ghandi skeet-shoot babies in little pink hats..."
That's not to say that there isn't some seriousness here, in the music criticism and, in a few brilliant flashes, in why music gets so deeply under our skin. That, and the verdict in Mariah Carey vs. Whitney Houston, after the jump.
As if there was any question: Whitney Houston.
Mariah Carey and others, Whitney Pastorek writes, "can never match the carnage of her train wreck, and they certainly cannot hold a candle to Houston as an artist." This sense of life-as-performance also puts Marilyn Manson over Trent Reznor, Britney Spears over Christina Aguilera and Black Sabbath over Led Zeppelin, although the victors are admittedly weaker musicians.
There are a few duds in the collection -- for your sanity, avoid the match of Bob Dylan versus Bob Marley, which includes atrocious freeform poetry. It also omits Dylan's born-again Christian period while focusing on his Judaism, and skips his move from folk to electric entirely. And Richard Hell's matchup of the Rolling Stones versus the Velvet Underground, which has so much potential, reads like a night-before first draft.
On the upside, Tom Breihan, writing on Nas and Jay-Z, both explicates their rivalry and gives a visceral sense of the rappers' styles. Writing about the Four Tops and the Temptations, Sean Howe adds a sweet element of -- fiction? storytelling? -- in which the bands' songs are an essential element of a relationship that blossoms and dies. And Gideon Yado captures a kind of breakthrough that I think most devoted music fans have felt. For him, it was when he, as an adolescent, went from Metallica devotee to discovering Nirvana:
Metallica was one thing. Nirvana was many things. Metallica was craft. Nirvana was art. ...
When I heard that first howl, that first ... howl, it told me that everything I had been doing for the last three years was all wrong. Real pain wasn't spooky, scary lyrics about apocalyptic destruction. It came from deep within; it was your own and you had to exorcise it. That's what I heard in Nirvana. ...
... I started a zine at Kinko's. I took the subway into the city late at night to catch live bands in empty rooms. I swore to be an artist. And I did it all alone.
By the time Kurt put his toe on the trigger, I was a bona fide alien in my town, slaking a hunger for weird, ... weird sounds, outsiders. There were no girls, few friends, and absolutely zero fellow travelers in the fringe Nirvana taught me to seek. But it was real. It was true. I felt exhilarated and alive because of those things I could call my own, each its own buzzing promise of truth never exceeded by that first spin of "Nevermind."
The bands in these contests tend to appeal to people in their 30s, mostly -- people old enough to have formed prejudices and young enough to still argue about them as if they matter. Which they do.
And P.S. -- U2 is better than R.E.M.
Photo credits: Bruce Springsteen - Bill Kostroun / Associated Press; Jon Bon Jovi - Associated Press