Music is not like sports—artists don’t have to “defeat” each other in order to gain supremacy. And yet over the course of the 60 or so years that constitute the modern pop era, we as audience members have consistently pitted vaguely similar (though also discernibly not similar) artists against each other in order to determine who’s best.
In writing Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me, I wasn’t interested in settling these arguments—because I don’t think they can be settled, and because that wouldn’t be any fun. What I am interested in is exploring why music fans are drawn to these dichotomies, how the dynamics of our most heated musical rivalries stem from larger conversations in the culture (then and now), and what we can learn about ourselves by whom we side with.
Let’s be real: Musical rivalries are never totally about music. It’s about sympathizing with a particular worldview represented by an artist over a different worldview represented by an “opposing” artist. You are what you love—and also what you choose not to love. If you pick Hendrix over Clapton, you probably believe that the “burnout” option for rock stars is ultimately more honorable than the “fade away” option. (Or maybe you prefer LSD to Michelob.) If you like Pavement more than The Smashing Pumpkins, you likely find corporate-fueled ’90s “alternative” rock to be highly ridiculous. (Or maybe you prefer California to the Midwest.) If you side with Christina (sorry: Xtina) Aguilera over Britney Spears, you may feel that young girls should emulate a semi-naked woman who can sing like Etta James over a semi-naked woman who can sing like an oversexed ATM. (Or maybe you’re prejudiced against cyborgs.)
This first essay I wrote for the book was about The White Stripes and The Black Keys. Like a lot of essays included in Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me, this chapter didn’t turn out exactly as I anticipated. I was initially drawn to this rivalry because Jack White has feuded with Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney continually over the past several years (though they have now supposedly reconciled). It seemed like entertaining fodder for a rivalries book. However, I came to see the dynamic of this rivalry as a metaphor for (of all things) male friendship. By analyzing the particulars of the White Stripes/Black Keys feud, I became fixated on why men seem to have such a hard time relating to one another.
Jack White is the former front man for a two-person blues-rock band called the White Stripes. Dan Auerbach is the current front man for a two-person blues-rock band called the Black Keys. The obvious answer to “Why can’t Jack White and Dan Auerbach be friends?” is that Jack White has explicitly stated that he hates Dan Auerbach and that this hatred stems from White’s belief that Auerbach copied his musical style. Even before he said it outright, White strongly implied his disdain for years. In a 2010 Rolling Stone interview, in response to a question about the White Stripes getting lumped into the “garage rock” movement that White was principally responsible for mainstreaming in the early ’00s, White said his style had “a lot more to do with Jay-Z than the Black Keys,” a mysterious statement that’s all the more enigmatic by virtue of not being the least bit true. Fairly or unfairly, White’s oeuvre is inarguably connected more strongly to that of the Black Keys than to the storied career of the artist presently known as Beyoncé’s husband. White insisting otherwise is like Jay Z claiming he has more in common with a plate of garlic bread than with Kanye West.
Also, in a 2012 Rolling Stone profile of the Black Keys, there’s a passing reference to White blocking Auerbach from entering his Nashville studio, a thoroughly awesome scenario straight out of Road House (with insecure guitarists subbed in for burly bouncers) that, disappointingly, isn’t examined in detail.
In 2013, White’s disgust for Auerbach was finally spelled out in an angry public screed disseminated by the tabloids. Perhaps in an effort to make her ex-husband appear insane, White’s ex-wife Karen Elson submitted a bunch of his e-mails as evidence in a child custody fight, and the correspondence was later reported by TMZ. The most quoted snippet from these e-mails was White’s dismay over his children attending the same Nashville school to which Auerbach sends his kids.
“My concern with Auerbach is because I don’t want the kids involved in any of that crap,” White wrote to Elson. “You aren’t thinking ahead. That’s a possible twelve fucking years I’m going to have to be sitting in kids chairs next to that asshole with other people trying to lump us in together. He gets yet another free reign [sic] to follow me around and copy me and push himself into my world.”
Let’s set this e-mail aside for now. Imagine for a moment that White and Auerbach aren’t successful musicians but merely two guys whose kids go to the same school. Now let’s ask the question again: Why can’t Jack White and Dan Auerbach be friends? They obviously should be friends, right? Frankly, it’s kind of idiotic that they’re not friends. I can’t think of two contemporary rock stars (hell, people) who have as much in common. White and Auerbach were both born in the latter half of the ’70s. Both were raised in hardscrabble middle-American cities (Detroit and Akron respectively). As teenagers in the ’90s they obsessed over Delta blues musicians such as Robert Johnson and Son House, in spite of the fact that most people their age were obsessing over the authenticity of Gavin Rossdale at the time. Both formed bands with unconventional lineups that played music considered to be at least forty years past its commercial prime. Both released several albums on obscure indie labels years before their bands became modern rock-radio staples. Both have collaborated with Danger Mouse. Both claim to be fans of RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan. Both are divorced fathers. Both reside in Nashville and have been featured in some form on the ABC prime-time drama Nashville—Auerbach appeared as himself in a cameo, and White is the basis of a semiregular character named Liam McGuinnis, a sexy, principled rock-and-roll record producer. It’s not impossible to talk about one without mentioning the other, but White and Auerbach seem to be grouped together more often than not.
If White truly were forced to sit in a kid’s chair next to Auerbach for the next twelve years, at least he would have his choice of potential conversation starters. “Do you think the anti-mainstream Gen-X orthodoxy of grunge subliminally drove you into a moribund genre such as the blues?” “Why do dead-end rust-belt American towns foster such thriving rock scenes?” “What do you have against bass players?” This sounds like a dream come true to me. For many men with young children, finding a Relatable Dude in the midst of little-kid situations involves a never-ending and often fruitless search. After my wife and I had our son, I went through a period when I made no new “dad” friends. Whenever I took my son to his playgroup, I fantasized about running into an interesting guy with whom I’d be able to connect as our respective toddlers ritualistically disassembled Spider-Man toys. But it never happened. Over time I convinced myself that I was simply bad at meeting people. I felt lonely and alienated. Doors songs would come on the radio, and instead of laughing or changing the station, I related.
When Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon broke up, melodramatic indie-rock fans declared that they no longer believed in true love. I have similar feelings about Jack White and Dan Auerbach. I get that “Why can’t Jack White and Dan Auerbach be friends?” might seem like a frivolous question: speculating on the status of the relationship between two similar celebrities is a silly exercise. But what I’m really asking is this: Why can’t I make more male friends?
Excerpted from Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me by Steven Hyden, copyright ©2016 by Steven Hyden. Used with permission by Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.