Saturday, December 13, 2008

Review - Rock and Roll Cage Match

Rock and Roll Cage Match: Music's Greatest Rivalries, Decided (2008) is a fun read, a book that isn't comprehensive, or convincing, or consistent, yet will amuse you if you have been plugged into music over the past 40 years or so. The editor, Sean Manning, has chosen several music critics to weigh in on musical duels, for example, Phil Collins vs. Sting, or ABBA vs. the Bee Gees. (I don't know who actually chose the match-ups.)

As you can guess, the quality is uneven - The Album vs. The Single, rendered as a comic strip, struck me as particularly uninteresting - but, taken as a whole, pretty high. Occasionally too precious for insight, perhaps (I really couldn't tell if the selection of Bon Jovi over Bruce Springsteen was ironic), but the writing is generally varied enough to stave off fatigue.

If there is a problem, it's the lack of snark. The writers generally admire, at least to some extent, both of the "contenders," so there are fewer laughing out loud digs than I would have favored; I expected Whitney Pastorek to go to town on Mariah Carey in her battle with Whitney Houston, but she was relatively respectful (though her description of Carey's "The Noise" is chuckle-provoking).

What will strike you is that, at their best, these short essays (generally 8-10 pages) reveal something of the writer and why one band's music means so much. Gideon Yago's tale of Metallica vs. Nirvana has in it echoes of anyone who's ever found a sound that resonates in their soul, touches them deeply in (possibly) a life-transforming way. This seems to be universally true, not just in this book but in other music writing, that the attachments formed in adolescence are particularly meaningful. Yago first heard Nirvana at a time in his life he needed to, and it becomes fairly clear which way this duel will come out.

But that's OK, these are personal essays, and the process of getting there is far more important than how the matches really end up. There will still be people who believe that Lennon is a god and McCartney just a purveyor of silly love songs, no matter the evidence presented here. The writers here, though, are skilled enough to make you care about their opinion, and they turn a book that could have been silly into fascinating looks at the work and times of these musicians.

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