(The End of) the Musical Rivalry? - Competition Week


Photo by Michael Galpert .

The very idea of the ‘Musical Rivalry’ feels antiquated, leftover from times of greater prosperity in the industry when artistic integrity and record sales appeared more congruent. The British Invasion seems like as good a place as any to start discussing this subject, but it’s difficult to say just where the Beatles-or-Stones drawn battle lines got everyone. Music these days hardly comprises a simple choice in a two-party system as it did then. Spend a few moments wading through the endless graveyard of Myspace Music profiles and the climate still feels like it’s every band for themselves.

What further complicates these questions is when discussing the top of the pops, who can hold the place of #1 without being in competition with everyone below them? That said, it’s usually the mythology of two pop icons jockeying for the crown of the zeitgeist that tends to reign supreme in our collective cultural memories. By standing atop of the ’80s like no one else,  Michael Jackson could claim so many heads in his pursuit of global domination (Madonna, Springsteen, Duran Duran, Hair Metal, etc.) but we will always remember him pitted against Prince.

I remember in middle school how the media drew comparisons between the boy bands of the day and that of yesteryear. The parallels were oddly similar: the lower class pretty boys (The Beatles/N*Sync) versus the bourgeois-in-disguise as a rough-riding pack of outsiders (The Rolling Stones/The Backstreet Boys) — or more simply, the “safer” artist versus the “vaguely less-safe” artist. Today we have no lack of art made directly for the stipulation of the American teenage girl based on this same conflict, though I see this a bit more in cinema than I do in music. (Honestly, do Big Time Rush really make the Jo-Bros sweat? Please.)

The public ripples of these ‘battles’, especially where they are measured over who makes better art, are either embraced by the parties involved for their mutual monetary benefit (i.e. Blur vs. Oasis) or maintained more so in private in order to hone personal creative focus (Paul McCartney vs. Brian Wilson). No one doubts at least a few of these rivalries had true emotional cores (remember, MJ did name his first born son “Prince”) but they still carry with them all the commercial potential of an album’s worth of hit singles.

After all, for at least four decades conflict consistently drove record sales and ultimately defined certain genres. Hip-hop may owe it’s three decade-long tenure in the driver’s seat of the mainstream entirely to the synergy of MC-battles. From the “Bridge Wars” of the late ’80s to the obvious East Coast vs. West Coast schism of the ’90s, it’s safe to say personal conflicts, fabricated or not, have often served as the genre’s bread and butter.

In fact, the last “chart battle” anyone can remember felt overly choreographed along these lines. In 2007, the media somehow salivated when Kanye West and 50 Cent ‘faced off’ on September 11th of that year by each releasing their new albums on the same day. To make things interesting, both parties agreed to a wager – who ever sells less records must retire.

The public would have demonstrated some notable interest in this “epic showdown” if there was actually anything at stake in it but predictably, the element of danger was in no way involved. For starters, even if Tupac and Biggie were alive and well in 2007, it would be hard to imagine either Kanye or 50 ending their “beef” in a way that could be considered violent. By autumn of that year, 50 was far too big-time to put a cap in anyone’s ass or hire anyone to kill someone as ultimately harmless as Kanye. His insipid approach to celebrity and excessive merchandising endeavors made him a sellout to an audience who doesn’t mind seeing Snoop Dogg in soap operas. By comparison, even an unrelenting narcissist like Kanye is less annoying.

What ultimately soiled the whole publicity effort, however, was how both parties involved (and most of their mutual friends) kept saying in interviews that “this is what hip-hop needs right now.” Which is about as asinine as saying what boxing needs is funny haircuts and engrossing plot lines, all to squeeze the most out of two guys hitting each other with folding chairs. In no way could they have been talking about record sales, in which case, they probably would have said “this is what the industry needs right now” and made a far more accurate statement.

When all was said and done, 50 obviously didn’t retire — much to everyone’s surprise at the time. As for Kanye, the only kryptonite that could possibly humble his ego proved to be swallowing a whole bottle of Kognac before an awards show and telling a doe-eyed 17-year-old country superstar that Beyonce deserved her moonman. What the entire Kanye-50 escapade really said about the state of music (or hip-hop for that matter) in the late ’00s was that the industry can not drum up a believable conflict out of thin air while feverishly fighting for its own survival.

The Internet still has yet to definitely sink the money ball safely between the goal posts of either the major labels or independents. If these “middle men” are to one day disappear entirely (as prophecy tells us), then so will the PR departments who pit these artists against each other and bang their war drums. But in contrast to rustic visions of turf battles between egos, the narrative conflict that seems to be driving most of today’s best music instead pits the artist against themselves. Whether it’s coping with the widening gap between their goals and their public appearance, actively trying to out-do their own best work, or returning to the idolization of Edie Sedgewick-style muses, whatever musical “wars” being waged are being increasingly fought from within.

As genre walls erode, categorization grows more meaningless, and mashup culture continues to evade copyright enforcers, success in music is becoming less about who better represents the ideals of their audience but more so who can attract the largest crowd of dissidents under one roof. For an industry dead-set on eating itself alive, the next generation of musical innovators will not be those who can divide along the old genre lines but those who can unite by erasing them.