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'Rock and Roll Cage Match'

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[October 08, 2008]  "Rock and Roll Cage Match: Music's Greatest Rivalries Decided." Sean Manning, editor, Three Rivers Press, 2008, 276 pages.

Review by
Richard Sumrall

Michael Jackson vs. Prince. Bruce Springsteen vs. Bon Jovi. Nirvana vs. Metallica. These are just some of the classic rivalries analyzed in the new book "Rock and Roll Cage Match."

Editor-author Sean Manning has assembled some of music's best commentators to debate 30 of the "all-time juiciest 'Who's better?' musical disputes." The book is not a tell-all on some of rock's legendary fights; rather it's a hypothetical pairing of some the greatest artists as argued by their fans on both sides.

Whitney Houston vs. Mariah Carey

According to writer-musician Whitney Pastorek, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey "are the most even matchup the music world has to offer." She writes, "Look no further than 'American Idol,' within the context of which Houston and Carey are the lone artists considered no-nos for all but the most talented to tackle."

A brief comparison proves this out. Carey has 17 No. 1 singles to Houston's 11 No. 1's. Houston starred in the critically acclaimed movie "The Bodyguard," while Carey's movie "Glitter" was a commercial and critical disaster.

Houston arrived on the music scene in 1985 and was an immediate sensation. Her first album demonstrated her ability to turn a song into "an emotional journey a precocious, earthy passion." According to Pastorek, one might argue that Carey's 1990 success could be attributed to Houston's trailblazing efforts.

It should also be mentioned that Carey's 1990 debut album "features a vocal that's as strong and clear as her predecessors."

This brings us to the central point of Pastorek's comparison: the noise vs. the catharsis. She describes the noise as the extraordinary high notes Carey hits within her 74-note vocal range, which she calls, "a novelty, a spectacularly lucrative party trick." On the other hand, the catharsis is Houston's "glorious boom of a key change the rush, the transcendent ping that goes off in your brain and brings emotions you barely knew you had."

In the end, Pastorek concludes that Houston is the greatest diva of all because she does it all better: singing, performing or messing up her life. "She reigns supreme" on every level, "always has, always will."


R.E.M. vs. U2

According to Dan Kois, the founding editor of the blog Vulture, the bands R.E.M. and U2 represent "the peak of intelligent rock music in the 1980s." It is his contention that, despite U2's evolution into music's "spokesband for human dignity," it is actually R.E.M. that made the best and most important music of that decade.

When comparing them in the studio or in concert, it is obvious that the two groups took markedly different approaches to their music. U2, the over-the-top live show, the grand spectacle, dominated the charts with spot-on political anthems and songs that combined a social commentary with an uplifting message of hope and belief. R.E.M.'s music, specifically through the lyrics of lead singer Michael Stipe, was more opaque and distant; to the listener: "The lyrics could mean anything, and therefore they meant everything, weighted as they were with mystery, romance and passion."

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As their careers have progressed into the present day, U2 has regained supergroup status (they proclaimed in 2001 that they were reapplying for the job of "the best band in the world"). As for R.E.M., Kois admits that their last several albums have not been among the band's best creative efforts.

He does stand by the contention in his critique that R.E.M. was the band of the '80s: "The delicacy at the heart of R.E.M.'s 1980s albums fostered introspection and brotherhood among those of us who loved them in those years."


John Lennon vs. Paul McCartney

It is no small irony that the greatest rivalry in rock history is not between two bands but between two members of the same band. L.A. Weekly deputy editor Joe Donnelly tackles the debate of John vs. Paul through the most obvious comparison -- their music.

In examining their musical styles, Donnelly writes that Lennon "practiced the art of telling (a story) mostly in plain English," while McCartney, "a practitioner of the art of showing, spoke in metaphors, imagery and parables."

To demonstrate this, Donnelly looks at two of the duo's most famous songs -- McCartney's "Penny Lane" and Lennon's "Strawberry Fields Forever." Released as a single, "Penny" was the A-side that reached No. 1 in the U.S. and the U.K., while the B-side, "Strawberry," reached No. 8 and No. 2, respectively.

Some critics argue that "Strawberry" is a futuristic, almost holy work of art, while "Penny" is dismissed as a "sentimental ditty." Donnelly disagrees: If you remove the radical studio engineering, editing and overdubbing from "Strawberry" and concentrate on the abstract nature of the lyrics, the "whole thing falls apart," he says. Apply the same critique to "Penny" -- remove the seemingly upbeat music -- and the effect of the words and the story they tell is "devastating."

Donnelly does concede that Lennon was probably the more important cultural figure, but that is a different argument.


As for the most important Beatle, he concludes it is McCartney: "I'm going to put on 'Abbey Road' and allow Paul to help me carry that weight."

"Rock and Roll Cage Match" is a very engaging and entertaining collection of opinions on some of popular music's greatest "Who's the best?" debates. This book is recommended for fans of music or popular culture.

[Text from file received from Richard Sumrall, Lincoln Public Library District]

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