Comment for Comment: On Michael Tedder’s “Top Eight”
By Grant SharplesAugust 20, 2023
Top Eight: How MySpace Changed Music by Michael Tedder
It wasn’t always like this. Facebook’s chief predecessor did not achieve—or really seem to aim for—the same kind of seamless integration into everyday life that would allow Zuckerberg to become so famous and infamous. First, there was just some guy named Tom. When MySpace launched on August 1, 2003, teenagers flocked to the site on the promise that they’d be able to find an audience for their digital camera rolls and connect with like-minded strangers who had similar tastes—especially when it came to music, which, with a few basic HTML strokes, could be programmed to greet those who visited one’s page. Before MySpace’s very public demise, the teens who populated it changed the pop-culture landscape writ large. And yet, unlike Facebook, MySpace’s rise and fall have gone relatively unexplored, and its ripple effects on music with it.
Michael Tedder’s first book, Top Eight: How MySpace Changed Music (2023), rectifies that gap in scholarship. In a compelling mix of reporting, oral history, and cultural criticism, Tedder documents how the platform ushered in a mainstream emo movement—and foreshadowed its inevitable end. Featuring in-depth interviews with artists such as Dashboard Confessional front man Chris Carrabba, Taking Back Sunday founder Eddie Reyes, and My Chemical Romance rhythm guitarist Frank Iero, as well as core industry players including label representatives, magazine editors, and former MySpace employees, Top Eight takes an incisive look at MySpace and emo’s once symbiotic relationship.
Just as Facebook was born in—and would eventually mutate—a complicated ecosystem, MySpace was a product of what preceded it. Top Eight moves chronologically, its first section examining the novelty that was social media in the 1990s and early 2000s. Online forums and bulletin board systems (BBS) allowed users to find shared spaces where they could discuss their niche interests with people they’d never met in real life, and in most cases never expected to. Even in these nascent stages, the social internet fostered a sense of community. “MySpace should be considered to have three spiritual forebearers that stand apart from the rest of the Internet,” Tedder writes in Top Eight’s first chapter: “Makeoutclub, AOL Instant Messenger (or AIM), and LiveJournal.”
As young people were seeking to connect and discuss their interests, the objects of those interests were starting to disseminate online as well. Peer-to-peer file-sharing services like Napster and LimeWire allowed users to download and exchange pirated music for free. As expected, established musicians unanimously despised this digital black market. These services drew so much ire that Metallica and Dr. Dre filed lawsuits against Napster, which eventually went bankrupt. But Tedder underlines the nonunanimity of this view among musicians: “While the Metallicas and Dr. Dres of the world were livid over Napster, upstarts much lower on the food chain were grateful for the free exposure that file sharing, message boards, and LiveJournal provided,” granting them a national reach otherwise impossible without the World Wide Web.
He cogently points out how MySpace was an ideal hybrid of these two types of platforms, with co-founder Tom Anderson supplying the features that Napster and LiveJournal offered in a more streamlined—and more legal—manner. Not only could you blog to your heart’s content, but you could also embed songs, showing off your favorite tracks to friends or unwitting web surfers who stumbled upon your page. Given that emo is a genre steeped in laying out all your emotions in their ugly, honest glory, emo was as central to MySpace as MySpace was to emo. This was not a case of global stars fighting bootleggers on the fringes of their audience. The reciprocity was the point.
If all this seems technically sophisticated or legally provocative, it helped that the public face of the company was nearly cartoonish in his plainness. When users signed up for MySpace, Tom Anderson—that name!—was their first, default friend, his delightfully ordinary profile making MySpace Tom a sort of talisman of the mundane. Tedder fleshes out this skeleton, initially describing Anderson as “a reformed teenage hacker” who worked under the name “Lord Flathead.” When he was just 14, Anderson elicited the attention of the FBI when he hacked into Chase Manhattan Bank; his age was the only factor precluding his arrest. Years later, as a debt-laden UCLA film student, he answered an ad for a copywriting and product testing job that had been posted by Chris DeWolfe, Anderson’s future MySpace co-founder.
Despite introducing a cast of characters, Top Eight is not an act of mythmaking in the vein of The Social Network. Where that film placed the young mogul at its center and treated him as its protagonist, however flawed or prickly, Top Eight’s concern is MySpace the corporate entity. Anderson is merely a vessel, his affable ordinariness the perfect contrast to the looming gaze of big tech.
One of the attributes that differentiated MySpace from its competitors (and successors) was the ability to name and rank your top eight friends. This gave MySpace a more personal touch than Friendster, which Anderson criticized for being too sterile and detached. As Tedder writes of that other platform, “There was no way to easily find fellow Weezer fans so you could defend or deride their latest comeback album.” Aside from this improved navigability, MySpace seemed to offer, through the ranking system and ability to sometimes crudely customize your page, a place for young people to be their rawest, truest selves.
Music, again, was the key facet of this personalization, and Top Eight does a compelling job of scrutinizing the numerous ways in which MySpace and emo music were tied together, for better or worse. Less than two years after it was founded, MySpace partnered with Interscope Records to form MySpace Records, which signed everyone from singer-songwriter Meiko to rap-rockers Hollywood Undead. This partnership with one of the most prominent record labels on the planet speaks to MySpace’s mixture of DIY aesthetics and corporate ambition, a tidy metaphor for the mainstream emo boom that would take the suburbs by storm in the mid-aughts, with bands like Fall Out Boy, Panic! at the Disco, and Paramore crossing fully into the cultural mainstream. MySpace’s team came up with the savvy idea to use the troves of data the platform generated to launch its own artist charts, which were divided into major, indie, and unsigned iterations. It represented how MySpace, similar to emo’s many subgenres, could itself be split up into small communities.
For long stretches, Top Eight is as much about the emo music of the era as it is about MySpace’s symbiotic relationship to it. This makes Tedder’s analysis more credible and more gripping than it would be if he were well versed in only the business side: he knows which crevices to dig into, which inflection points to map. The book is informative without ever feeling didactic, which is refreshing when discussions of the genre are so exhaustingly policed by gatekeepers dictating what is and isn’t emo. There’s a tacit understanding that emo has (at the time of this writing) five discrete waves, and Tedder does an excellent job distinguishing what each wave encompasses.
Fortunately, Tedder doesn’t treat Top Eight like a textbook, instead interspersing emo lessons throughout the book to educate the uninitiated without inundating them. For the most part, he focuses on emo’s second and third waves—smart, given the internet’s growth period during second-wave emo (Texas Is the Reason, Sunny Day Real Estate, The Promise Ring) and MySpace’s apotheosis during the third (Jimmy Eat World, Taking Back Sunday, My Chemical Romance). Tedder, who is also a reporter for the financial news outlet TheStreet, applies journalistic rigor to the sort of cultural critique and corporate mythmaking that is often intractably nebulous. His reporting skills are best showcased in the book’s latter half, which traces MySpace’s and emo’s parallel commercial crashes.
When Rupert Murdoch purchased MySpace in 2005, only to strike a $900 million advertising deal with Google in 2006 that would hinder MySpace’s functionality and lead to countless bugs and glitches, users abandoned the once beloved platform en masse. Facebook began to overtake MySpace in terms of monthly visitors and revenue. The true coup de grâce was a server migration, which the company announced in 2019, that led to the permanent erasure of anything posted before 2015. It sounded the death knell just after a gauche ad campaign with Justin Timberlake—now cosplaying as Napster co-founder Sean Parker in real life after having portrayed him in The Social Network—and layoffs decimated the staff. Although the domain still exists, MySpace died a cruel, capitalist death in everything but name.
Beyond the boardroom, the rampant misogyny and abuse that permeated emo, specifically during its third wave, came under long-overdue scrutiny as #MeToo garnered steam in the late 2010s. Tedder doesn’t look at the MySpace era through rose-tinted goggles; he refuses to romanticize a scene that could be so pernicious to anyone who wasn’t a white cisgender man. He looks critically at these issues by quoting survivors like VersaEmerge’s Sierra Kay and The Summer Set drummer Jess Bowen as they recount their harrowing experiences with men at Warped Tour. He gives Texas Is the Reason guitarist Norman Brannon the space to talk about the unbridled, homophobic comments targeting him on Jade Tree’s message boards. Top Eight also reckons with addiction, and how the scene fostered an environment that wore on musicians’ mental health. Artists including Motion City Soundtrack’s Justin Courtney Pierre, Taking Back Sunday’s Eddie Reyes, and Thursday’s Geoff Rickly vocalize their experiences and describe how they’ve taken steps to prioritize their well-being. The oral history format in these sections is deliberate: it allows the people themselves to tell their stories directly to the reader.
Much as MySpace facilitated emo’s rise, it also helped to spread its corrosive elements. Tedder writes about the many instances of cyberbullying on MySpace that led to teenagers’ deaths and uncovers how sexual predators leveraged the site to target underage girls, subject matter that leads to the use of content warnings at the beginning of several chapters. Influential essays like Jessica Hopper’s “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t” and Jenn Pelly’s “Unraveling the Sexism of Emo’s Third Wave” have previously outlined the ways in which emo failed women, as artists like Brand New, Saves the Day, and New Found Glory wrote lyrics about killing romantic partners in a jealous rage, while behind the scenes, some band members used their power to actually groom or prey on underage fans. Tedder adds to this growing body of literature by confronting that history unflinchingly. By praising MySpace’s successes while highlighting its central failings, Tedder’s history is as candid as it gets.
Grant Sharples is a writer based in Kansas City. His work has appeared in Pitchfork, Stereogum, The Ringer, SPIN, Uproxx, and other publications.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Vivian Medithi reviews McKenzie Wark’s “Raving.”...
Arielle Gordon reviews Cosey Fanni Tutti’s “Re-Sisters: The Lives and Recordings of Delia Derbyshire, Margery Kempe & Cosey Fanni Tutti.”...
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.