Cultural differences: British produce popular bands, Americans produce popular solo artists

Here is an interesting musical argument: among the world’s best-selling music artists, Britain is represented by bands while the United States has mainly solo artists.

That fact conforms a rule that becomes more and more noticeable the further down you look on the list of the greatest-selling artist of all time: The biggest bands in the world are British, and the biggest solo artists are North American.

The top 20 artists, in order, are The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Pink Floyd, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, AC/DC, Whitney Houston, The Rolling Stones, Queen, ABBA, The Eagles, U2, Billy Joel, Phil Collins, Aerosmith, Frank Sinatra, and Barbra Streisand. The list is perfectly split between 10 solo artists and 10 groups. Eight of the 10 solo artists are from North America, while eight of the 10 bands are from outside America, the majority being British. Remarkably, the country that invented rock and roll has not produced any of the top seven rock bands. America’s strongest contender, in at No. 8, is often-derided soft-rock stalwarts The Eagles…

It’s hard to avoid wondering whether political/social mores play a role in the dichotomy. America, after all, likes to think of itself as a land of individualists. Elvis, Jackson, and Madonna all came from humble beginnings, surrounded by poverty and family tragedy. They epitomized the American dream, and so you might argue that the more left-leaning Europeans are happier to celebrate the collectivism of a band. If we look to what’s thought to be the most ideologically “right” genre, this theory holds true: Of the 25 greatest selling country-music stars of all time, all are solo artists. The UK’s two bestselling solo stars, meanwhile, do not fit the rags-to-riches mold of the American singers, but are rather privileged virtuosos who were in stage school from a very young age (Phil Collins, Elton John.)

But an arguably sturdier explanation lies in the way those first two giants, Elvis and The Beatles, influenced listeners, musicians, and recording industries in their respective countries. The most-talented aspiring artists on the east side of the Atlantic, from Bono to Freddy Mercury, wanted to be in a band like the Beatles. In the States and Canada everyone from Madonna to Michael Jackson wanted to be the next King.

I’m not sure I buy this final argument. After all, a number of these important early British bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones learned much of their craft from American solo artists like Elvis, Little Richard, Muddy Waters, and others. Every artist in America wanted to be Elvis and every British artist wanted to be like The Beatles?

Another aspect of this is that even solo artists need backing bands and collaborators. It is not like the solo artist does everything alone even if they get much of the credit. Additionally, many bands have more dominant and less dominant members. Many bands have struggled with this as members vie for attention. In the end, perhaps this is more about notions of who gets to take credit for musical achievements: the front person or the collective?

This topic seems ripe for more prolonged study. This argument is based on the top 20 artists of all time and perhaps represents a statistical anomaly compared to a broad slice of chart-toppers. And why not expand the study to other countries who might have even different musical cultures?

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