Last great rock band -- Guns N Roses?
I've been thinking more about this post on age, generations, and pop music that Steve Sailer posted from a reader. My take is that the decline of quality rock music doesn't stem from a lack of young people: there have been echo booms that should've allowed for something good to emerge, and anyways how many young people does it take to make good music? It's not as though we went through a bottleneck after the Baby Boom. Tens or hundreds of millions is still a shitload of people.
Rather, the decline stems from the general civilizing trend that started in the early 1990s. Violent and property crime rates are down, so are the many forms of child abuse (except parental neglect), promiscuity started falling, etc. When the culture is thrill-seeking, there's a demand for wild music. When fun no longer characterizes the zeitgeist, you're going to get whiny, angry, and sappy music.
(As an aside, someone here, perhaps TGGP, says that alternative rock wasn't supposed to be fun, why is being sad sometimes such a bad thing, and so on. That misses something: no one listens to grunge or alternative rock when they're sad and want sad music to give them company. People would rather listen to "Drive" by The Cars, "Don't Cry" by GNR, "Everybody Hurts" by R.E.M., or "End of the Road" by Boyz II Men. Those groups made fun music on the whole. When you listen to those songs, it sounds like they're speaking to, for, and about all people. When you listen to most alternative rock, it's hard not to conclude that the sadness is really just bitterness from some loser outcast. It doesn't feel like the singer is reaching out to anyone, but instead insisting that everyone else listen to him whine about how bad his particular life is.)
At any rate, which band marks the end-point of rock music? I searched YouTube for a bunch of candidates and sorted the results by how many times the video had been viewed, a measure of popularity long after they were in the spotlight. I just looked to see who had videos with 10 million or more views. For comparison, Michael Jackson has a lot -- more than 10, maybe 20 or so, but I didn't check for duplicate videos. No surprise for the King of Pop.
Guns N Roses has 5, and no other group has that many then or now. Actually, Fall Out Boy does, but those videos are very new; it's most likely a fashion thing, given the quality of their music. We can check again in 20 years to see how they're judged. Much older groups have fewer just because demand for videos on YouTube is driven by young people, so The Beatles don't do well (although Elvis does). Either that or GNR really are better than The Beatles.
In second place, not even neck-and-neck, is Nirvana with 3. (If you lower the cut-off to videos with 1 million views, they still don't win.) I checked some other usual suspects -- U2, Green Day, Pearl Jam (they're nearly forgotten, thank god), R.E.M., Bon Jovi, etc. -- and couldn't find anyone. Even Aerosmith's comeback of the '90s didn't come close.
You can try for yourself and see if there's someone I missed, but it seems like Guns N Roses were the last great rock band. No ax to grind here, as I'm not a die-hard GNR fan. At the time, I was much more into Nirvana than Guns N Roses, but in retrospect it was just fashionable. During the transition to alternative rock, I remember that you could still listen to Guns N Roses, but that was it -- no Bon Jovi, even though they made some great songs too. After whiny rock became the norm, though, you couldn't even like GNR -- they got lumped in with Motley Crue and Poison.
Anyway, it's also neat to see how the rankings of a group's songs has changed somewhat over the years. I remember Nirvana's "Lithium" getting a lot more airplay on MTV than "Come as You Are," but in YouTube view counts it's the other way around. And "In Bloom" places 6th on YouTube even though it was shown more than either of those two on MTV -- by a longshot. Still, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" tops both. And now "Don't Cry" by Guns N Roses handily beats out "Welcome to the Jungle," but I recall the popularity going the other way around back then, in the early-mid-'90s at least. Again, it isn't musical chairs because "November Rain" and "Sweet Child O' Mine" are at the top of both lists. For Metallica, the top YouTube song is "Nothing Else Matters," far ahead of "Enter Sandman" -- a complete reversal from when those songs were released.
Although only based on a few groups, it seems like we don't value the harder and wilder songs as much as the slower and more despondent ones. I doubt that it's because the original fans of Nirvana etc. have grown up and now have different tastes. Most people on YouTube probably didn't even hear "Sweet Child O' Mine" when it first came out. Maybe we're just picking the songs that are closer in mood to today's festival of whining. You could check that with The Beatles. In the 1980s when the culture was still wild, did they value the early or later Beatles more? Of course after alternative rock, we're supposed to worship all that dopey junk that followed Rubber Soul.
If that's not it, my second guess is that we value the slower songs because there's been such a dearth of substitute songs since rock music ended in the early '90s, whereas we've had plenty of songs that are close enough to "Enter Sandman" or "Welcome to the Jungle" that we don't really need to mine the past to satisfy those wants. I should have asked my high school tutorees what slow dance songs they played at their school dances -- could there be any good ones written in the past 15 years? Maybe "Good Riddance" by Green Day. That's all that comes to mind.