November 22, 2009

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.

14 comments:

  1. For quantitative evidence, look at this site:

    http://rateyourmusic.com/charts/top/album/all-time

    There are lots of great rock albums from the 1990s and 2000s:

    Ok Computer, Kid A [Radiohead]
    Loveless [My Bloody Valentine]
    In the Aeroplane over the Sea [Neutral Milk Hotel]
    Funeral [Arcade Fire]
    ()[Sigur Ros]

    While Radiohead is sometimes a little bit on the dopey side, I don't think that Sigur Ros or Arcade Fire could be described as such.

    The website is probably a good representative sample of the adults who use the internet and have some interest in music.

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  2. Anonymous6:48 PM

    After Reading your blog I would like to say that you are totally right on everything. I believe the music at the moment is terrible no meaning or beauty to it at all .Im a huge guns n roses fan and I'm only 20 I wasn't even around when appetite for destruction came out and I'm turely gutted I didn't have a part in the whole 80s music generation etc MTV now it's just fucking shit anyhow I believe there will be a new band to rise out of the clubs I hope so for the good of the genre guns n roses are turely the last great rock band to grace the earth. I'm going to see them in january and have a look at the new guns n roses I can't bloody wait.

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  3. lol WRONGO. There are a tonne of fantastic indie bands out there. Its hard to find, and often not on the radio...but its out there.

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  4. "There are a tonne of fantastic indie bands out there."

    lol QUEERO

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  5. Anonymous2:36 AM

    I concur in general. The 90s marked the end of music worth listening to. There was some good bands like 3 doors down and Matchbox 20 but they were not in the same league as GNR or AC/DC.
    But I was born in the middle of the 80s so by the time I started listening to music heavy rock was dead.
    A good slow song from the 90s would be "here without you baby" or "If your gone".

    Also, AC/DC released a new album last year. Its good chilling music but it lacks any memorable songs.
    Damned good to hear they are touring again though.

    And when it comes to GNR I consider welcome to the jungle to be a rather weak song in general.

    - Breeze

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  6. I think there's plenty of good music today, but then again I'm into country. Rock music can die if it wants to, I don't care. I might check out Fall Out Boy, though - I knew they were popular but the most popular rock band ever?

    How do you feel about crunkcore, btw? It's so intensely despised by indie geeks, metalheads and assorted other nerds that I had to check it out, and I gotta say it's the most shamelessely fun straight music ever.

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  7. I don't think Nirvana was around as long as GNR, so they probably have fewer total videos. I didn't have MTV growing up, so I missed out on all that when I was growing up. When I did first see music videos I decided I wasn't missing much.

    Bon Jovi? Totally gay. The Cars? Barf.

    You don't listen to sad music because you're sad. Do you decide to see Doubt rather than Beverly Hills Chihauhau because you're feeling glum? You might write such music if you're sad. Jerry Cantrell once said that Alice in Chains' songs weren't happy because they had better things to do when they were in good moods.

    Building on my reference to movies, I think it's the case that the works recognized as artistically greatest tend to have an element of tragedy to them. What are Shakespeare's best known plays? Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth. What are the immortal genres of American music that birthed rock'n'roll? Blues & country, both associated with sadness. Nobody remembers the "let's go to the sock hop" tunes that were their contemporaries back in the day.

    There was a 90s style that harked back to the good times of 70s rock: stoner rock (sludge & doom were somewhat similar but more downbeat). I'd take Clutch over GNR, but I recognize I'm probably in a small minority there. The recent "new wave revival" is an exception to my rule that good music is remembered and imitated years later.

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  8. Anonymous3:52 PM

    I would wager that music would be magnificently different if we only could hear, and not see new acts, via the radio.

    The emphasis has been put on cultural styles, looks, and sex, since MTV changed the way we recieved music irrevocably. It probably goes back even further than that though. The televised concerts in the 70's were probably the originators of the pro-visual "cool" bias in the determination of what was popular amongst youths.



    I used to like a song by The Allan Parson's project called, "The Eye in the Sky". It became quite popular for a while, and even ended up being the song the Chicago Bulls used to introduce players in the Jordan-era. If The Allan Parsons project, composed of two regular guys, tried to make a "sexy" video for that song and released it today..............it would never even get airplay and would be dismissed out of hand. There were several old acts composed of ordinary-looking guys and gals with immense vocal or instrumental talent who were not cultural or social provacatuers. These are rather unheard now. These types of people go into different things now, and lesser amounts of them even born anyway.

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  9. "I don't think Nirvana was around as long as GNR, so they probably have fewer total videos."

    Nirvana had a lot more videos, and they're on YouTube, but they just aren't as popular.

    "Jerry Cantrell once said that Alice in Chains' songs weren't happy because they had better things to do when they were in good moods."

    That's a wonderfully accurate signal of a poor artist -- that you just indulge in "art" when you're down and then flit on to some other distraction when you're up. That's the emo kid writing bad poetry during the bus ride to school.

    Serious artists, regardless of how high-quality their work is, stick with it and try to capture a broad range of emotions and situations. Like I said in the post, The Cars (or whoever, just one example) made good songs that were upbeat as well as downers. GNR did too. So did Michael Jackson.

    Anyone who becomes incredibly popular must be catering to a broad range of tastes, perhaps the same consumer during different moods. I'm not saying that successful artists coldly calculate how to appeal broadly in order to make more money or get more prestige.

    Rather, those artists who can't help but aim at all sorts of feelings and topics will be selected for, while those who narrowly fixate on their own problems will be set aside as annoying and tiresome.

    That goes for high art too. Shakespeare is remembered more for his tragedies, but also for his comedies -- he didn't ditch the whole literature gig when he felt chipper. Beethoven wrote the heavy 5th symphony, but also the lighthearted 7th. This pattern generalizes.

    "Nobody remembers the "let's go to the sock hop" tunes that were their contemporaries back in the day."

    Actually, nobody remembers blues and country from back then. Take a random sample of people and see how many could recognize more than one blues song (aside from "The thrill is gone"), and more than three old-time country songs.

    You seem to be equating broad talent with narrowly sappy talent -- that is, anything that isn't uniformly depressing is all the same. Sure, the sock hop groups weren't as great as the Early Beatles or whoever, but that's because they were too upbeat.

    Those who were mostly fun to listen to, but who tempered that with some pensive or sad songs too, did the best at the time and have survived the best now.

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  10. Serious artists, regardless of how high-quality their work is, stick with it and try to capture a broad range of emotions and situations.

    So, uh, Sophocles and Aeschylus weren't so great because he only did tragedies. And Thomas Hardy wasn't such a great writer because his novels and poems are all gloomy. And Keats whose work was almost entirely melancholy wasn't a great poet. Etc. Etc. Etc. Honestly, leave the art theorizing to people who actually know what they're talking about.

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  11. "Drive", "Don't Cry", "November Rain", "Sweet Child O' Mine", "Everybody Hurts", "End of the Road".

    A rather kitschy, maudlin group of songs. No wonder they're so popular.

    I'd suggest "Pennyroyal Tea," "Wicked Game," "Crazy," "Boulder to Birmingham," and "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" instead.

    Remember, in the end, the general public's taste doesn't much matter for long term survival. It's one's influence on other artists that really counts.

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  12. Try again. You're missing two things:

    1) I'm making a statistical claim, not a black-and-white one, about what emotions and situations the best artists try to capture. Obviously there is specialization, but that usually doesn't mean complete specialization. You have to cherry-pick examples of artists whose work is as narrowly exclusive as the ones you mentioned.

    2) Shakespeare is more remembered than Sophocles, Beethoven more than Chopin, etc., whether among the public or the elite. We value versatility over too much specialization. Same is true for scientists and mathematicians too -- we adore those who worked in many fields, who excelled both at theory and experiment alike, and so on.

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  13. I'm making a statistical claim, not a black-and-white one, about what emotions and situations the best artists try to capture. Obviously there is specialization, but that usually doesn't mean complete specialization. You have to cherry-pick examples of artists whose work is as narrowly exclusive as the ones you mentioned.

    As critic Harold Bloom recently noted, except for Shakespeare no one in the history of Western has done both tragedy and comedy. How's that for a statistical trend.

    Also, remember, this was your original claim:
    "Serious artists, regardless of how high-quality their work is, stick with it and try to capture a broad range of emotions and situations."

    Sophocles, Aeschylus, Hardy, Keats etc. are by anyone's standards serious artists, therefore your claim is falsified. But to go along with the statistical claim, they aren't unique. Let's go on. Wordsworth, Baudelaire, Conrad, Virgil, Petrarch, Milton, Flaubert, Tennyson, Leopardi. Being great at expressing a wide range of moods is the province of a tiny, tiny group of of only the very greatest artists. But the overwhelming preponderance of "serious" artists specialize.

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  14. You're still not getting my point. Think of it visually like a probability curve. Along the horizontal axis, we have the breadth of emotions, and the height of the curve at some point says how much the artist puts into that emotion.

    I'm not claiming that this curve is of equal height across all emotions. I know there is a lump around the region of emotions that the artist is more disposed toward.

    What I'm saying is that great artists have a more spread-out curve. Even darker or more serious artists put some effort into lighter moments or comic relief. But you don't really see that in alt rock or grunge. You see it in Leopardi, though. He has a nice light if wistful poem about how filled with joy and gaiety the town center is on Sunday.

    So for these music genres, it's more like they have a single spike around a dark or brooding region of the emotional axis. It's not just that they have less of the lighter or brighter side as standalone works, or even that they only include it as comic relief within brooding standalone works -- it's just not there.

    That wasn't true for punk rock (The Ramones being the obvious example there), or even college radio of the '80s (say The Cure, Camper Van Beethoven). It wasn't so unrelentingly in one part of the emotional space.

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