The Michael Jackson estate recently announced that the King of Pop had posthumously achieved the milestone of moving one billion records worldwide. The numbers are hard to verify, but if true, they put him in a small club with The Beatles and Elvis Presley. These three artists are the best-selling acts of all time: two American solo singers from humble beginnings, and a group of working-class boys from the north of England.
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.
As Independence Day nears, the history of this divide in musical outputs serves as a reminder of how the cultures of U.S. and its mother country have been distinct yet inextricably twined. The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin have always admitted that their music is a take on American rhythm and blues. Even The Beatles started out performing Chuck Berry covers. American bands, meanwhile, have often needed to make it in England before getting recognized back home, as was recently true of The White Stripes, The Strokes, and The Kings of Leon. (The greatest-selling album by a US band in the UK ever? The Scissor Sisters' debut. Yes, really.)
While U2 (not strictly British but signed to a British label with two members born in the UK) were shifting millions of records in the late '80s and '90s, there were arguably two American bands that could have achieved the same worldwide domination. Guns N' Roses and Nirvana both had the combination of anthemic songwriting and compelling stage presence needed to become a true world-beating act. Only one of these bands ever desired to be that big, and for very different reasons, neither was able to produce a sustained run of best-selling albums.
At the dawn of the modern music era, though, American solo artists led the way.
"For the first 10 years (1953-63) of rock and roll, there were no British musicians involved in recording and having a worldwide impact," says rock historian Barry Drake in an email. "The American '50s models were all solo performers--Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles."