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."
Even when an ensemble did make it big during that era of American rock and roll, it would be named after the front man--Buddy Holly and The Crickets, Bill Haley and The Comets. The Beatles' name was inspired by Holly's "backing" band, but they broke out as a democratic group--maybe because there was no way of choosing a front man from Paul and John. Until the fab four blew up, Drake points out, even most British recording artists were solo performers like Cliff Richard, Helen Shapiro, and Billy Fury.
But when the band of four seemingly equal members did take over the world, appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9th, 1964, they changed the rules forever--and created the intercontinental rock divide that persists till today.
While Motown Records' Berry Gordy realized the attraction of moving the spotlight onto a lead singer by renaming The Supremes "Diana Ross and...", the Beatles were being sold by Capitol as four boys with identical haircuts and matching gray collarless suits. While Michael Jackson was being groomed to leave the Jackson Five from the age of 13, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin were releasing million-selling albums without a single band member's image on the artwork.
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.
For evidence, look no further than the two continents' current of-the-moment, globe-conquering phenoms. "We watched that film of The Beatles when they first touched down in America and we saw a real likeness with our personalities," Harry of One Direction said last year. Justin Bieber, meanwhile, had this to say on Argentinian TV: "Elvis... He was cool."