Did Nirvana Kill Hair Metal?

Did Nirvana kill Hair Metal?

Some say yes, that Nirvana did eliminate the popularity of the semi-hard, pop-oriented, image conscious musical category known as Hair Metal. Others say not really, that Hair Metal was already bloated and dying, collapsing from lack of vigor or purpose, and Nirvana was just the next thing to come along.

What is interesting is how hard it is to tell what happened by looking at the Billboard Album charts. While Hair Metal bands were selling well in to the late 1980s, by the time Nirvana released Nevermind (1991), the Hair Metal acts had disappeared from the top of the charts.

This is not suggest that there was ever a time when Hair Metal bands dominated the top album sales charts. Though the occasional Hair Metal album – Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet, or Def Leppard’s Pyromania – might make it close to the top, pure pop acts like Michael Jackson, Garth Brooks, Madonna, Whitney Houston, U2, and the occasional movie soundtrack were never fully displaced.

Nirvana  didn’t really change the face of popular music that much in the United States. While Nevermind squeezed into the top spot in the charts for a couple weeks in 1992 (and Metallica finished the year in 7th place), the best selling album of the year belonged to Garth Brooks. And the #2 spot was occupied by Michael Jackson.

Did Nirvana Kill Guns n Roses? Guns n Roses actually sold more albums in 1991-92 than Nirvana – Use Your Illusion I and II was, collectively, bigger than Nevermind. But Guns n Roses had peaked and their subsequent record sales were really quite small. Nirvana – a band that feuded with Guns n Roses and explicitly rejected Guns n Roses as phony and untalented – went on to good success with In Utero and even greater success with the Unplugged In New York album. Maybe Nirvana’s self-described authenticity supplanted Guns n Roses rock-star posing. Or maybe there was room at the top for only one-hard rocking band with a lot of off-stage problems. Either way, as Nirvana rose, Guns n Roses fell. 

One irony of this – given the “Nirvana Killed Hair Metal” prosaicism – is that Guns n Roses was considered by contemporaries to be the original Hair Metal slayer. To quote Rolling Stone: “It’s often said that when Guns N’ Roses took off, they instantly obliterated all the Sunset Strip hair-metal bands.

One thing for certain, Guns n Roses – regardless of their intent – did not obliterate Hair Metal. Several of the biggest Hair Metal album successes – Poison’s Open Up and Say…Ah! and Motley Crue’s Dr. Feelgood – came years after Appetite For Destruction was released.

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