Way back in 2008 I wrote that Guns N Roses was the band that killed "Hair Metal." Hair metal can be a pejorative term, but what I mean by that is essentially melodic hard rock in the 80s, as opposed to speed metal or progressive metal or any other sub-genre.
That opinion still holds, but I'm pinning it more on Axl Rose personally and less on the band after reading Duff McKagan's memoir, It's So Easy, and Other Lies.. There are three elements in play here.
GnR never really sounded like a classic Sunset Strip metal band. Their music had more of a punk element in it. Also, lyrically, they were a little darker than what was normal for hair metal. Vince Neil and Bret Micheals were singing about booze and drugs and parties and women. GnR were coming from a darker place with a lot of their songwriting. When you factor in that Duff was from Seattle and came out of the Seattle punk scene, Guns N Roses place in history as the transitory band between pop metal and grunge is even more clear.
GnR had some metal elements to their image at the very beginning, but it never defined them. Just think about the video for "Welcome To The Jungle." If Motley Crue writes that song the hayseed from the Midwest falls off the bus and into a party where he has the greatest night of his life. Guns N Roses take on that song is just a little bit darker. Everything about GnR was darker than the hair metal norm. GnR was dangerous in a way the Vince Neil and Kevin DuBrow never were. They were party guys, Axl might be at a party, but the danger of him going off and bashing somebody over the head with a Jack Daniels bottle was always present. Metal concerts were fun, a night of excess in which generally nobody got hurt. People died and GnR shows, people rioted at GnR shows. Note that I'm not blaming the deaths on Guns N Roses, but stuff just seemed to happen around them.
The two previous paragraphs are old thoughts. The new piece to this is Axl himself. After reading Duff's book I realized that Axl pretty much holds every around himself in contempt (maybe including himself), and treats them accordingly. His was disrespectful to his band, and his fans. He was legendary for showing up 2 hours late for shows, or quitting early because somebody pissed him off. Interestingly, this behavior was not just lead singer disease, as I had always assumed. He was this way long before GnR was famous.
So you take a band that musically is taking the rock world to a darker place, a band that seems to be downright dangerous to society in the way Elvis, The Beatles, or The Rolling Stones were feared by the establishment back in the day. The genre was completely over saturated as record companies were signing anybody with poofy hair and 3 melodic chords in their songs. Guns and Roses was the biggest band in the world, and they were headlining the biggest tour in the world, and pissing off more people than anybody else in the world by showing up drunk and high, if they showed up at all.
The stage was set. You had hair metal getting stupid crazy in a lot of ways, and you had the most popular band in the world taking the metal crowd in a much darker direction, then pissing them all off when they got there. We also had an economy that was tanking in the US. Hair metal had gotten too full of itself, and combine it with the economy and it was the perfect time for a punk revival.
It was the perfect time for a band like Nirvana to show up. Maybe it was inevitable, and would have happened right then even if Axl Rose never leaves Lafayette, Indiana. Or maybe it was all Axl's fault.