- Robert Plant
- Freddie Mercury
- Mick Jagger
- Jim Morrison
- Roger Daltrey
- Eddie Vedder
- John Lennon
- Chris Cornell
- Kurt Cobain
You may notice a theme. Rolling Stone did. “Remember, we just count the votes – even if they are exclusively for white men,” they said defensively in the intro.
Freddie Mercury is of South Asian heritage, and isn’t white. But the general point stands. Tasked with choosing the greatest lead singers in history, Rolling Stone readers picked, and Rolling Stone published, a list that was exclusively male and included zero Black people. Given the centrality of women and Black people in popular music, from Ruth Brown to Beyoncé, that’s a stunning coincidence.
Of course, it isn’t a coincidence at all. Musical excellence and musical canons, are intertwined with assumptions about gender and about race. The result is that the genre of “great music” ends up being defined as white and male. That, unfortunately, has powerful negative effects far beyond one silly old reader’s poll.
So, how do you manage to create a poll of great singers that excludes all Black people and all women? You largely do it by appealing to unstated genre assumptions. Rolling Stone asked their readers to choose the best “lead singers.”
Now, “lead singer” can cover a wide range of genres and performers. Jazz vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday performed in front of large and small bands. Gospel singers like Marion Williams and Sam Cooke sang in front of gospel groups. Smokey Robinson, Michael Jackson, and Beyoncé performed lead for pop vocal quartets and quintets. You could even extend the definition to classical featured vocalists like Paul Robeson or Marian Anderson. And what about Celia Cruz? “Lead singer” could be anyone who is a featured singer. That’s a big pool.
However, Rolling Stone is Rolling Stone; it’s a magazine for aging classic rock listeners, primarily. So in that context “lead singer” slides from meaning “anyone belting it out in front of a group of musicians” to meaning “lead singers of guitar rock bands from the 70s to the 90s.”
The issue isn’t just that this poll is poorly worded. The issue is that genre designations in popular music have long been constructed, more or less deliberately, around gender and race in ways that tend to canonize white men.
Back in the 20s, musicians like Mississippi John Hurt and Jimmie Rodgers shared a single rural musical culture. But executives segregated their recordings into the genres “hillbilly” and “blues” based on the race of the performers and the race of the intended audience. You still see these divisions today, with R&B artists differentiated from pop largely on the basis of skin color, creating such painful, obviously raced designations as “blue-eyed soul.”
The story of rock in this context is especially egregious. Rock derived originally from almost entirely Black jump blues performers—Louis Jordan, Bull Moose Jackson, Dinah Washington, Ruth Brown. The golden age of rock and roll included an integrated list of musicians: Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Mickey and Sylvia, Bo Diddley, Elvis.
But in the 60s, as the Beatles became the most influential and iconic rock band, Black performers were pushed into other genres. Otis Redding was strongly inspired by Little Richard; Ray Charles was one of the primary influences on the Beatles; both got designated as soul, not rock. Vocal groups, central to early rock and roll, got identified with pop, so if you say, “the Supremes and Destiny’s Child are rock” people look at you like you’ve taken a wrong turn.
The white racialization of rock became so intense that when Jimi Hendrix began to perform guitar rock with white bandmates, critics claimed he was selling out his blackness, and bombarded him with racial slurs. (Jack Hamilton has chronicled Hendrix’s early white critical reception at depressing length in his book Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination.)
If separate could be equal, the segregation of music genres might not matter. But separate isn’t equal, as the disgraceful treatment of Hendrix illustrates. Rock excluded Black people. But rock was also considered to be a broad, unmarked, general catch-all. Rock meant both, “white guitar rock bands” and “all pop music.” Which is why people feel comfortable saying “this is a list of best albums of all time” and then listing only white rock bands of the 60s and 70s in the top ten, as if Miles Davis, Björk, and Beyoncé don’t exist.
Things have gotten somewhat better in this regard as guitar rock has lost its footing on the charts, and gatekeepers have become (somewhat) more aware of the problems with canonizing only white guys. Rolling Stone itself has updated its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list to include more hip hop and R&B. Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell, and Stevie Wonder all finally manage to push aside the Beatles, the Stones, and Dylan in the top ten.
Still, racial and gender defaults are hard to escape. The only Black woman, or for that matter woman of color, in the top ten in the updated Rolling Stone list is Lauryn Hill at number 10. All the albums are by Anglophone performers from the US and UK. And so forth. It’s hard to keep your canon out of a rut. And those ruts tend to run in grooves of power.
Those grooves also, unfortunately, run over people. Best of lists can be fun and personal (like mine!) But when particular canons become validated and ossified by institutions, that has material effects. White classic rock bands get constant boosts to their back catalogs when they’re selected for best of lists over and over. Black artists who defy genre categorization, as Hendrix did, can still get erased or insulted (as Beyoncé was when she performed at the Country Music Awards.)
We live in a racist, sexist society, with a racist, sexist music industry, and as long as that’s the case, even seemingly trivial conversations about music are going to have racial and gendered implications. As singer/songwriter Mobley says, “We have to be really careful about how we define greatness and how we talk about it. Because speaking as an artist, the impact that that stuff has on real decisions about how people get to live their lives is actually pretty dramatic.”
And because lists are fun (but not just fun!) Here are my top ten vocalists of all time
- Marion Williams
- Yma Sumac
- Sam Cooke
- Sarah Vaughan
- Virginia Rodrigues
- Yamataka Eye
- Celia Cruz
- Albert Kuvezin
- Robert Plant
- LaVern Baker
Image Credit: HBO.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.