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So, who is the greatest singer of all time then?
In which I look at Rolling Stone’s list, the fallacy of the GOAT concept and falling for clickbait.
I hadn’t really intended to write again so soon, but then Rolling Stone posted a list of the 200 Greatest Singers of All Time; the internet went a bit crazy and I had thoughts. I did say I might write about general music stuff from time to time. Think of this as a bonus.
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Image credit: Rolling Stone
For those of you who were not aware Rolling Stone started off 2023 with a massive undertaking to identify the Greatest Singer of All Time. It will have taken weeks (if not longer) to compile, agree on and then get ready for publication. They knew it would be controversial (possibly by design - more on that later) and added an immediate caveat to stop people shitting on it.
…keep in mind that this is the Greatest Singers list, not the Greatest Voices List. Talent is impressive; genius is transcendent. Sure, many of the people here were born with massive pipes, perfect pitch, and boundless range. Others have rougher, stranger, or more delicate instruments.
...In all cases, what mattered most to us was originality, influence, the depth of an artist’s catalog [sic], and the breadth of their musical legacy.
And then the internet shit on it.
They thought of 200 people to put on a list of great singers, and they forgot Celine Dion.
Now, I’m no fan of Celine Dion (that doesn’t make me Dion-ist by the way, I have friends who like her) but even I can see that she deserves to be on a list celebrating great singers. To be fair to Rolling Stone, they have managed to offend a great number of fan groups as Dionne Warwick, Diana Ross and Sting were also not included. Nor were Billy Joel, or Mike Patton, or Peter Gabriel. I could go on (James Taylor, Madonna, Barry White, Elvis Costello) but that would take up the whole post (Édith Piaf, Janet Jackson, Nat King Cole, Shakira) and no one wants to read a list of singers who weren’t included (Dean Martin, Paul Simon, Cher, Don McLean).
What makes it curious though, is that even with their own caveat applied, there are some very curious choices. They themselves cite Ozzy Osbourne (#112) as a left-field inclusion. But they also have some very new artists included which seems to contradict their own criteria. Does Billie Eilish (#198) - great as she is - meet the influence, depth of catalogue and legacy requirements as well as any of those listed above? How about Adele (#22)? Courtney Love (#130)? Rosalia (#200)?
Attempting to apply quantitative metrics to qualitative subjects is a fool's errand. Attempting to do it to a subject that is so wide ranging and provokes such a primal and emotive reaction in people? Well, that’s only going to end one way.
In reality, these kinds of lists and comparisons and this desire to determine a singular point of greatness, is pretty pointless. It is the same in football. Week after week, there are debates regarding who is the greatest player of all time, who is the GOAT? Stats are thrown about like confetti to make a point, goals scored, assists, matches played, games played at World Cups, blah blah blah. It is impossible to compare players from different eras, who perform different roles in different teams and circumstances. Is a title won in an era where players got kicked to hell and back throughout a match played on an absolute quagmire pitch worth more than a modern one where players are protected more and playing surfaces are pristine? How can you possibly try to work that out? Why even bother? Why not just enjoy them all and talk about who your favourite is?
It is the same with singers. How do you apply metrics to determine the greatest singer of all time across genres and eras? How do you compare the era of streaming against the era of physical album purchases? How do you quantify impact? You can’t. Not in any tangible way at least.
How do you compare an opera singer to a pop singer? You can’t and Rolling Stone didn’t even bother trying. Metal is underrepresented as a genre. Disturbed aren’t as massive as Black Sabbath but is anyone really going to argue that Ozzy is a better singer than David Draiman? (click that link btw, it will take you to one of my favourite cover versions of all time)
Celine Dion has sold more than 250 million records worldwide. When considered against criteria including influence and legacy, that and her undeniable actual singing ability, is not enough to be ranked in the top 200 singers of all time. Apparently.
So why do it? When you know full well that, no matter who you put on the list, people will loudly find fault with it. Well, a lot of people have suddenly started talking about, and clicking through to Rolling Stone. I’m not saying it was a massive exercise in clickbait, but would I have gone to their site otherwise? No. Would many of the other outraged fans who have taken to Reddit and beyond to express their fury? I doubt it. Hell, I even wrote an article about it.
Who do I think is the greatest singer of all time? No idea.
Who is my favourite? Too many to mention, but Prince is up there. As are Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Freddy Mercury, Sade and Bill Withers. Of more modern, less mega famous acts, Lyla Foy, Hezen, Philippe Bronchtein (Hip Hatchet), Eckoes all spring immediately to mind.
The point is, with a subject as personal as music, I don’t think there can be a greatest, just your favourite.
Who is your favourite? Comment to let me know.