- 100 GREATEST SINGERS – There’s something a bout a voice that’s personal, not unlike the particular odor or shape of a given human body. Summoned through belly, hammered into form by the throat, given propulsion by bellows of lungs, teased into final form by tongue and lips, a vocal is a kind of audible kiss, a blurted confession, a soul-burp you really can’t keep from issuing as you make your way through the material world. How helplessly candid! How appalling!
- This is an excerpt from Jonathan Lethem’s introduction to the Greatest Singers of All Time feature in the November 27, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone, available in the digital archive. A panel of 179 experts ranked the vocalists.
Born August 29th, 1958
Key Tracks “I Want You Back” (the Jackson 5), “Billie Jean,” “Man in the Mirror” (solo)
Influenced Justin Timberlake, Chris Brown, Usher
Michael Jackson is a perfect storm of innate talent and training. His singing as a child is astounding: He just nailed “I Want You Back” — there’s maybe one bum note on that song, which is crazy to me, because he was only 11 years old.
One of the key elements of his style is how he uses his voice as an instrument. His signature grunts — “ugh,” “ah” and all that — are rhythmic things that guitar players or drummers usually do. He’s one of the most rhythmic singers ever — Prince emulated James Brown a lot more, but Michael Jackson approximated it more naturally.
And he has insane range. I can sing pretty high, but I had to drop “Beat It” a half step when I sang it. He sings this incredibly high note — I think it’s a high C or even a high C-sharp, which no one can hit — on “Beat It,” as well as “Billie Jean” and “Thriller.” What people don’t realize is that he can go pretty deep too. You hear that on “Burn This Disco Out,” on Off the Wall — he goes deep into his range, which blows me away.
When somebody gets as big as he did, you lose sight of how avant-garde and revolutionary they are, but Michael Jackson pushed the boundaries of pop and R&B. Think about it: On “Beat It,” you had an R&B singer doing a full-on rock song with Eddie Van Halen. Or the intro on “Man in the Mirror”: He’s got this reverb in his voice, and any time he goes “uh!” it goes for miles. To me, that’s up there with some Brian Eno shit. That’s how far out there it is.
- Contrary to anything you’ve heard, the ability to actually carry a tune is in no regard a disability in becoming a rock & roll singer, only a mild disadvantage. Conversely, nothing in the vocal limitations of a Lou Reed guarantees a “Pale Blue Eyes” every time out, any more than singing as crazy-clumsy as Tom Waits guarantees a “Downtown Train.” Yet there’s a certain time-tested sturdiness to the lowchops approach forged by touchstone figures like Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison and Jonathan Richman, one that helps define rock & roll singing.
- For me, Bob Dylan and Patti Smith, just to mention two, are superb singers by any measure I could ever care about — expressivity, surprise, soul, grain, interpretive wit, angle of vision. Those two folks, a handful of others: their soul-burps are, for me, the soul-burps of the gods. The beauty of the singer’s voice touches us in a place that’s as personal as the place from which that voice has issued. If one of the weird things about singers is the ecstasy of surrender they inspire, another weird thing is the debunking response a singer can arouse once we’ve recovered our senses. It’s as if they’ve fooled us into loving them, diddled our hard-wiring, located a vulnerability we thought we’d long ago armored over. Falling in love with a singer is like being a teenager every time it happens.