NPR logo If Not For You

If Not For You

Recently, I was reminded of a conversation I had with a friend about the notion of the quintessential rock singer. I offered up Robert Plant, thinking that he embodied the bravado, swagger and throatiness that nearly every subsequent singer of the genre has tried to emulate. My friend, however, disagreed. Plant, he said, was merely emulating the old British and Irish folksingers, re-imagining and reconfiguring their earlier style. Therefore, he added, Plant could not be considered the best rock singer, since what he was really doing was amplifying folk. Well, okay then. Point taken.

Then I suggested Mick Jagger. Surely, Jagger is the rock 'n' roll singer. Again, his style is enviable and influential — and, yes, I know that he's copying the blues singers he so admired. Jagger knew that being the leader of a rock band meant not only singing, but also scrawling; that being slightly off-key was exhilarating and subversive in its momentary messiness, and that you could hint at danger and sex while seeming innocent and sly. No, my friend said, Jagger is a blues singer. Who then, I asked, is the quintessential rock singer? My friend's answer was John Lennon.

I suppose I had never really thought about John Lennon as a rock singer. I've debated Lennon vs. McCartney as songwriters (favoring Lennon); I've admired Lennon's sense of melody, his vulnerability and his ability to sound young and old at the same time. But the more I think about it, the more I listen, perhaps my friend was right. Maybe John Lennon's voice is the quintessential voice of rock 'n' roll. It wears disguises without losing authenticity, it is everyman, one man, the singer and the serenaded; it can't be traced back to a distinct originator, it sounds brand-new and is unequalled.

Asking questions such as these — those of essentialness — is reductive, but also interesting. Whoever is at the nexus of our musical tastes becomes a litmus test; he or she helps categorize and map our own relationship to music. For instance, if Joe Strummer is your quintessential punk singer, your other punk records form clusters around that sound, either deviating from what you consider normative or emulating it. But if TV Smith from The Adverts or Ian MacKaye in his Minor Threat days possess the essential punk sound for you, your notion of what punk music is might be entirely different from that of the Joe Strummer person. At the very least, what typifies a specific genre for us influences our preferences.

With the clustering effect in mind, and getting back to the question of rock 'n' roll singers — Plant, Jagger or Lennon — I would still lean toward Plant. My notion of rock 'n' roll coheres around the Led Zeppelin sound and Plant's voice. When it comes to punk, I might have to go with Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks. As much as I love the singing of Joey Ramone and Paul Weller, there's something about Shelley that encapsulates both the sincerity and the sneer that is punk rock to me.

This notion of essence isn't meant to leave anyone out; it's more about who opened the door to let everyone else in. So, in the various genres — and we certainly don't have to limit it to rock and punk — who are the singers you would consider quintessential?