How could Bob Dylan rank number 7 on a list of best singers of all time?
On Monday, October 21st, the world woke up to see "Bob Dylan" trending on Twitter, immediately causing a jolt of panic in the hearts of fans.
But a quick scroll revealed that Dylan wasn't trending because he died, but because of a 2008 Rolling Stone list of the greatest singers of all time. The account that reposted the list, @crockpics, is committed to "sharing entertaining and memorable pictures of classic rock artists," according to its bio.
But the seemingly innocuous, dated list—reposted by a run-of-the-mill content-farming account—soon sparked heated online debate. Upon reading the list, fans began to argue amongst themselves about the validity of Bob Dylan's place on the list at number 7. In particular, many took issue with Dylan's placement above Freddie Mercury, who is listed at number 18.
Of course, as many pointed out, it's not clear whether the rankings were based merely on technical vocal skill or on a singer's whole package, including presentation, performance, individuality, etc. Based on Dylan's high ranking, one assumes the latter is the case. In fact, the article that prefaces the original list, written by Jonathan Lethem, states, "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...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."
This seems to more than explain the list's logic. As much as American Idol and the like have trained us to think good singing is quantifiable, the truth is some of the musical artists who have most set the soundtrack to the common experience of being alive would not even make it past the first round of auditions on your average singing reality show. Everyone who really loves music, who has been transformed, soothed, or awoken by just the right song at just the right time, knows that singing is as much about soul and storytelling as it is about perfect technique.
So yes, if we're judging a singer's talent by range, pitch control, breath control, tone, rhythm, and diction, Mariah Carey should absolutely rank above Bob Dylan on the list of 200 best singers. But if you're judging a singer on their ability to tell a story, the pain and joy they can imbue their voice with, the distinct nature of their unmistakable sound, and the simple ability to deeply affect a listener, Bob Dylan is among the best singers there ever was.
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