More from the current Rolling Stone, featuring their list of the 100 greatest rock singers. This is from Jonathan Lethem’s introductory piece, an overview of rock singing:
…what defines great singing in the rock-and-soul era: that some underlying tension exists in the space between singer and song. A bridge is being built across a void, and it’s a bridge we’re never sure the singer’s going to manage to cross. The gulf may reside between vocal texture and the actual meaning of the words, or between the singer and band, musical genre, style of production or the audience’s expectations. In any case, there’s something beautifully uncomfortable at the root of the vocal style that detines the pop era. The simplest example comes at the moment of the style’s inception, i.e. Elvis Presley: at first, listeners thought that the white guy was a black guy. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that when Ed Sullivan’s television show tossed this disjunction into everyone’s living rooms, American culture was thrilled by it but also a little deranged, in ways we haven’t gotten over yet….
Ultimately, the nature of the vocals in post-Elvis, post-Sam Cooke, post-Ray Charles popular music is the same as the role of the instrumental soloist in jazz. That’s to say, if it isn’t pushing against the boundaries of its form, at least slightly, it isn’t doing anything at all.
When I say I want classical music to connect to the world around us, this is part of what I mean. I want classical music to push against its boundaries — and our boundaries — to thrill our culture and derange it. As it did in centuries past.
(When someone sings Schubert, do we expect tension between the singer and the song? I think we look for unity, which — does anyone agree? — eclipses the singer’s presence as an artist, and also evades any distance between Schubert’s time and our own.)