Despite the constant turbulence in the entertainment industry, there is a great deal of predictability, nowhere more so than in music. Every new sound requires a new scene—disco had its Studio 54, psychedelic rock had Haight-Ashbury. And for every new scene, there’s a face that inevitably goes with it, the lucky and talented handful of artists who seem to embody the scene, the music, and the change.
You (might) remember the hair-metal bands of the 80s: Poison, Cinderella, Ratt, Mötley Crüe. Do you associate any one particular band with that scene? If you do, you’re likely wearing a t-shirt from their 1984 North American tour, so you don’t count. (I’m wearing the Dr. Feelgood tour shirt, so I include myself in this list.) The scene was big and it’s tough to pin it on one particular person or group. But certain movements had their defining persona. Think of the clean-shaven, slit-eyed Bob Dylan representing the Village folk scene. Not only did Dylan represent the subculture, he made it his own and took folk from the bespectacled, banjo-picking crowd and made it accessible to a wider (albeit louder) audience. If he didn’t stand for that scene, not a one of the folksters (think early 60s version of today’s hipster, sans fixed-gear bicycle) would have lost it like he did back in 1967 when Dylan went electric.
The artists who initiate change in music are rare. These progenitors of new scenes and new forms of musical entertainment may not last as long as Dylan has, but their existence and expression ignited a culture. These artists are an illustrious few, those whose cultural staying power exists in the change they affected, rather than (or in addition to) the size of their catalogue.
Miles Davis: Most Likely to Be Cooler Than Anyone in the Room
Miles was the Billy Shakespeare of modern music, the man authored so many different types of jazz, it’s hard to keep track. In fact, Miles (and it’s always Miles—he’s got that first-name-only status usually reserved for Brazilian futból stars and drag queens) was so cool he could pull off a curly mullet and still be cooler than you. His musical tent was bigger than anyone’s and, if he were around nowadays, Miles would have more cameos than even Kanye. As the figurehead of the fusion movement, he put his fingerprints on all genres (listen to Bitches Brew for proof). But Miles’ most important contribution to music was his mentorship. Coltrane, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Cannonball Adderley were all under his tutelage at some point. The phrase of teaching a man how to fish comes to mind, but in the case of Miles, he’d probably show the man how to squeeze that final note out of the fish.
Sid Vicious: Most Likely to Burn Every Bridge
Sure, the Clash was more talented and the Buzzcocks were more abrasive, but the Sex Pistols help to set off the punk explosion in the late 70s and early 80s. And the real genius behind it wasn’t the ginger-headed Johnny Rotten, but rather the sullen, drug-addled Sid. They even made a movie about him—and it was longer than their fame lasted and had a little more substance than their music. Now, when you see kids in tight leather jackets, with safety pins in their noses, with tattoos of God-knows-what all over, and hair the color of a Crayola experiment gone awry, give thanks to Sid. He’s proof that you can make loud and obnoxious music that insults the Queen and still make it big in the industry.
Aretha Franklin: Most Likely to Put You in Your Place
No one before or after used her instrument to achieve such great heights as did Aretha with her voice. Diana Ross had the Supremes as backup and modern day divas are usually more self-absorbed, less talented, or just plain crazy. Aretha set the bar for what it means to be a true diva—talent, conviviality, and soul. (Do you think John Belushi would have fallen in step with anyone else?) Aretha was launched into the pantheon of pop music for her defining trait—making her original so damn good it can’t possibly be covered. “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”—these songs just ain’t going to get better. And she did this all after having two kids by the age of fifteen. Some people are just born to shine.
Grandmaster Flash: Most Technically Gifted
Record scratching, cutting, and making the turntable an instrument—this is Grandmaster Flash’s wheelhouse. And his wheelhouse is what sped the development and maturation of hip hop to where it is today. As the lead of the Furious Five, he became the tipping point for a musical revolution—the freestyle battles, the concept of the MC, and so many techniques used by DJs and hip hop groups today. The music might sound dated to some, but the Grandmaster’s technique beneath it still is fresh and a feat worthy of enshrinement. His originality and awesome stage presence deserve an elevated and sacred spot in the modern music canon.
Snoop Dogg: Most Likely to Upset the Apple Cart/Still Be the Apple of your Eye
No one hates Snoop. Hating Snoop is like hating Santa Claus or puppies—it’s just wrong. But unlike those two, Snoop does things that should incite middle-class folk to riot: he unapologetically smokes pot, runs his own porn production company, has a history of run-ins with the law (run-in is an understatement; the man was on trial as an accomplice to murder), and raps about women and violence. But at the same time, he shows up on a soap opera, was on a Muppet Christmas special (albeit cut from the final version), is a spokesperson for doggie treats that bear his name, and has not lost any credibility. Snoop is the commercial-credible thug, and since him, we’ve watched a host of bad, bad boys grace the screen, concert halls, and dominate pop music.
Elvis: Most Likely to Be King
No other artist will come close to the power of The King. From the peanut butter, banana, and ham sandwiches to that pomade-laden pompadour, Elvis defined what it meant to be a rock star. He was in multiple successful films (even one with Gidget), perfectly blended the vision and vibe of television with the buzz and bang of music (Exhibit A: the Ed Sullivan Show), and had a play based on him (Bye Bye Birdie). He has lunchboxes, commemorative stamps, and hip-swaying clocks fashioned in his image. Hell, his house is a museum and his yard is the spot where more tears are shed than in the third row of a Meryl Streep film. Sure, he had a rebirth and several ups and downs, but Elvis was the first artist (even before the artist formerly known as Michael Jackson) who successfully combined multimedia into the bottom line that is Graceland. The King’s estate is bigger and badder than anyone’s will ever be.
Many other individuals have heralded in a new era in music—Kurt Cobain with grunge, Madonna setting the stage for mainstream erotic, Bjork by blending indie and electro. And the best thing about the constantly changing yet totally predictable nature of the music world? Another musician is ushering in a new scene this very instant.