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David and Art - Who's Your Favorite?

What does “favorite” mean when it comes to the arts? It may be more complicated than we initially think. I’m often asked— and I’m sure you are too—something along the lines of “who’s your favorite singer?” Or “who’s your favorite painter,” or “who’s your favorite composer?” I always try to figure out a way to answer it in as complete a way as possible, in a way that provides some sort of enlightenment as part of the answer other than just to give an opinion like what’s your favorite flavor of ice cream.

The question about my favorite singer is one I’ve been giving some thought to. I think you can answer it in different ways. It could mean something like who would you rather hear sing a certain style song, or whose voice do you like the most, or who makes you feel a certain way when you hear them singing. They’re very different questions and I thought I would try to figure out some specific answers.

My favorite singer in terms of tone and how she sounds is probably Ella Fitzgerald. There’s something about the way she shapes her phrases and there’s something about the way she modifies her tone of her voice to fit the song she’s singing, but there’s always that soft richness there that really attracts me and keeps my interest the whole time. So, I think in terms of tone it would be Ella.

In terms of a voice that fits with music I think there’s probably a tie between Frank Sinatra singing jazz, Willie Nelson singing country, and an Englishman named Paul Rogers, singing rock ‘n’ roll.

As for maybe the bigger question of who my favorite singer is, I thought about this a lot, and I think the closest I can get to a definitive answer is to say Waylon Jennings. There’s something about his tone of voice and something about his delivery that creates a greater emotional investment in a song than I’ve heard from any other singer. It’s a mix of different things: It’s the tone of his voice. It’s the phrasing that he uses. It’s the approach that he takes to the lyrics of a song. I’ve described his voice before as the most authoritative voice I’ve ever heard, by which I mean that when he sings a song, I’m instantly sold on just how he’s interpreting the lyrics, and how he’s conveying the sentiments to me as a listener. He seems to breathe emotion and experience into every word. He makes a song more personal than any other singer I think I’ve heard.

In the long run, having a favorite probably isn’t worth too much, but if you think about why someone is your favorite, you can learn a lot about what you value in art.

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David Smith, host of David and Art, is an American historian with broad interests in his field. He’s been at Baylor University since 2002 teaching classes in American history, military history, and cultural history. For eight years he wrote an arts and culture column for the Waco Tribune-Herald, and his writings on history, art, and culture have appeared in other newspapers from the Wall Street Journal to the Dallas Morning News.