Dynamic frontmen (and women): They stand out for their larger-than-life onstage personas, offering us an experience that we’ll never forget. We remember them for an assortment of reasons: Maybe they were destructive and crazy, maybe they were outspoken and passionate about issues not being discussed in music, and maybe they just did stuff in a way that was refreshing and redefined what it meant to be the leader of a band or group. But being a great front(wo)man is about much more than being a great singer; having a great voice helps, but having an attitude, a presence, matters too.
This feature celebrates those individuals, those men and women who took the mic and center stage and made them their own, challenging our idea of how such a person should act, look, or sound.
20. GG Allin
Say what you will about the nihilistic madman, GG Allin’s polarizing performances are still discussed to this day. When you went to a GG Allin concert you knew you were entering something that was going to be chaotic and unpredictable, but undeniably entertaining. Bleeding and defecating onstage, punching members of the audience – no one was safe when GG Allin performed. Even offstage he stuck to his guns, appearing on daytime talk shows such as Jane Whitney and Jerry Springer, to discuss his divisive ideologies and warn parents that he was going to own their children. This was part of GG Allin’s allure: wondering if this guy was the real deal, some performance art project pushed to the extreme, or both? We’ll never really know, and that only adds to the GG Allin mythos.
19. Courtney Love (Hole)
To immortalize Courtney Love as simply the widow to the late Kurt Cobain and nothing more is taking the easy way out. This woman redefined the idea of how a frontwoman could be, while offering a perspective that wasn’t common in mainstream alternative rock. Undeniably charismatic, Courtney’s stage presence was a lot to take in. Her husky vocals; the eccentric clothing; the way she could command a stage without moving too much – Courtney displayed a confidence, charm and wit that was an integral part of Hole’s appeal.
18. Lee Spielman (Trash Talk)
As the lead singer of California hardcore punk band Trash Talk, Lee Spielman has his work cut out for him. Performances double as an endurance test: songs crash into each other, a chaotic and dissonant combination of fast riffs and drums. In the middle of all of this is Spielman, whose gutteral roar orchestrates the entire show. But there’s more to the frontman, whose onstage antics include front flipping into a crowd; sitting in the middle of a circle pit; and literally walking on people. I once witnessed Spielman perform an entire set with a broken knee, walking out with a cane and pushing audience members offstage like a punk-rock grandpa. If that’s not dedication to one’s craft, then I don’t know what is.
17. Greg Puciato (The Dillinger Escape Plan)
The video below perfectly captures why Greg Puciato, the lead singer for mathcore group The Dillinger Escape Plan, is on this list. The quickness with which he dashes at the crowd, and manages to literally walk on people’s heads, is worth a few replays. There’s a Henry Rollins-esque intensity to Puciato: during his early Dillinger days he’d often antagonize the audience, the band’s fanbase still getting used to the buff pretty boy that had replaced original vocalist Dimitri Minakakis. Inevitably, Puciato won over everybody, offering a diverse vocal range and dynamic stage presence. He and the rest of the band went down in Reading Festival history in 2002, when the former defecated onstage, put it in a bag, threw it into the crowd and smeared the rest on himself, as a commentary on the rest of the music present at the event.
16. HR (Bad Brains)
Bad Brains were an anomaly. As the only all black hardcore punk band to come out of Washington, D.C., in the late ’70s (as well as the American hardcore punk scene as a whole), the guys proved to be more than a niche act with their own breed of aggressive and fast punk music (often with a dash of dub and reggae sounds). The leader of the pack was none other than HR, that dreadlocked badass who commanded the stage from beginning to end. You’ve seen their 1982 performance at CBGBs, right? No? Well, the video below captures the group in all of their glory, making history in one of the most iconic music venues in the United States. For nearly an hour Bad Brains powers through song after song, HR’s distinguishable half-sung, half-screeched vocal delivery clashing with distorted guitars and pounding drums. He’s all over the place, his body shaking wildly as a swarm of people mosh around him. There’s a reason why HR was and still is considered a great frontman, and this video is a testament to that.
M.I.A. made being divisive and subversive cool again. As a frontwoman she used art, dance, and music as a means to create commentary on politics. She figured out the secret of creating popular music with a message, and took that even further as a performer. Remember toward the end of 2013, when M.I.A. Skyped in Julian Assange for her New York show? Exactly. M.I.A. has always taken chances as a performer, her stage presence a combination of fun, unpredictability, and wildness. This is the same artist, after all, that flipped off over a million people on live television during an annual event (the Super Bowl) that feeds off capitalism and consumerism — the same artist who pissed off so many diehard, proud-to-be-an-American Americans, that the NFL tried to sue her for over $16 million. M.I.A. is a living legend that keeps it real both on and offstage, and you rarely see that nowadays.
14. Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails)
Menacing. That’s probably one of the best words to describe old-school Trent Reznor. He offered a stage presence that gave you chills: a sense of anger and self-destruction that fluctuated between shows. Some sets ended with him destroying a keyboard with a microphone stand; others featured him and fellow bandmates covered in mud. Reznor was unpredictable, in that you knew you were going to get a great show, but you didn’t know if someone or something would happen to tick him off enough to where he’d go over the edge. His stage presence was comparable to his vocal delivery: sometimes a silent and subdued croon, growling into a cutthroat scream that was pissed off and vulnerable, all at the same time.
13. Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill)
Queen Kathleen Hanna is probably most known for two things: being an integral part of the Riot Grrrl punk movement, as well as fronting Bikini Kill. And in regards to the latter, Hanna was always going 100. You look at old videos and the way in which she creates and promotes a safe space for other women to enjoy themselves at shows, while also controlling the stage with her intensity. Just watch the video below, in which Hanna – after playing a recording of some trash guy voicing his thoughts on sexually liberated women – goes into “Suck My Left One.” You can sense the anger and frustration in the way she screams those four words, speaking to issues that she continues to address today. Hanna was a brave one, someone that explored the complexities of politics, sexuality, and much more as a frontwoman. Plus, she can do a mean cartwheel-into-a-split combo.
12. Teresa Suarez (Le Butcherettes)
Teresa Suarez, commonly known as Teri Gender Bender, has been one of the best frontwomen to appear in recent years. As the lead guitarist and vocalist for Le Butcherettes, her early shows in Guadalajara, Mexico, became known for their use of onstage props (artificial blood, brooms, bloody aprons, and raw meat) as feminist statements of the treatment of women in Mexico. Nowadays there are fewer props, but Suarez maintains the same energy she’s had since the band’s inception (just to give you an idea of Suarez’s commitment to stage presence, she once finished a concert by jumping into the crowd and singing through a megaphone when a power outage occurred). I’ve never seen Suarez put on a dull show. Whether she’s throwing a malfunctioning keyboard into the audience or smelling the hair of her drummer mid-performance, Suarez is as charismatic as they come.
11. Cedric Bixler-Zavala (The Mars Volta, At The Drive-In)
As a ride or die El Pasoan, I would be doing a disservice by not putting Cedric Bixler-Zavala on here. The afro-adorning punk and progressive rocker continues to offer a stage presence unlike anybody else, but the guy was unstoppable in his younger days. Doing somersaults onstage; kicking and swinging his microphone like a deadly weapon; treating stages like a salsa dance floor – Cedric made being a frontman look easy. He also was down to put hyper-masculine bros in their place, often asking audience members why they mosh or stage dive, when they could simply dance. He’s chilled out throughout the years, but sometimes he’ll do something that’ll remind you he’s one of the best to ever command a stage.
10. Axl Rose (Guns N’ Roses)
Destructive, intimidating, and volatile, Axl Rose was the complete package: the pretty boy with a temper that added an extra dash of edginess to Guns N’ Roses. Switching between rhythmic screams and high-pitched singing, Rose’s vocals always offered an intensity that felt like a punch to the gut. But even more intense was his stage presence, ready to pick a fight at all times. We all know of that 1991 performance at the Riverport Amphitheater, where the frontman fought a fan over a video camera, and then left the stage. A riot began shortly after, resulting in over $200,000 in damages. He also started to show up at performances hours late, which often resulted in more riots. Axl was a diva, a ticking time bomb that might or might not give you what you came for. He did things on his own terms – for better or worse.
9. Alice Cooper
Considered the “Godfather of Shock Rock” by fans and peers alike, Alice Cooper basically paved the way for guys like GG Allin, Marilyn Manson, and many others. Although not the best singer, Alice made up for it with his elaborate and mysterious stage persona, taking on the role of an androgynous villain that hugged boa constrictors and would get “executed” at the end of every performance. What was appealing about Alice was that he was kind of the first artist that made you wonder, is he actually like this all of the time? Was there a separation between Alice Cooper the performer and Vincent Furnier the man? Alice foreshadowed what was to come with artists that push art to the extreme: the aforementioned Allin and Manson; even Eminem and Tyler, The Creator. He showed that controversy is complex, and navigating it is never easy.
8. Mick Jagger (The Rolling Stones)
When you have a song named in your honor (Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger”), you’ve probably done something right. And Mick Jagger has been doing exactly that for the past several decades, serving as one of the prime examples of a great frontman. Aside from his distinguishable blues-influenced vocal delivery, Jagger created moves that future frontmen have since taken and transformed into their own thing. Cool, flamboyant, and wild, he became a symbol for the counterculture of the ’60s and early ’70s, strutting his stuff with a confidence and vigor that was absolutely alluring. Even now, at 72, Jagger still can move like he did during his prime.
7. Iggy Pop (The Stooges)
The guy who took being a frontman a little bit further, Iggy Pop will always be remembered for his onstage persona. Rolling around in broken glass; exposing himself to a crowd; vomiting onstage; smearing peanut butter on himself – Iggy was a madman, becoming the godfather of punk with his attention-grabbing antics. Influenced by Mick Jagger and James Brown, he took what they did, wrapped it in dynamite and lit the match. The result? Something raw and unlike anything people had seen before, a deconstruction (and destruction) of the frontman, Iggy’s stage presence similar to his vocals: chaotic and unapologetically in your face.
At this point in her career Beyonce is already larger than life. She has a fanbase that is pretty ride or die (seriously, don’t mess with the #BeyHive, because you will get stung); a laundry list of accomplishments and achievements; and, well, she’s Beyonce. As her popularity has grown, so has her role as a frontwoman. In her shows it’s common to see her shift between songs about empowerment, independence, love and much more, each song a strategic choice that both displays Beyonce’s dancing and singing abilities, as well as her many sides. She’s a modern-day entertainer, doing so much at once onstage that she makes it look easy. But, most importantly, Beyonce empowers people, especially women. I’ll put it this way: My friend once told me how he and his ex-girlfriend went to a Beyonce show, and as soon as she went into “Flawless,” the entire audience – mostly young girls and older women – knew the song, word for word. “They were just turnt up and totally in that moment. Nothing else mattered,” he said. All praises to the great Queen B.
5. Kanye West
Two words: Coachella 2011. Kanye West is an entertainer, a man who has pushed boundaries and buttons since The College Dropout. He knows how to control a crowd, while experimenting with the idea of what a rapper can and can’t do. This is why I mention his 2011 Coachella performance. Descending from a crane onto a bare stage, Kanye’s set would function like a Greek tragedy, displaying a man of sadness and vulnerability, hiding behind arrogance and power. Kanye West is either the guy you love or hate – simple as that. You can interpret his “Visionary Streams of Consciousness” as him being a big crybaby, or as someone who always seems to demand and want better of himself as an artist. With Kanye you’ll never get the same show, because you’ll never know what type of mood he’s in until he hits that stage. But once he’s on there, you better be ready for whatever comes.
4. Jimi Hendrix
Jimi, Jimi, Jimi: that virtuoso who was taken from us too soon, leaving behind a legacy that’s still praised today. Jimi was an incredible frontman, redefining guitar playing in ways that his peers and future guitarists still can’t fully imitate. He had a style that was all his own, forcing his guitar to make certain sounds through different means. Jimi used his guitar to talk about anger, frustration, love, peace, sadness, war, and so much more. His stage presence embodied rock and roll: destructive, fun, and sexy. Sometimes he’d break his guitar into little pieces; other times he’d light it on fire. He took showmanship to another level, becoming a counterculture figure that transcended so much through his larger-than-life persona.
That ethereal vocal delivery that can change from a whispered croon to a snarling yell; her eccentric apparel; and her ability to experiment and bring together different genres in a way that’s interesting and refreshing. Bjork is one of those artists that we’ll always talk about, because she’s always one step ahead of everybody else. As a frontwoman, Bjork is dynamic in her approach. She might not be jumping all over the place or antagonizing her audience, but she’s still captivating. The way she simply stares off into the distance, a cold and lost stare that contrasts her beautiful voice. The way she rocks back and forth in place, one hand clutching her microphone while the other descends and ascends with her vocals. The way some of her concerts are so innovative and meticulous, with backup singers dressed a certain way while surreal visuals accompany each song. Bjork’s strongest point has always been her inventiveness: the desire to push the presentation of music further through more engaging and originals means. She does all of this while offering a stage presence that – in comparison to most of the people on this list – is subdued, but alluring in a different way. With Bjork you’re getting a half concert, half performance art project that demands all of your attention, because chances are you’ll probably miss something. That’s what makes Bjork such a great frontwoman.
2. Freddie Mercury (Queen)
Aside from being blessed with one of the greatest voices in the history of music, Freddie Mercury was an incredible frontman whose stage presence could captivate a stadium full of fans. He was charismatic at all times, strutting the stage with a confidence and coolness that said “I know I’m badass.” He always looked like he was having fun, hopping from side to side and dragging a microphone stand with him. Plus he was eccentric, wearing the most vibrant clothing and even performing on Darth Vader. No, seriously – he performed on Darth Vader’s shoulders. Freddie was a near-perfect balance of talent and pure energy: a man who brought a theatrical style to rock music. When you attended a Queen show, you knew Freddie wanted you to participate in more ways than one. Clapping, singing, stomping – Freddie understood the beauty of a shared experience between performer and audience, connecting with everyone from the front to the back of the venue. It’s fitting that Freddie’s final performance with Queen saw him draped in a robe and holding a golden crown, bidding farewell to the crowd. He was the king of Queen and, arguably, rock as a whole, his persona still inspiring artists across the world.
1. James Brown
The “Godfather of Soul.” The “Hardest working man in show business.” Without James Brown there wouldn’t be a lot of artists (some of which are on this list). Brown managed to be at the forefront of several music genres, while also becoming one of the greatest frontmen of all-time. He had the moves: The Camel Walk, The Mashed Potato, The Funky Chicken, The Bugaloo and, of course, The Split. He’d do all of this while leading his band with that distinguishable voice of his: assertive, cool, and powerful. Brown’s performances were rehearsed to a ‘T,’ from the choreographed dances to the outfits his accompanying band wore. When you attended a James Brown show, you knew you were going to get more than a concert. You were going to get an experience that tired you out, a spectacle that displayed his commitment to showmanship. Brown was also a civil-rights icon, often using his platform to empower black people. Such was the case during a performance in Boston, the night after Martin Luther King’s assassination, when Brown stopped a good portion of people from rioting and had one of the best concerts of his entire career. James Brown will forever be remembered for how dedicated he was to his craft. He was the ideal frontman, demanding just as much – if not more – from himself than the people he worked with.