Musician Damon Albarn claimed in an LA Times interview that singer/songwriter Taylor Swift did not write her own songs. Taylor Swift does in fact write her own songs and told Albarn so in no uncertain terms on Twitter. Her fans also pointed out, correctly, that Albarn was being a sexist jerk, and many of Swift’s collaborators pointed out that Albarn didn’t know what he was talking about. Albarn apologized, saying he had been taken out of context, which he had not, really. So he looked doubly ridiculous.
Most of the conversation around Albarn’s comments has focused, understandably, on the fact that Tayor Swift does in fact write her own songs so WTF, Damon?
But it’s also worth asking why songwriting is so important in the first place. What is validating about songwriting? Why are artists who write songs supposed to be more important, or more worthwhile than those who don’t? The answer I think is related to how gender and race and genre are leveraged to confer critical acclaim on some (like Albarn) while dismissing others (like Swift.)
To start, it’s worth going back to the LA Times interview to see how the topic of Swift’s songwriting came up. Damon Albarn was talking about his new solo album, and how he’s going to play some of the tunes on piano with a string section at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Albarn argues that doing a concert on a piano is more difficult than doing a concert with a rock band. Then he says that most musicians today are relying on “the sound and the attitude.” As a fan of punk, I’m not sure what the problem with sound and attitude is exactly, but in any case, the convo continued:
[Interviewer Mikael Wood] You think a lot of modern musicians are relying on sound and attitude?
Albarn: Name me someone who’s not.
She may not be to your taste, but Taylor Swift is an excellent songwriter.
She doesn’t write her own songs.
Of course she does. Co-writes some of them.
That doesn’t count. I know what co-writing is. Co-writing is very different to writing. I’m not hating on anybody, I’m just saying there’s a big difference between a songwriter and a songwriter who co-writes. Doesn’t mean that the outcome can’t be really great. And some of the greatest singers — I mean, Ella Fitzgerald never wrote a song in her life.
It's a fascinating exchange because it starts off as being about the quality of performance. Then Wood switches up and makes it about songwriting. Albarn could at that point have said he’s not talking about songwriting (which he wasn’t.) But instead, he doubles down, and insists that since he is not that into Taylor Swift, she can’t be writing her own songs, or is only a “co-writer” (Lennon/McCartney are very confused at this point.) Then he realizes he’s talking through his posterior and tries to retreat by acknowledging that Ella Fitzgerald existed and was pretty cool.
Fitzgerald wasn’t alone, of course. Many of the greatest, most influential musicians in popular music were not prolific songwriters or didn’t write songs at all. Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday, Elvis Presley, Dusty Springfield, Diana Ross, are famous for their singing, and composing songs only occasionally if at all. And then there’s classical music, in which composers and performers are largely distinct groups. Does Albarn think Yo-Yo Ma is somehow getting by on sound and attitude?
Popular music used to be more like classical. There were composers, like Gershwin, Cole Porter, Lieber/Stoller, Holland/Dozier/Holland. And then there were the performers like Bing Crosby, Sarah Vaughan, the Coasters, the Supremes. For most of the early 20th century, no one would have confused performance and songwriting as Wood and Albarn do. The idea that musicians were somehow lesser if they weren’t also songwriters simply wouldn’t have made sense in an era of house musicians and cover songs.
In the early 60s, though, things changed. The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and The Rolling Stones also performed covers. But they increasingly also wrote their own material. They weren’t the first performer/songwriters: Fats Waller, Jimmie Rodgers, Chuck Berry Woody Guthrie and on and on. But by virtue of extreme popularity, the big three of rock created a new standard. Songwriters who were just songwriters retreated further into the background, while singers who were just singers were seen as less serious, less genius-like, less authentic.
Among those less genius-like performers were girl groups like The Shirelles, who were a major influence on the Beatles. Also among them were Dylan-influencing rural musicians of the 20s and 30s like those in the Anthology of American Folk Music, where the songwriting credits were sometimes unclear or dubious.
The rise of the singer/songwriter was, then, in part a way to eclipse past performers who were less white, less male, and less affluent by making a different kind of authenticity claim. The Beatles and the Stones were British; Dylan was a Jewish kid from Minneapolis. They were playing music invented largely by Black and/or rural people. If authenticity meant being from the community whose music you were playing, then they weren’t authentic. But if authenticity meant playing your own songs written in the style of someone you weren’t—then the big rock bands were the authentic thing.
The point here isn’t that The Beatles were inauthentic. The point isn’t that singer/songwriters like Howlin’ Wolf, Nina Simone, or Stevie Wonder are inauthentic. The point is that authenticity isn’t authentic. It’s a marketing tool and a way for critics and musicians to claim a privileged relationship to truth, beauty, and greatness. Great singer/songwriters are great, but we’ve decided they’re more authentic than just singers for particular historical and cultural reasons that have little to do with quality, a lot to do with fame and genre, and maybe something to do with racism and sexism.
As rock has faded and lost commercial ground to hip hop, electronica, and producer-heavy post-disco pop, the singer/songwriter has ceased to be a central focus of critics or audiences. A song with a guest rapper, a sample, and a team of producers might have five or six songwriters listed, sometimes including the main artist and sometimes not. Many critics have recognized that bewailing this is silly. If it took fifteen writers to create Beyoncé’s “Hold Up,” only one of whom is the singer, then we should have more songs with fifteen writers, I say. But some people—like Albarn, who doesn’t think co-writing is real writing—are nostalgic for that brief era when people thought being Bob Dylan was the one true route to authentic artistic quality.
There are still certainly pop singers who write the bulk of their own material with only a collaborator or two, like Taylor Swift and Olivia Rodrigo. And they should get credit for that, because artists should get credit for the art they make. But Wood and Albarn’s confusing conversation also shows why it’s way past time to stop conflating musical talent or authenticity with a singer/songwriter model that always minimized many great performers for bad reasons.
This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.