The Stigma of Co-Writing
Damon Albarn’s interview with the LA Times about his comments about the conflict with modern pop artists’ ability to perform without what he describes as the “sound and attitude” associated with amplification garnered a lot of attention online not for the reasons he thought it would. This was due to how after a pop critic and interviewer Mikael Wood used her as an example of a songwriter thriving within such constraints, he accused Taylor Swift of not writing her songs, making this now infamous statement:
“She doesn’t write her own songs. I know what co-writing is. I’m a traditional in that sense.”Damon Albarn
Albarn went on to cite Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas O’Connell as examples of modern songwriters meriting his approval due to how Eilish is credited as a lead solo artist on her recordings while Finneas is often part of the composition and production process.
Not only were many people confused as to whether Damon Albarn was suggesting one kind of co-writership is more authentic than the other, but they were also angered at how he appeared to throw Swift under the bus seemingly for no reason. He’d later issue an apology
When we hear the term ‘singer-songwriter’, the first thing that often comes to mind is a tortured artist or angry rabble-rouser looking for an outlet to express their frustrations at the mundanities of everyday life. However, the notion of an artist recording their compositions is far more fluid and expansive.
Most relevant cases of co-writing
Commercial pop has historically been a mixed bag regarding authenticity being the art of songwriting. Both the British and American singles charts were created to reflect the popularity of music among younger consumers, but even early rock ‘n’ roll musicians often had hits with other writers’ songs. Elvis Presley’s first British chart-topper, ‘All Shook Up’, earned the singer a co-credit through the mere invention of the titular phrase, while the Rolling Stones’ early singles were predominantly blues covers.
While the likes of the Beatles rarely veered from the Lennon-McCartney songwriting axis, and David Bowie’s perceived genius came primarily from his stash of pens, the likes of George Martin and Billy Preston (in the case of the Beatles), as well as Brian Eno and Tony Visconti (for Bowie) are due a huge amount of credit for their role in this “vision”, which perhaps render the question of authenticity in writing redundant.
Ph ©Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix
Female singer-songwriters were prevalent in the 1960s, indeed Bobbie Gentry was one of the first American country artists to compose and produce her material, and allegedly only sang on her debut album Ode to Billie Joe, because it was cheaper than finding other vocalists (for whom she preferred to provide written material than front herself).
However, as late as the punk era, the Slits and the Raincoats, while composing their material, were still overlooked at the expense of male bands like the Jam, the Sex Pistols, and The Buzzcocks. Indeed, it took the long-overdue praises of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain (equally as influenced by female writers as males), and a chance visit to Raincoats’ guitarist Ana da Silva’s family antique store which convinced da Silva and bandmate Gina Birch to reform with the view of joining Nirvana on their 1994 UK tour (sadly Cobain’s death prevented these shows coming to light).
While Damon Albarn’s comments about Swift may not have been rooted in gender-based biases, they continue an ongoing highly reductive notion of authenticity in songwriting being interchangeable with overwhelming maleness, with artists presenting beyond the tortured-artist and angry-young-man models viewed with suspicion.
As I mentioned, modern singer-songwriters across the genre board, present different composition dynamics. While most of Taylor Swift’s albums contain tracks crediting her and at least one other writer, her ability to produce self-penned numbers has been demonstrated on each studio album she has recorded except 2017’s Reputation.
Meanwhile, a previous Swift collaborator, Ed Sheeran, has this week been awarded Songwriter of the Year at this year’s BRITS. Irrespective of opinions regarding his music, he has regularly contributed to other writers throughout his career.
Snow Patrol’s Johnny McDaid has been a regular collaborator, while McDaid’s former bandmate Iain Archer was heavily involved in the writing of James Bay’s debut album Chaos and the Calm’. George Ezra, too, collaborated on the majority of songs for his first two studio albums with another mid-2000s FM radio indie songwriter for hire, in this case, Athlete frontman Joel Pott.
A Music Week study in 2019 found that an average of 5.4 writers were credited with the UK’s 100 biggest-selling songs of the previous year. Noel Gallagher’s assertion, that the industry is made up of “writers and performers”, is perhaps an indication that commercial success is a different beast than within Oasis’ mid-nineties heyday.
Whether Albarn and Gallagher’s respective remarks are tinged with envy (or jealousy) that pop artists utilising multiple writers and producers have tended to dominate public attention, or whether this approach is a genuine threat to the notion of “artistry”, it would a lazy generalisation to suggest a “one-size-fits-all” approach to composition, and whether an artist is racking up the hits like Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish and Ed Sheeran, or slowly building up critical praise and a dedicated fanbase like St Vincent, FKA Twigs and Little Simz, fluid and collaborative approach to songwriting offers multiple lenses and perspectives.
Of course, as Rebecca Taylor aka Self Esteem has demonstrated on her 2021 album Prioritise Pleasure, alone pursuit in sonic and lyrical output can still cross the threshold into critical and commercial recognition, and indeed help explore internal feelings less conducive to collaborative songwriting.