It Doesn’t Matter If Artists Don’t Write Their Songs, Music Is A Team Sport
21 January 2016, 16:43 | Updated: 8 May 2017, 17:09
Just hear us out.
If there is one trap that music lovers and music spectators often run into, it's the trap of authenticity. We've heard it time and time again: "did so-and-so write the song?", "did so-and-so sing live?", "did so-and-so use a body double for the music video?". For some inexplicable reason, we as fans are obsessed with the idea that everything must always be 100% real.
The latest story in the ongoing fight for total authenticity has acclaimed songwriter, Linda Perry, making some pretty serious allegations about Lady Gaga's "Till It Happens To You" writing credit. "Till It Happens To You" is, of course, the song that has earned Lady Gaga an Oscar nomination at this year's Academy Awards ceremony. In a series of now deleted tweets, Perry says that she heard a nearly finished demo featuring co-writer, Diane Warren's solo vocals. Perry has since apologized for her statement but the seed has been planted. Now we're all wondering if Lady Gaga wrote that song.
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Lady Gaga has built her career around being a true artist. She put out groundbreaking records, had her mandatory drug phase, and worked with Tony Bennett for a spell. Accusing Gaga, one of the best performers of our time, of lying about a song credit for which she has earned an Oscar nomination for, would likely knock the earth out of its orbit.
From day one, Gaga has always had co-writers who have served her well. But, and follow me on this one, does it really matter if Gaga didn't write the song at all?
One of the biggest industry scandals of 2015 was the fight that ensued after Meek Mill accused Drake of having a ghost writer.
Diss tracks were exchanged, world tours were mercilessly critiqued. It was a huge controversy. In the rap game, you just don't use a ghostwriter.
Stop comparing drake to me too.... He don't write his own raps! That's why he ain't tweet my album because we found out!— Meek Mill (@MeekMill) July 22, 2015
But Meek Mill's bombshell seemed to backfire. In this instance, people just didn't seem to care whether Drake used a ghostwriter or not.
Drake, despite thoroughly dominating the mainstream arena, conducts himself the way the leader of an art collective would. He rolls with photographers, videographers, OVO collaborators and uses the same producer for most of his music. Drake has also been known to give jobs to his childhood friends. Drake so very clearly has a ghostwriter or, at the very least, a frequent collaborator. Too much is at stake for him not to.
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Then there is the fact that the music industry rests squarely on the shoulders of songwriters.
At a point, likely in the late 70s or early 80s, collaborative songwriting become the common way of producing records. Michael Jackson's Thriller was the result of Jackon's dream team: Quincy Jones on production and Rod Temperton on writing duty. It was a small group (by todays standards) but they produced one of the best pop albums of the 20th century.
In 2015, The Weeknd's Beauty Behind The Madness (an album that is, sonically, quite similar to Thriller) has writing credits that look like this:
It took, quite literally, a team to produce one of the best albums of last year. A team this large would have likely made Abel Tesfaye's actual contributions quite minimal.
The most notable member of Abel's team has to be veteran producer and songwriter, Max Martin. There are people whose entire careers would not exist without Max Martin. Taylor Swift's 1989 wouldn't exist without Max Martin. Britney Spears as an entity would hardly exist without Max Martin. His prolific songwriting and production is the reason music sounds like it does today and none of the artists he has worked it would have the success they do without his guidance.
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Understanding the role writers play is key. Writers are there to write while performers are there to perform. Very occasionally an artist can do both exceptionally well with little or no help. But, for the most part, writers are essential to the success of a song or musician.
Take songwriter Bonnie McKee, for instance.
After failing to make it big as a performer herself in the early 2000s, Bonnie made the switch to full time songwriter. She collaborates frequently with Katy Perry and sounds, vocally, like Ke$ha singing a Katy Perry song. There was something about her that didn't quite resonate as a solo artist, but that did work as a songwriter.
Despite having trouble connecting with audiences as an artist, Bonnie's contributions have catapulted Katy Perry's career to unfathomable heights. The difference one good writer can make is unquestionable.
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So now, songwriting is as viable (or even more viable) a career option as performance. Entire songwriting camps are set up for music students to learn how to craft songs for themselves and other people. And it makes sense. Songwriters are always in demand, much more than performers. And, as demonstrated by the amount of people who worked on The Weeknd's album or even Beyonce's last album, the need for songwriters will always be great.
At this point Max Martin has been writing songs for the last 20 years. He could go for another 20 or 30 years before even thinking of hanging his hat up. No one will care what he wears and no one will ask if he has had plastic surgery. He, and other songwriters like him, will continue shaping music as we know it.
When we look at DJs and producers, the need for writing the material themselves diminishes even further. It's unfathomable that someone like Calvin Harris creates a beat and then sits down and writes all the lyrics to a song by himself. The immense pool of talent clamoring to work with him means that he can choose the very best songwriters that will result in the very best songs. He is no less of an artist because he has other people write with or for him. It's so common practice that, to suggest that it's a bad thing, would be a huge display of naivete.
And that's the case with so many artists. From Adele to Katy Perry, Selena Gomez, and Lady Gaga. There may be some need for "authentic artistry" but the true reality of that is a pipe dream. If we want to push authenticity, that's fine. But authenticity doesn't pay the bills. What we can offer songwriters, besides authenticity politics, is better royalties for their hand in bolstering, and often times creating, artist's careers.
The music industry is so much like a relay race. Each leg is completed by a different member of the process. No artist can run a race by themselves and songwriters are the backbone of any musical team. Whether Lady Gaga wrote the song or not isn't of much importance. She performs it live, it's her vocals on the track, and it's her face attached to the project. She may have only written one written one line of "Till It Happens To You" but music is a collaboration of writing and performance. The song is as much hers as it is Diane Warren's.