October 27

What it Means to be a Singer-Songwriter

I was talking with a friend about songwriting credits the other day, probably an outgrowth of the Lizzo trademark controversy, and have been thinking about the term “singer-songwriter” – a phrase that I in fact use for myself. It’s funny because I think in actual usage, the image that comes to mind is a person with a guitar or piano performing on stage by themselves. But of course, sometimes the best place to go for meaning isn’t to look to the stereotype, but to just look at the words themselves. What it means to be a singer-songwriter, essentially, is that you are the singer, and the songs that you sing are primarily songs that you wrote yourself.

In that sense, almost all major pop artists that you see these days are not singer-songwriters. And in fact, many people who call themselves “indie” are not singer-songwriters. And in fact, even many people who perform by themselves with just a guitar or piano on stage are not singer-songwriters. We can find these things out by just going to the AllMusic or Spotify page for the artist and taking a look at the songwriting credits for the songs. (Though oftentimes, if you go to the Artist’s Discography page on Wikipedia, it will provide a track-by-track list of writers).

So, for instance, Ariana Grande isn’t a singer-songwriter. On her latest, Thank U, Next, one can count at least 15 different people that contributed as writers on the twelve tracks of that record. (LINK). This doesn’t include the people that are listed with a producer credit. Taylor Swift is a bit more of an ambiguous case. On her last record, Lover, many of the tracks were co-written by Jack Antonoff, with at least six other co-writers and producers on the tracks – though Swift is listed as a co-producer for all tracks. (LINK). In fact, even on her self-titled debut album, most of the tracks are co-written with at least one other writer. (LINK). Taylor Swift is, however, also listed as the sole writer on several tracks on both records.

It gets a bit more complicated than just looking at songwriting credits. I’m inclined to believe – though perhaps it’s too generous – that Taylor Swift writes the base lyrics for her songs, and has another writer or writers help to polish her work, in such a way that they substantively count as co-writers. Under this theory, she at least seems to be more of a singer-songwriter than another artist, where the base lyrics and concept of the song are lifted more or less wholesale from another songwriter or group of songwriters – oftentimes without the original writers knowing that it’s being used, though not without permission. (LINK).

Additionally, I hear there are trends in moving what would be songwriter credits over into producer credits, to help maintain the appearance, for the reputation of the name artist, that they are the sole songwriter of a track. And of course, beyond that, there are trends in just not crediting songwriters at all on a track. In fact, I suspect that much of the activity in “songwriting camps” is a trend towards making the authorship of content more ambiguous, which tends to make it easier to not credit people for contributions. In the way that ambiguous distribution of responsibility can make it easier for people to avoid responsibility for a crime, it works the other way too, making it easier for people to avoid giving credit for a line.

There’s also an abstract sense in which we can argue that producing is a kind of writing. Oftentimes people listed as producers are in fact people who wrote the instrumental track – and that involves chords and melody – things we would ordinarily associate with a writing credit. There’s also the concept of interpretation, where a singer plays a role in phrasing, pronunciation, note-entry, timbre, etc… Interpretation of course affects the content of an artwork – that’s why we think it’s aesthetically worth comparing different interpretations of the same work. But I digress and can talk about those things in more depth another time.

But, why do we even care about the concept of the singer-songwriter in the first place? I have a few thoughts. There is of course the artistic accomplishment of being both the singer and the writer of a composition. I know this may not seem like a big deal, but it’s a big enough deal that music corporations and corporate artists insist on squeezing other writers out of songwriting credits, or at least ensuring in the press that they are de facto publicly branded as the writer of the song, even if the credits suggest otherwise. So, maybe it is a big deal after all.

But more importantly, there are artistic issues that affect how we listen to a song. If the singer didn’t write the song, that should change your interpretation of what the singer is doing when they sing it. I went to a karaoke bar the other week, and sang the Sarah McLachlan song, “Possession”, and about ten seconds into the song, realized that I had made a faux pas. You see, the song was written by Sarah McLachlan as a response to disturbing fan mail that she got from a stalker, where she incorporated some of the spirit of the letters into the song. There is a sense in which the writer of the letters should get some credit in the writing of the songs – in fact, the letter-writer sued McLachlan as a result. But McLachlan’s incorporation of the material changed its meaning giving it a kind of therapeutic value. So, we can see that understanding the relationship between singer and songwriter affects how we correctly interpret the song. We can also understand, given the context, why it comes across as a faux pas to have a man sing the song.

I’m just saying here that knowing the relationship between singer and songwriter makes a significant artistic difference in correctly interpreting the performance of the song. This doesn’t mean that singer-songwriter-written songs are better than non-singer-songwriter-written songs. But, there are many reasons to at least assign some special value to singer-songwriter-written songs.

Consider that in many cases, especially with pop music, many of the co-writers are persons who professionally write songs for dozens of factory acts. In that sense, the songs are much more fungible in that there are many musicians who can plausibly perform the song.

Take the song, “Halo”, as performed by Beyonce. It was co-written by the singer for One Direction and a factory writer, who were trying to write a song in the style of a Ray LaMontagne song, which they originally intended to have Beyonce sing. She did end up singing it, though the song was also shopped to Leona Lewis, who ultimately didn’t record the song. This is an interesting case in which the writers intended for a specific singer to sing the song, and it did end up being recorded by that singer (though through a circuitous route), but in any case, it’s apparent that the song was fungible enough that the song was shopped to a different singer. And, if you know the song, there’s any number of other singers who can perform the song. That’s already different from a song like “Possession” which definitely comes off as awkward if sung by a man.

Compare these to a St. Lenox song like “People From Other Cultures”. Can a white 7th-generation American sing the song? Yes, of course. But the meaning of the performance changes substantially if they do. The song is written from the perspective of someone who is ethnically Korean – and this isn’t merely a historical origin factoid of the writer. It is in the actual lyrics of the song. We can point to determinate content of the song and perceive it. Can a person from Korea sing the song? Yes, of course, but again, the meaning changes substantially if they do. The song has determinate content indicating that the singer is Korean-American and not Korean, and is about the 1st generation Korean-American experience. Can an 18-year old 1st generation Korean-American sing the song? Yes, of course, but again, the meaning changes substantially if they do. The parents in “People From Other Cultures” lived in Korea in the years directly following the Korean War, and this isn’t merely a historical origin factoid of the writer. It is in the actual lyrics of the song. For an 18-year old 1st generation Korean-American to sing the song, these details would be experienced as a more distant historical commentary, as opposed to tales told by their parents as a way of connecting to the home country.

This isn’t to say that fungible songs are less good than non-fungible songs. However, there is a non-accidental connection between fungibility and authorship. It’s no accident that a song written by factory writers for others is very fungible, and a song written by a singer-songwriter tends to be less fungible – though of course singer-songwriters can write perfectly fungible songs.

Additionally, there is a special artistic benefit, and arguably a special moral benefit, to non-fungible music in that the non-fungibility itself requires the listener to reach beyond their own ken in understanding the song. Looking at the song “Halo”, what’s required to “get” the song is a general understanding of fear and the concept that a loved one can provide protection from the thing that is feared. It’s an easy song to get – in fact that’s where the song gets much of its power from. But it isn’t a requirement of understanding the song that you move beyond your own perspective.

That’s very different from a song like “People From Other Cultures” which requires the listener to understand the perspective of the singer. In fact, if they are unable to successfully come to that understanding (say, by faulting the song for not being “everyman” enough), there’s a sense in which they don’t “get” the song. And I think that’s both an aesthetic and moral fault. If they are able to successfully come to that understanding, there’s a sense in which they by definition have reached beyond their perspective, and they are a better person for having done so.

Again, as noted, singer-songwriters of course can write perfectly fungible music. And there is additionally a lot of very good fungible music. But I’ve pointed out the distinct artistic import that the relationship between singer and songwriter has in accurately interpreting a singer’s performance of a piece. I’ve also noted a special artistic and moral benefit to non-fungibility in music, and the way in which being specifically a singer-songwriter promotes non-fungibility. Perhaps not a comprehensive account, but I think this provides us with the start of what it means to be a singer-songwriter.