September 30, 2013

The rise and fall of music stars who wrote their own songs

For all the obsession with authenticity, contemporary culture is remarkably fake. Or perhaps designed-by-committee is a better way to put it. You feel that the most in pop music -- too bland to bother turning on the radio anymore. Not since about 1993, and that's being generous. More like the late '80s.

This is only one example of the stultification of culture during a period of falling-crime / cocooning. What are the pathways, though, that lead from cocooning to committee-created culture? As elsewhere, when folks don't trust one another, they can't form a cohesive group -- not even a small one, which ought to be easy (no huge "free rider" problem).

Have you ever noticed how there are hardly any bands or music groups these days? How the hit songs are performed by a lone singer, perhaps with the occasional guest vocalist? That's what you get when suspicion is the first thing people feel toward one another. Without an atmosphere of camaraderie like you find among band members, some kind of central committee will have to arrange and supervise the relationships between the relevant players. And the players will assume a more on-the-move mercenary role -- not being bound to any particular enduring group.

One easy way to see the unraveling of camaraderie in the pop music industry is to look at who's listed under the writer's credit for a hit song. If it's a talented and cohesive group, they're probably creating everything in-house. If each individual involved in the creation is thrown together for any given song, then the songwriting is probably outsourced to a specialist (or a team of them).

I went to the Billboard Year-End singles charts, and looked up the writer's credit for the top 20 songs of the year, from 1949 to 2009 in 5-year intervals, and adding 2012 at the end. (The year-end charts for 1949 came from this site.) The criterion for counting the song as "written by the performers" was pretty strict, but that avoids having to make lots of subjective judgement calls. Namely: everyone given credit for writing the song must be a performer on it as well.

Obviously that excludes songs whose lyrics and music were written by a songwriting team and given to a singer to perform. It also excludes songs where the performer may have contributed to the creation, but received major help from outside. For example, "Time After Time" from 1984 is credited to Cyndi Lauper, who sings it, but also to Rob Hyman of The Hooters, who played a big role in writing the music. So it is not counted. From the same year, "When Doves Cry" is credited only to Prince, who performs vocally and instrumentally, so it is counted.

It's not as though getting sole credit means you had no outside help or influence whatsoever -- only that it wasn't big enough for them to be added to the writer's credit.

The graph below shows the rise and fall of pop music stars who wrote their own songs:

The mid-century points near the bottom are a good reminder of how fragmented the society was back then, and how afraid they were to take a chance on each other -- or on themselves. Why didn't Frank Sinatra or Perry Como play an instrument, or take a shot at writing their own songs? "I'm no expert -- best to leave that to the professionals." Hey dude, it's not like "Summer of '69" is Keats for a modern audience. You don't have to be a wiz with words. Just give it a shot and see how well it goes. You never know till you try, right? But social paralysis was as powerful back then as it is now.

Not until the 1959 point do we see a breaking away from the mid-century model. And it's not really a rock 'n' roll rebellion, as most of the early rock of the '50s was written by outside songwriters. Rather, it's pop singers like Paul Anka and the Everly Brothers sticking their neck out a little bit by doing it themselves.

The mini-decline during the '60s would be even more pronounced if I had chosen a year other than 1964 for the mid-decade point. That was the year of Beatlemania, and 5 of the 7 songs shown were written and performed by Lennon-McCartney.

There appear to be shorter cycles on top of the overall rise-and-fall pattern. First a burst of enthusiasm for new writer-performers, followed by professional songwriters jumping on the bandwagon to make a more polished product. Then audiences getting tired with the polished state of things and wanting another round of Something New.

After the mid-'70s doldrums, the next surge of originality came with disco. Most people associate the style with cheesy polyester leisure suits, more than the actual quality of the music itself. It's not easy to write for so many instruments, let alone pen lyrics that will pick people's spirits up and make them feel like dancing their troubles away. But the Bee Gees and Chic made writing your own songs look easy, and they deserve more respect than they get from the nerdier sort of pop music critic.

The peak of homemade songs arrived with the New Wave / Heartland Rock / Hard Rock zeitgeist of the mid-1980s. Even then, "only" one-half of the top 20 songs were created entirely by their performers, so there was plenty of room for professional songwriters and singers to work together on a project-by-project basis. Still, it's striking how skilled the average pop star was in the '80s. Can't hand off those guitar solos to someone else -- that would be a loss of honor.

By the late '80s, there were more professional outsiders jumping on board during the twilight phase of rock and synth-pop. But unlike earlier periods, things did not bounce back with Something New during the '90s -- or the 21st century, for that matter. Something that only the performers could come up with by themselves. There was a blip in 2004, perhaps another example of the mid-2000s respite from the overall boringification of the culture since the '90s. However, a lot of those songs are rap, hence the "songwriting" quality is not impressive. No singing, for instance, just plain speech.

And now we're right back to mid-century levels of creation-by-committee. It's mind-blowing to look at writer's credits from recent years -- sometimes 3, 4, 5, 6 people being listed. Perhaps the performer is thrown in there somewhere, but they are mostly being supported by an ad hoc team of consultants. And the results are predictable. There's no real sense of passion, commitment, and camaraderie. Each song sounds like the individuals involved were just going through the motions, rehearsing a script.

The only song written by the performer in 2012 was "Somebody That I Used to Know" by Gotye, which is easily the only halfway decent song from last year -- and the most distinctive. It didn't sound like the rest of the 21st century centrally planned pop pap. It's reminiscent of The Police or Peter Gabriel, not out of blind imitation, but simply because songs sound more memorable that way when their performers have something personal invested in them.

As for the rest of it, future generations will probably resonate with it as much as they would with Rosemary Clooney and Eddie Fisher. Meanwhile, they'll still be playing the Beatles, the Bee Gees, and the Boss.


  1. Steve had a post about songwriting teams, noting out that Gotye was adapting a song by a Brazilian guitarist who's been dead for years.

    Yglesias has no problem with professional songwriters taking their part in the division of labor, but is annoyed that this is something of a dirty secret of the music industry that it downplays in its presentation of itself. The tribute vice pays to virtue?

  2. Yglesias is true to form in regurgitating a slew of Key Concepts he absorbed from econ 101, hostile to the idea that they need to be applied to the real world. Just mention the buzz-words, and you get full credit for the assignment.

    "in the future if we want more great pop songs we're going to need more collaborations."

    What a clueless idiot. All there is today is "collaborations," i.e. creation-by-committee. Not like Taylor Swift is much of a musician in her own right, for the term collaboration to apply.

    Performing what someone else has written is OK for acting -- the screenwriter provides very little to go on. Just words and stage directions, not inflection, pacing, diction, etc., let alone non-verbal communication, or inter-personal chemistry. Different actors could bring totally different performances to a given role.

    But with pop music, the performer of someone else's song doesn't bring too much to it that's unique and distinctive. It's a more structurally constrained form -- meter, pitch, lyrics, etc., are going to be remarkably similar no matter who performs the song. More of it is spelled-out, whereas acting is more open-ended.

    Performing other people's music is fine for preservation, elevating to "folk" status. But not with new music, unless it's too unwieldy for one person to perform all the parts (like classical music, and even then the composers were often virtuosos at a keyboard instrument).

    New music, and new art generally, is supposed to feel like it came from somewhere. They couldn't keep it to themselves, and had to perform it in front of an audience for their enjoyment.

    Once that motivation evaporates, the result is music that sounds like it's not spontaneous and from-the-heart but calculated and pandering. Not meant to bond a scene together, but to transfer as much money as possible from the consumers to the producers.

  3. The outcome is exactly what we see today. "Great pop songs," Yglesias says. What a total joke. He refers to Max Martin as "one of the songwriting geniuses of our era." Right -- all that bland, annoying boy band bullshit from the late '90s and early 2000s, and more recent irritations by Katy Perry and Taylor Swift. Something that could only be crafted by a castrated Swede.

    So, as long as we keep it up with as many collaborations as possible, we're going to get more of the same.

  4. "People produce more and better stuff when they specialize and part of being good at what you do is being smart about who you collaborate with. Swift was right to recognize that essentially everyone who's ever worked with Max Martin has benefitted from the partnership and Martin was right to recognize that a collaboration with Swift was likely to be fruitful."

    The Jewy-ness of this passage is enough to make music fans vomit. What's the most important impulse to have when setting out to create a new song for listeners? Send out head-hunters and make a pitch to the other side. "I'll be great for your business, and you'll be great for my business. It'll be win-win, baby."

    Their "collaboration" is nothing more than emotionally avoidant mutual masturbation, not two people coming together to make something special.

    How powerful is that at building a community of fans? Well, just look at how *un*-interested young people are these days to meet up for the purpose of enjoying music together, whether it's dance clubs or live concerts.

    Ditto the mid-century -- aside from a gaggle of bobby-soxers following Frank Sinatra around, and even that goes to show how little community or "scene" there was. They weren't relating to one another as members of a group, but were merely congregating in the same space to individualistically chase after some dude who they all wanted to snag into marriage.

  5. The '80s had a lot of hit songs written by someone other than the performer, but that song-writer wasn't some specialized mercenary in the greater scheme of the division of labor. Often they were performers in their own right.

    "Manic Monday" was written by Prince. "Time After Time" was co-written by Rob Hyman of the Hooters. "Fire" (1978) by the Pointer Sisters was written by Springsteen. "Our Lips Are Sealed" was co-written with Terry Hall from the Specials.

    And Tom Kelly of "Kelly & Steinberg" was a session musician and toured with Toto. They wrote a bunch of mega-hits for female performers, so that accounts for why they didn't perform them themselves.

    Further back, "I'm a Believer" by the Monkees was written by Neil Diamond.

    This form of writing songs for others to perform keeps the process more organic, meaningful, and driven by some purpose beyond making money. One performer writing for another.

    Nowadays, and back in the mid-century, the roles are more compartmentalized, so the different players are often talking past each other, not reaching each other, or something. They're familiar enough with the other roles to put out a product, but not enough to relate to one another on an intuitive level.

  6. So what kind of music do you like, agnostic?

  7. New Wave and synth-pop from about '82 to '85. General rock, R&B, and pop music, more like '86 to '89. From the early '90s, the tail end of college radio when it hit the mainstream (Gin Blossoms, Soul Asylum, Spin Doctors).

  8. "But the Bee Gees and Chic made writing your own songs look easy, and they deserve more respect than they get from the nerdier sort of pop music critic."

    I hear you. I seriously, seriously love the Bee Gees and when Steve Sailer puts down disco it just frustrates me so much.

    My own husband is extremely nerdy, but while disco and other danceable pop music is the focus of ire for Steve and others, for my husband it is country music. Perhaps because it is too close to home being a Southerner with redneck relatives he despised? I love him, but his spazzing out over this music is one of his flaws.

    One funny thing is that our relationship seems to be a microcosm of my relationship with the Steveosphere (he is nerdier and more out there than the average Steveosphere denizen, though). I've been a reader for many years and find these blogs so stimulating and mostly attractive; how I view my husband. But we're so different in other ways. I've never seen him dance in the 18+ years we've been together and his idea of great music is this terrible thing called progressive rock (I'm respectful to him about it). Myself? I've been privileged to be told by multiple people that I was the best of something that they had ever seen and it wasn't being the most intelligent, prettiest, nicest, etc. Of all things, it is best dancer; I've received far more attention and awe over this one thing than anything else even though it's one of the last things I think about vis a vis my identity. No class ever taken, no amazing gymnastics, routines, etc. Just simply dancing.

    Anyway, some Night Fever.

  9. There is something mercenary about the songwriters of today. There were bands in the past who often performed music by someone else who they had a more permanent relationship with. Blue Oyster Cult is one example, and King Crimson is another (although I think they were at their best when Sinfield left for ELP). Brian Wilson could also be considered an example, since he became unable to perform live and focused on songwriting & production. Therion is a modern band which does that, but that's because the band leader belongs to a cult.

    There's a big discussion here comparing the movies & music of different decades, where the question is raised whether to lump in the music of the late 80s with the early 90s or vice versa.

    Off-topic: You've written about slavic peoples (excluding the Balkans) as being farmer types, contrasted with pastoralists. It occurred to me recently that for Russians & Ukranians, the cossacks are an exception. How exactly to classify the cossacks has been a topic of dispute/discussion at my blog, but whether ethnicity or military caste they seem more like pastoralists.

  10. "Night Fever" could only have been written in the 70s or 80s. 60s too young, I think. They're like the adolescent still discovering who they are and just starting to get hot-blooded: Itchycoo Park.

    The most soul-searing writer in my opinion is Dolly Parton who mostly wrote in the 70s. Not in love with her musically; prefer her covered by others. "Jolene" is a tour de force. Does any female song express the vulnerability and emotional nakedness that Jolene does? It's one of the most remade songs of all time and NPR once covered its appeal across time and genres.

    The 70s were such an intense decade.

    Night Fever sample:
    Here I am, prayin' for this moment to last,
    Livin' on the music so fine, borne on the wind,
    Makin' it mine.

    The night fever, night fever: we know how to do it.
    Gimme the night fever, night fever: we know how to show it.
    In the heat of our love, don't need no help for us to make it.
    Gimme just enough takin’ us to the mornin'.
    I got fire in my mind. I get higher in my walkin',
    And I'm glowin' in the dark; I give you warnin'.

  11. 1964 may not be that unrepresentative of the mid-60's. For the years '65 thru '68, I count 7,6,3 and 6 using your strict methodology.

    To be fair to the mid-century, few performers outside of hillbilly and commie-folk communities would have ever even thought of writing their own songs. Previous decades had such phenomenal professional song writers as Berlin, Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rogers & Hart, Kern and Hammerstein, Hoagy Carmichael, etc., and their songs were considerably more sophisticated musically and lyrically cleverer. For some reason, these talents started to peter out after the war, and by the early 50's I would agree the quality of songs was largely forgettable. But the practice was too entrenched to change right away, so you still had the Rosemary Clooneys and Eddie Fishers still singing other people's (now rather forgettable) songs.

  12. Oh my goodness this is too perfect...
    Tripping down memory about "Jolene" and discovered a Strawberry Switchblade cover.

  13. "but while disco and other danceable pop music is the focus of ire for Steve and others,"

    Cerebrals definitely outnumber corporeals on the internet. Steve is good-natured about his poo-poo-ing of disco, though, saying that he has trouble keeping rhythm and singing on key, which isn't a big deal in the punk world.

    Then there are the bitter nerd types, angry that other people can turn off their self-monitoring spotlight and enjoy themselves, not feeling all awkward in their bodies. This hyper-self-conscious type are the ones who just drip venom on anything danceable.

    "for my husband it is country music."

    A lot of country is pretty whiny, though, or at least self-pitying. Southern rock and heartland rock are more confident and celebratory. Actual blue-collar folks don't really dig it -- it's more of a middle-class genre for those who still want to keep in touch with the rest of the class pyramid, without patronizing.

    "Tripping down memory about "Jolene" and discovered a Strawberry Switchblade cover."

    You're the second person here who says they were big into them back then. Dana, too, IIRC. Here I thought they were more unknown, but guess not.

    They don't make dark Celtic babes like they used to...

  14. "I've received far more attention and awe over this one thing than anything else even though it's one of the last things I think about vis a vis my identity. No class ever taken, no amazing gymnastics, routines, etc. Just simply dancing."

    You too? And I'll bet you didn't find out until you were in your early or mid 20s.

    It seems like if you're too much younger than that, like if you're training at a dance school, you're still not comfortable in your body. It's this thing that you're at the steering wheel of. Hence all the choreography.

    Spontaneous dancing isn't as artistic or graceful, but it tickles the brain of the crowd more. They're so not used to seeing someone who can move, without formal training. It's like you're the only kid on the block who can throw a ball and hit a target, when everyone else is an emaciated or obese couch potato.

  15. "Previous decades had such phenomenal professional song writers as Berlin, Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rogers & Hart, Kern and Hammerstein, Hoagy Carmichael, etc., and their songs were considerably more sophisticated musically and lyrically cleverer."

    Most of their great songs fit into a larger work, like an opera or a musical play or film. Having a wider vision for how all the separate songs are going to relate to each other, and shift the mood throughout the large work, takes a lot more talent.

    That's my guess why the performers wouldn't dream of taking on the songwriting. They could've come up with one or two good songs, but not several at a time that all related to each other.

    That's also probably why the writers didn't perform -- too many different roles and moods to have to get into. Like playwrights not performing the various parts they write.

    Interesting to note the birth years of those you named -- all from the mid-1880s to the early 1900s, and mostly in the '90s. In relation to when the crime rate begins its decades-long rise (~1900), these births are like those born from the mid-'40s through the early '60s -- Boomers.

    And the peak period is the 1920s and early '30s (the Jazz Age), before the crime rate starts falling (in 1934) and slowly bringing the fun-loving culture down with it.

    So it's like the most recent peak of pop music during the '80s, when Boomers and a handful of X-ers at the end were in the driver's seat.

    I don't know anything about the songwriting culture of the Jazz Age, but I'm guessing there was more trust and camaraderie among writers and performers. And that as the '30s wore on into the mid-century malaise, writers and performers could only relate to each other at a distance, leaving only the compartmentalized kind of collaboration possible.

    Maybe I ought to go through All What Jazz again and see if he discusses the social nature of the scene during and after the Jazz Age.

  16. "I don't know anything about the songwriting culture of the Jazz Age, but I'm guessing there was more trust and camaraderie among writers and performers."

    I think you're right - my impression was always that the Broadway scene in the 20's and 30's was a tight little community - everyone knew each other.

    And you're right all those great songwriters wrote mainly for Broadway shows. I think the only non-Broadway song Rodgers and Hart wrote was "Blue Moon".

  17. "It seems like if you're too much younger than that, like if you're training at a dance school, you're still not comfortable in your body."

    The first time I drew a crowd around me while dancing, I got extremely nervous and ran off! I was 17, I think. Along with hearing comments starting a couple years earlier, I started to accept it.

  18. On country music, I've had to take a hiatus from it as it has gotten so bad. Its cycles of good and bad don't quite match up with rock and pop; I think there is a lag, but not sure.
    The 40s-50s were great with Hank Williams, Bill Monroe founding bluegrass, George Jones, "El Paso" by Marty Robbins.
    The 60s and some of the 70s were awful as it went more pop, sugary, and just in general lost its soul.
    Then the 70s experienced a comeback with the Outlaws: Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams Jr., Willie Nelson, Charlie Daniels, etc.
    The 80s, but especially the 90s were phenomenal. The early and mid 80s were countryfried with John Anderson's "Swinging", "Louisiana Saturday Night", etc. LOVE THAT STUFF, but it's too strong for non-country fans. Then the Judds came along in the middle, but it wasn't until the very end of the 80s when Dwight Yoakam came along to start to turn country music great which led to Garth Brooks who blew up the genre and finally gained it some respect and non-country fans without compromising its soul.
    The down turn seems to have come sometime during the 2000s. Your term about songs made by committee is exactly what I've been trying to describe with what's wrong with it lately. The whiny, young girls have been ascendant for some years now. Before he died, George Jones lamented that he and his kind of music had no place in it today and he had been a fixture for over 4 decades starting in the late 50s! I mean, they quit playing his classics... they rarely play anything before the early 2000s. Even on the "Oldies" nights, they're playing the saccharine, slow, or whiny garbage. The other night they played some Hank Williams... yeah! Sadly, it wasn't "Jambalaya", "Tear in my Beer", "Honky Tonkin'", "I Saw the Light", or his good slow songs. It was something I didn't recognize as being on my greatest hits double album and it was so blah... what a disappointment!

  19. "They don't make dark Celtic babes like they used to..."

    Yeah, that song with video didn't quite work for the singer. You're not supposed to be prettier and more confident than Jolene, lol!

  20. In the book Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music, the authors argue that Kurt Cobain's suicide put a damper on the quest for authenticity in popular music. How could any other artist compete with that expression of being a tortured soul?

    Disco wasn't supposed to authentic, and some bands were self-awaredly non-authentic. It was party music - stuff to dance to. It didn't matter who wrote it, just whether you could dance to it. That's why the rockers of the 70s looked down on it. Once there were more "authentic" rock artists making happy music in the 80s, disco faded away - you could have your authenticity and party in one package.

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