What goes through your head when you hear the term: singer-songwriter? Is your mind filled with images of ginger-haired Ed Sheeran, innocent Nina Nesbitt and boyish-looking George Ezra? Or perhaps passionate Laura Marling, the watchful Bob Dylan or a smiling Carole King?
All of these musicians are frequently described as singer-songwriters. But the degree to which they are responsible for the creation of their songs – in other words, songwriting – is where the real distinction lies.
In a recent interview with Shortlist, former Oasis member Noel Gallagher made his feelings clear about the looseness of the term ‘singer-songwriter’ today. He said he was “heartbroken” when he found out Jake Bugg (a singer he was an early supporter of) had the aid of a professional co-writer for his debut album, and suggested the Nottingham singer should “join a f*cking band” if he needs help with writing.
Speaking about musicians, such as Bugg and James Bay, who have had help writing, he added: “They’re singers, they’re performers. They’re not singer-songwriters. There should be a new term, because if they’re singer-songwriters, what am I, then? What’s Paul Weller? What’s Paul McCartney? What’s Neil Young or Bob Dylan?”
It’s debatable whether joining a band would actually improve the songwriting skills of some musicians. But the point Gallagher makes about ‘singer-songwriter’, this catch-all term for any and every Tom, Dick and Harriet who plays a guitar and tells you a tale at the same time, is dead on.
A term so overused, they pretend it’s a music genre
If you’re curious to see how out of hand this has gotten, look no further than the genre sections on digital music stores, such Google Play and iTunes. At the time of writing, under this ‘genre’ category, Ed Sheeran and Laura Marling rub shoulders with Lily Allen and Katy Perry on Google Play’s ludicrous amalgam, while James Bay, Denai Moore, Mark Knopfler and Bob Dylan inhabit the same space on iTunes.
Seeing as the dictionary definition of a singer-songwriter is “a performer who writes his or her own songs”, the use of such a category, as a genre or catch-all tag, is complete stupidity. For the sake of sales, digital music stores have gladly piggybacked on this unfortunate colloquialism, and simply aided in the term becoming more meaningless.
As futile as it may be, reclaiming the definition of ‘songwriter’ is about describing creativity and, for some, quantifying authenticity. The world of music credits is already a messy landscape of misleading titles, contractual agreements and uncredited parties. For instance, the most covered song ever, the Beatles’s ‘Yesterday’, was written by Paul McCartney, but it is credited to Lennon-McCartney, as so many Beatles songs are. Other bands, such as Coldplay, have songwriting agreements that split the credit (and revenue) between the members equally, regardless of who came up with, or helped develop, a song. Today, many song instrumentals are composed entirely on computer by a single producer, or collection of producers. Add sampling to the equation, and things get even more complicated.
There is no question that the term ‘singer-songwriter’ has been stretched out of all recognition. It shouldn’t mean ‘has guitar and can sing songs’, yet that’s what it’s become. Of course, these young, handsome-looking Dylanites (George Ezra, Jake Bugg, James Bay) are only the tip of the never-ending debate over the authenticity of music, which what this is really about.
Songwriting and authenticity
The Beyoncé vs Beck controversy at the 2015 Grammy Awards showed us that, when debating artistic worth, people jump straight to song credits as a measure of authenticity, despite fact that credits can often be little more than indicators of revenue splits, rather than creative input. Albums by Little Mix and Stooshe have song credits longer than Morrissey’s boycott list. These singers don’t come up with the music or even the lyrics most of the time, yet their names may be attached to writing credits, which, theoretically, makes them ‘songwriters’, if only in the eyes of music publishers and their royalties team.
By contrast, Lianne La Havas worked with producer, Matt Hales (Aqualung), who co-wrote eight of the 12 songs on her debut album. Nevertheless, in my eyes, La Havas is as authentic as she needs to be. She doesn’t pretend to be something she’s not. She conducts herself with honesty, and demonstrated, before her album appeared, that she can genuinely write solo. She is a singer-songwriter, and even though she had help polishing or finishing the majority of the songs for her debut album, evidence suggests she is responsible for the majority of her songwriting output.
With artists such as La Havas in mind, co-writing shouldn’t automatically mean a song is less authentic than another. The moment we start to derive artistic authenticity from song credits alone, we are entering a larger, entirely messier debate. Because what makes a Courtney Barnett song doesn’t make a Janelle Monáe song, just as what makes a Damon Albarn song doesn’t make a song from the new and improved Marina and the Diamonds.
Still, let there be no mistake: the term ‘singer-songwriter’ should only be applied to musicians who have actually written the music and lyrics (in a perfect world, it would be both) to original songs themselves. The more examples of solo writing and performing in their repertoire, the more they fit the agreed definition of a singer-songwriter. As for the Jake Buggs, James Bays and George Ezras, musicians with more than a handful of co-written songs to their name should be honest about their creative input, and whether they can truly called themselves ‘songwriters’ at all.