Unpopular Opinions: Writing Your Own Songs is Overrated


Unpopular Opinions is a weekly column written by Flavorpill’s resident music curmudgeon and esoteric record-bin enthusiast, the Beard. His opinions do not reflect those of Flavorpill, Flavorwire, or any of their affiliates…

It might make me unpopular, but I think… writing your own songs is overrated.

I’ve been to the hippest barbers, and I can tell you categorically: nothing flips indie kid face fuzz like the shave of an inauthentic artist. In an age of “co-writers” like the Jonas Bothers, Avril Lavigne, Rihanna, Britney Spears, and any number of other dimple-cheeked dodos, it’s hard not to get a little angry: does anyone write their own songs anymore?

That said, I’m a little tired of playing to the punk police. Growing up in D.C., I encountered enough Spanish Inquisition-style scrutiny to last a lifetime (“Anyone got a tape measure? This basement isn’t underground enough!”). I’ve heard bands with 400 MySpace listens called trendy, been labeled a poseur when I was only one of six people in an audience, and seen folks branded “sell-outs” before they’d put one damn tune to tape. I’m all for a purity of artistic intent, but (all apologies to Ian), some of this stuff is just outrageous.

Still, when it comes to writing your own tunes, I sort of understand. You wouldn’t wear a fake set of whiskers, so why is it ok to don someone else’s song? Isn’t a piece delivered by the person who wrote it infinitely more authentic? If you’re just aping someone else’s emotions, doesn’t that sort of make you a shill? On one level, it seems like pretty unassailable logic. Only problem is, adhering too strictly to those sorts of sound bites can turn you into a bit of an asshole.

So, let’s hold the envelope up to the window and see what outlines emerge:

Some artists who relied heavily on outside songwriters: Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Elton John, the Temptations, Sammy Davis, Aerosmith, Ava Cassidy, The Turtles, Aretha Franklin, Patti Labelle, Leona Lewis, the Byrds, Karen Dalton.

Some artists who didn’t: Creed.

Point taken? Categorically dismissing artists who don’t write their own songs, or, conversely, giving more weight to those that do, is just bad science. The authenticity of an artist’s work can’t be judged simply by the role of its originator in the final product (otherwise a number of legendary artists are suddenly rendered inauthentic). Whether or not a singer writes a song is just one of several factors that inform its impact.

When I evaluate a record, my first question isn’t who wrote it; I want to know whether or not the songs actually say something. Only once a song’s resonance is established should the artist’s interpretation even come into play. And if a piece is rendered authentically, determining whether or not it’s actually “authentic” is something of an afterthought. Does an Elvis song work any less effectively because he didn’t write it? Fifty-thousand Elvis fans don’t think so, and those dudes have pretty badass sideburns.

However much I respect the creative process, certain singers are simply equipped with more effective communicative tools. Bob Dylan was a songwriter with very specific strengths and weaknesses. He was the master of protest and the seedy love song, but when it came to tunes that needed a light touch, he could be pretty abysmal. That’s why some of his more subtle or tender songs were far more powerful (and popular) under the ax of another (the Byrds, the Turtles, or any one of a thousand sweet-toothed pop singers).

All this to say that a lot of people go after contemporary pop and non-singer/songwriters for the wrong reasons. We judge singers from the ’50s and ’60s primarily on the merit of their performances, not whether or not they wrote a catchy chorus. Why isn’t it the same for everyone? Entire industries, ones that your average elitist would never assail, were predicated on the distinct separation of singer and songwriter. In movements like Motown, ’50s folk, and classic country, authenticity of this sort was never an issue (is Otis Redding’s “A Change is Gonna Come” any less inspiring because Sam Cooke wrote it? I don’t think so).

In that respect pop stars like Rihanna really aren’t any less authentic than, say, Patti Labelle. They show up to the studio, cut whatever is handed to them, and go back to working the road. Same as it ever was. Same as it EVER was. At least not until you explore important factors like tone, delivery, passion, resonance, and longevity. If we want to call the punk police about that stuff, I’ve got’em on speed dial.