While writing last night’s post about Elvis, and discussing the prospect of him recording new music, I mentioned the need for capable producers to find the right songs for him, since Elvis himself was not a songwriter. That brings up an interesting topic which I’ve thought about many times over the years. Despite Elvis’ worldwide fame and success, few critics ever hold the fact that he didn’t write songs against him. He’s still “The King”. And Elvis is not alone in this, many great singers either didn’t write songs, or wrote very few songs during their careers. Elvis’ contemporary, and at one point his chief rival for the position of The King of Rock N Roll, Jerry Lee Lewis, did write a few songs that were featured on B-sides of his singles, but primarily he relied on professional songwriters for his hits. Great Balls of Fire, Whole Lotta Shakin Goin’ On, Breathless, & High School Hop, are the songs he’s most remembered for, and all of them were written by others.
Most of the biggest early Motown acts did not write their songs. Smokey Robinson was a rare exception, writing songs for his group The Miracles, as was Stevie Wonder, but The Temptations, The Supremes, The Four Tops, Martha & The Vandellas, Gladys Knight And The Pips, and most of those other acts relied on Motown’s in-house legion of songwriters (including Smokey Robinson) for their hits. Most of the time the various acts didn’t even have a choice of what songs to record, or which of their songs would be released as singles. They were just sent to the studio, given the lyrics, and told to sing. But no one looks back and says that the Temptations weren’t a “real” group, the way other vocal groups like New Kids On The Block, N’Sync, and The Backstreet Boys were criticized (New Edition seemed to escape the criticism, too).
But I see this with many modern acts. I remember seeing a thread on some message board a couple of years ago about Rihanna, where people were criticizing her for not being a songwriter. It was in response to an article about her where one of her managers discussed her prolific recording schedule, saying they put out a new album every year in order to keep up her momentum. And many commentators in the forum were saying things like “Well, that’s easy to do when you’re just recording other people’s songs”, as if that somehow makes her less legitimate than a singer like Alicia Keyes, who does write songs. And I’ll always remember a conversation that I had with a friend back when I was in High School about Mariah Carey. My friend dismissed her, and I said what’s wrong with her, and he countered with “She doesn’t write her own songs”, but I pointed out that, actually, she did write, or co-write, many of her songs. But, again, I didn’t see what difference that should make. If he just didn’t like her music, that’s fine, but if a song is good or bad what difference does it make whether the person who’s singing it wrote it or not?
And then there’s the fact that many acts who do write their songs still don’t get respect for it, which just shows how arbitrary this criticism is. Madonna, despite her commercial success, has never been taken that seriously as an artist by most critics, but she has also written or co-written many of her biggest hits, as has Beyonce who also doesn’t seem to get the credit. And then let’s take the Late Michael Jackson (R.I.P.), he started at Motown with the Jackson 5 and, like most of the other Motown acts, they didn’t write anything. All of those “classics,” I Want You Back, ABC, The Love You Save, I’ll Be There, Dancing Machine, etc., were songs that were written by others. Even when they left Motown, as The Jacksons, they started off mostly using professional songwriters, before starting to write and produce most of their own music. Michael himself, on his first two adult solo albums, Off The Wall and Thriller, it was Quincy Jones who found most of the songs for him, while Michael wrote a few songs on each album. It wasn’t until the BAD album that he begin writing the majority of his albums himself. But are previous hits like Human Nature or P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing) somehow any less great, just because Michael didn’t write them like he did Beat It and Billie Jean?
And that’s what I mean about it just being such an arbitrary criticism, to me. As far as I see it, the bottom line is that there are many people who happen to have good voices, and can sing, and are good performers on stage, but just don’t have the particular knack for songwriting. Look at the Late Whitney Houston, who had a fabulous voice (in her prime), but I guess just couldn’t write songs, so what was she supposed to do? Just not sing? And, by the same token, there are many people who can write songs, and are extremely good at it, but don’t have good singing voices, so they can’t sing their songs and instead sell them to others to sing. Or maybe some just don’t want to sing. Take Babyface who, while he has had many hits as a solo artist and with his old band The Deele, he has said that he is simply more comfortable behind the scenes in the studio, thus, he primarily works as a songwriter and producer for other artists, instead of for himself. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Now, when it comes to rappers, that is a different story. As I’ve learned when Chris Kelley died, that Kriss Kross didn’t write any of their own raps. And I’ve read about alleged ghostwriting within the rap music industry, and that does seem a little wack to me. Rappers really are supposed to be about keeping it real, so if you can’t rap, then maybe you just shouldn’t be a rapper. At least that’s how I see it. But singing is different, and people need to stop being so snobby about it.
Just my opinion.