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.
What I came to find out about the music industry is that it is better to be a songwriter than just a singer. Songwriters get a cut of the royalties every time their record is played. Beyonce, love her or hate her, she makes sure to at least get co-writing credit on all her songs so that when her days of performing are over, when ever her album gets played she will still be getting money in the bank. I can’t say that about Rihanna. Sure she is hot now but every time she sings or gets played on radio, tv or movie that check is not going to her it is going to the songwriter. Whitney Houston I heard has a special arrangement, probably due to the talent she had as a singer. I know if I were in the industry I would definitely rather be a songwriter because that where the money and longevity is.
Yes, you are right. It’s in owning songs that the big money comes from. That’s what Michael Jackson learned from Paul McCartney (ironically), when he found out about all the money McCartney made from the songs he owned (including “Happy Birthday”), which is what lead to MJ buying the Beatles song catalog. And that was why, starting with the BAD album, he began writing the majority of the songs that he recorded, to maximize his profits.
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It does bother me that some singers do not write their own songs. To me if you have the Talent to sing………you have the Talent to write your own songs. It is just a pet peeve I have with Singers. If a singer has a song written for him or her I do not ever want to here that person say the music came from the Heart. NO it came from someone else’s heart.
Well, I just don’t agree with the statement that if you can sing you can write songs. Those are two completely different skills. Some can do one, some can do the other, some can do both.
Being able to write a song that is loved by listeners and travels world-wide to fans around the world is an admirable talent to hold, especially when the artist is able to perform the song as well. In my opinion for artists, having the ability to write their own songs has its advantages for example, when performing it allows them to have a personal connection to what they’re singing. It also helps them to excel there music knowledge and know more about what happens behind the scenes and not purely just on stage. However, I don’t think it is crucial for artists to write their own songs, especially now when artists are traveling all over the world with busy schedules to perform. Performers can still communicate the message of their songs to listeners and provide a good performance without having written it themselves. Success isn’t purely linked to the writing; it is a different skill entirely to performing and although both are important in the music world, one can work without the other.
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Thanks for the comment, and I agree with you 100%.
Thanks for the read. I have no problem with singers singing songs songwriters wrote. What I found more interesting though was the bit about New Kids, NSYNC and Backstreet Boys vs New Edition, specifically why the former received so much criticism? Thoughts as to why?
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Hey, Larry, thanks for reading! And, I must say, that is a very very good question.
And, dang, do I wish I had a good answer…
I honestly don’t know. It’s just something I’ve noticed. If you check through my “Music” archives you’ll see that I’ve posted reviews of all of New Edition’s albums, and many of their spin-off solo albums, I grew up listening to them. But despite being the first modern-era “boy band”, who (just like the latter groups) were put together by a managemer (Maurice Starr who, after they fired him, formed New Kids on The Block), and sang catchy little pop songs, I don’t recall them ever getting the same type of criticism about their music or questioning their legitimacy as artists. I mean, starting with their 2nd album, they would include a song or two that was written by various members of the group on each album, but most of their songs were written and produced by others. They even record an album of covers of old 1950’s hits. And that was okay.
I mean, if I look at what is the major difference between NE and the other groups, there is the obvious one of race. By that I mean, maybe it’s the fanbases expectations? Like maybe Black fans in general don’t put the same level of important on whether an artist they like writes their own music as many White fans do? As I mentioned the classic Motown acts of the 50’s and 60’s, The Temptations, Supremes, Four Tops, etc., were all vocal groups that did not write their own material, but it wasn’t issue, and New Edition was seen as a vocal group in that the spirit of Motown so, likewise, it wasn’t an issue with them?
I mean, as I said, the issue of writing your own songs is a very big deal in the Black community when it comes to rap music. Accusing a rapper of having a “ghost writer” is pretty much the biggest direct insult you could give him, but not as much a big deal for R&B singers.