The lost art of singer/song writing – is there a place for it in today’s pop music? In 2008, the British singer Adele sang “Make You Feel My Love”. The release charted at number 4 in the UK; and has little over 52 million views on Youtube. In 1997, Bob Dylan wrote a song named “Make You Feel My Love” which didn’t chart. In today’s popular music, it is clear that the art of song writing is not held in the same esteem as it was in decades prior to now. Popular performers for today’s masses only perform their songs; they do not write their own material.
This begs the questions, where are the singer/songwriters? Why are they not known? Are they even needed? A great song should have the power to stick in the minds of those who hear it. Songs such as Imagine, Unchained Melody, Ring of Fire and Blowing in the Wind have not only sold millions of copies, but withstood the test of time. These songs are defined as classics, and this is not just down to the melody; but the lyrical content. Each of these songs carries a specific message that is not spat out in an obnoxious manner – but more offered to its audience if they care to listen.
This is why Lennon, Dylan and Cash are all deemed, both critically and personally, to be the greatest songwriters. A singer songwriter is a musician who writes and performers all of their own material, such as Bruce Springsteen. In the opinion many, the greatest songwriters of all time are that of John Lennon and Paul McCartney of the Beatles. To be a great songwriter, one would need to produce several songs that not only relate to people on a number of different levels; but sell thousands of records and are remembered for years to come. The Beatles did this with Yesterday, Hey Jude, Let it Be and Help.
McCartney and Lennon are perfect examples of singer songwriters, they wrote their own material and performed it, and as a result they are deemed legends by critics and have had one of the greatest influences over popular music. Popular music today does not feature the likes of McCartney or Lennon, instead it hosts the likes of Carly Rae Jepson and Cheryl Cole. The lyrics to songs in the current charts do not appear to have as much meaning or passions to that of the charts in say the 60’s. For example, in the Beatles Let It Be McCartney sang “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be”.
These lyrics are ambiguous and meaningful, in comparison to Jepson’s lyrics in Call Me Maybe which are “hey, I just met you, and this is crazy, but here’s my number, so call me maybe”. Both songs are and were popular with the public and charted well, but it is clear that the lyrics are not as important in the latter. Why, then, has the importance of the lyrics to a song slowly deteriorated? There have been many changes to popular music over the last 20 years. There has been a rise in the use of technology, such as auto tuning software which essentially gives anybody and everybody the ‘talent’ needed to become a pop star.
With the availability of this kind of software, the need for the ability to write a meaningful song is no longer so important as it would have been prior to the use of computers. The exploitation of auto-tune has lead to a rise in the number of songs in which the lyrics are either extremely simplistic or are only there to demonstrate the effects of auto tuning, such as Rebecca Black’s Friday; there is a strong argument that if a musician is a good musician, then they would not need to use pitch correction software.
Furthermore, not only has auto-tuning dwarfed the importance of singing, it has damaged the need for a song to use meaningful lyrics, thus contributing to the ‘death’ of song writing in the modern age. Furthermore, the availability of computers has not only lead to auto tune software, but also the exploitation of loops and computer generated beats; allowing music to be written without the need for serious lyrics.
Lyrics to pop songs at the present are questionable; and much of the popular talent is computer generated; hence why the amount of singer songwriters are outnumbered by that of dance acts and pop stars such as Justin Beiber and Connor Mayard. Some would argue that the use of auto tune and loop programmes have lead to a generation of ‘artificial’ talent; but despite such comments the amount of singer songwriters who are known by the public continues to be out done by those who use such programmes.
To be a musician you no longer need to have the talent that one would possess in the 70’s; it is much easier to ‘create’ (rather than write) a song in the modern age, and the use of the internet means that you no longer need to impress a record label to ‘make it’. The Beatles, with no argument, are one of the most influential groups ever. They however, were turned away by record label Decca Records claiming that “guitar music was on the way out” – but still managed to make it, purely down to the talent that they possessed.
In contrast, bands can write a mediocre song but still gain recognition due to the power of the internet. With the influx of pitch corrected teen sensations abducting precious chart places without contributing the material they sing, it would seem that song writing is very much a lost art. However, song writing has not completely vanished from the charts. 21 by Adele won her 6 Grammys in the recent ceremony, and proves that a artist can succeed without having to draft in someone to do the work for her.
Adele wrote the album after the breakdown of a relationship, and with the help of several collaborating songwriters she wrote the most successful album since the Beatles in 1964. Adele’s performance of the song Someone Like You at the 2011 Brit Awards sparked a worldwide obsession with the singer, and she subsequently broke records set by songwriters marked at the beginning of this essay – Lennon and McCartney. Adele sang with nothing but a piano and her lyrics, and she consequently out shone other performers that night such as Rihanna and Take That.
Adele proves that there are songwriters out there capable of pulling on the heartstrings of the masses, without the need for auto tune and somebody to write her songs for her. In our age, singer/songwriters are rarely found taking up places in the charts, as they are normally only seen in the depths of a particular genre; which is why Adele is such an important performer in terms of keeping the lyrics to a song as important as the singer or beat. One of the most significant reasons for the demise of song writing in popular music is the development of different genres in music.
The songwriters of the 50’s and 60’s were popular because popular music was a new phenomenon, rock n’ roll came to the limelight of popular opinion as did Beatlemania, hence why the songwriters of these times – Lennon, Holly, McCartney and Wilson – are all held in such high esteem. However, over time music as split itself in different fractions with pop music now being something completely different to what it once was. ‘pop’ music was once the music that was popular, whereas now ‘pop’ music is a genre of its own.
One of the reasons that there is a lack of singer songwriters in pop music is because they are popular amongst the fans of the genre they originate from. Bruce Springsteen is one of the most celebrated songwriters that is still touring to this day, but he is limited to the rock and roll hall of fame, he won’t venture to the charts in this day and age. Additionally, it could be argued that song writing has lost some of its prestige as it has become more common amongst rock and alternative groups. Every rock band writes their own songs, so with so many bands writing imilar songs containing the same motifs such as love, heartbreak, anger and teenage angst it now takes something very special for a song, let alone an album, to stand out to the crowd that is music fans. Arcade Fire’s album The Suburbs was almost a shock success at mainstream award ceremonies such as the Grammys, as it was so unusual that a rock band would be present with a record that they wrote themselves. The Suburbs is a very modern record, as the band wrote it as a concept album helping it appear different and more sophisticated in comparison to every other song writing band that is around.
One of the most popular genres is rap music. Rap music is a paradox in terms of lyrical content and importance; as the a rap technically “referrers spoken word poetry performed to a beat”, however the beat and rhythm of a rap often overshadows and dwarfs what the artist is actually saying. Rapping, it can be argued, is more poetry than it is song writing. A rap often uses double entendres and colloquial language, and normally regards the themes of sex, money and fighting.
To argue that rap music has saved song writing would be difficult, as there are only a limited number of rap albums that have been successful purely down to the structure and content of the album, such as The Streets A Grand Don’t Come For Free. Mike Skinner, or ‘The Streets’ concept album A Grand Don’t Come For Free was Brit and Mercury award nominated; the album was produced by skinner and sparsely at that, but it still broke down many of the prejudices and stereotypes of what a rapper is, Skinner is more than a wordsmith on his record, he is a raconteur and very much a songwriter.
Rap music is draped in controversy, which is one of the contributions to its success. Both 2pac and the Notorious B. I. G have records in the top ten best selling rap record list; but their success is not down to the lyrical content of their music, more down to the legacy that surrounds them. Both these artists died in extremely controversial circumstances, hence why their music could be potentially held in such high esteem. Once the artist of a painting dies, the worth of the painting increases; once the artist of a album dies, the critics begin to notice them.
This is evident with Jeff Buckley, the artist who sung Grace, Mojo Pin and Hallelujah. Buckley realised the album Grace in 1994, but despite the critics singing its praises the album failed to have an impact on the general public. Buckley’s lyrics are highly praised by international critics, citing that his words are “inescapably tinged with melancholia” in contrast to Buckley’s “joyously uplifting vocals”. Record sales for Grace started poor, peaking at number 149 in America’s album chart; but since his untimely death it has been certified 6 times platinum – reinforcing the idea that an artists legacy can determine the success of the artist.
Singers and songwriters can be found relatively easily in the genre of rock. With a large demographic to aim for, rock is one of the biggest genre’s of them all. Song writing play’s a very significant part in the success of a band, but as there is so much completion now days between bands, song’s have become dwarfed by the repetition of the same motifs. Song writing is present in a band but it is done almost cheaply, with few rock bands using the opportunity given to them to convey a message; most of them will sing simply about love or the breakdown of love.
If one wishes to find examples of heartfelt song writing with a real, authentic meaning; one should look at the work of the lone troubadour. A troubadour is one person with a message who will sing it; such as Billy Bragg, Bob Dylan, Frank Turner and Cat Stevens. These musicians are responsible for not only some of the most popular songs ever written – The Times are a Changing, A New England, Blowing in the Wind and Wild World – but their music carries a significant message that influences their song writing.
However, despite these people using song writing in order to portray important messages, such as the protest songs sung by Bragg, they are not as popular as they once were and as they possibly ought to be. One possible explanation for the decrease in singer song writing is that the focus has shifted from ‘good songwriter’ to ‘good performer’. It is now more important for an act to be able to sell out Wembley Stadium than it is for an act to be able to string together a song that actually means something.
Acts that write their own material and perform it to a high standard, such as the Foo Fighters, have headlined Wembley stadium, but this begs the question – where is the next ‘batch’ as it were of writers? One of, if not the biggest, reason that song writing is no longer as important as the ‘golden age’ in the 60’s and 70’s is that a ‘formula’ has developed for writing pop songs. Dating back to the Beatles, this formula has developed over the decades and it is now used frequently when writing a popular song, meaning that the lyrics need not be meaningful; as long as the song is a hit and the song makes money.
The so called ‘formula’ is as follows: I – V – vi – VI. So, if we take the key of C as an example, it would be possible to play a large number of pop ‘hits’ with the chords of C, G, Am and F. With this in mine, it could act as an explanation for the reason that so many pop songs now use very questionable lyrics; as now that they have developed a catchy melody the words that they sing no longer matter – as long as they remain in time and look pretty. In addition to the ‘formula’ that is apparent in modern pop songs, the audience in which listens to this music has also changed.
The listeners of a song have had decade’s worth of songs about love and heartbreak to listen to, so it could be argued that they have now heard every combination of lyrics that is put forward by an artist – or an artist’s collaborator if it this is the case. Love songs can be traced back hundreds of years, so it was only really a matter of time until they lost their emotion and worth. The masses of today could be seen to be used to the regurgitated cliches that are pop songs churned out by pop stars. Additionally, it appears that some performers have abandoned all attempts at sing lyrics which hold meaning or emotion.
I use the Black Eyed Peas as an example: “Gotta’ get get//gotta get get//gotta get get//boom boom now//boom boom pow. ” I am not arguing that the song is not a catchy one, and it has a wide appeal; however it stands to reason that the lyrics to this song are questionable. If the lyrics to a pop song are only either naive ballads regarding love or questionable onomatopoeias then there has to be reason for this. One theory put forward is that the audience to mainstream songs are not looking to be challenged, they wish to hear simple songs in which they do not need to think – ‘dumbing down’.
There is a strong argument put forward that we as a audience have become immune to emotional writing; and that we care more for rhythm and melody than we do for lyrical content. One of the biggest questions surrounding singer-songwriters is whether there is even a place for them in popular music. The growth of dance, house and dubstep has meant that there is no longer room for singer/song writers in the chart; be that a troubadour or a group. Artists such as Skrillex do not even use lyrics in their music, instead they use computer based loops and beats. Dubstep is the newest genre to spread to the public’s awareness.
Its roots are based in Reggae and garage music, and the influx has meant that the public no longer care for lyrics in a song. In the 60’s, a song would not be a song unless it had lyrics and an accompanying melody. Dubstep has changed the structure and way that a song is put together; whereas previous artists would have to sit and write lyrics, a dubstep artist simply has to click and drag loops on a computer. Dubstep has become so popular that aspects of it are now recognizable in what would be described as pop music; such as Britney Spears use it in her song Hold It Against Me and Muse’s upcoming album The 2nd Law.
Singer –songwriting has found it difficult to compete with music that does have lyrics in recent times, let alone music that does not. Dubstep may be critically acclaimed, but it has however provided fresh competition for the ‘lost art’ that is song writing. Frank Turner is a singer-songwriter who recently appeared at the opening ceremony for the Olympic games in London, handpicked by the shows director Danny Boyle. In an email to him I asked his opinion on the idea that song writing is a lost art, and his response provokes several questions.
Turner response said that song writing is as ‘valid as it ever was’ though perhaps it has been lost in what he calls ‘the haze’. When questioned on whether song writing is as emotional and needed today as say the 60’s, his response was that there were just as many poor songwriters in the 60’s as there are now and a good song will stand the test of time, hence why we only have the best from the 1960’s and not all of the average songs. Some people, including Frank Turner, argue that song writing is still valid and present.
One of the arguments put forward by these people is that music is not monolithic; people can listen to dubstep remix of songs without knowing what the word troubadour means. This would suggest that song writing exists still, but it has a limited audience. Furthermore, music is now more split than ever, with hundreds of different genre’s being created near enough every day. This is significant because not every genre will feel it necessary to include lyrics, let alone pride itself on them. There are more genres in music now than ever before, and not every genre includes a vocalist let alone lyrics.
With so many genres established in music, it is not necessary for lyrics to play an important role. As previously stated, genres such as dubstep and rap focus more on the beat and rhythm of the drums whereas genres such as rock and indie do focus more on the melody and lyrics. As Turner states, this does not mean that lyrics are no longer important. It simply means that fans of one genre can enjoy lyrics without ever having to ‘cross paths’ with those who do not which is not always a bad thing. In the email, Frank Turner states that ‘song writing is as valid as t ever was’ but great songwriters have been ‘lost in the haze’ of modern music. To a certain extent Turners opinion is true, with so many potential songwriters being able to air their music thanks to the internet and talent searching shows it is hard to find the greatest songwriters. Furthermore, with music becoming less and less monolithic, the amount of great lyricists is similar to that off say the 60’s, it is just that the songwriters are harder to find because they are hidden amongst the others; in many genres there is an argument that it is more about quantity rather than quality.
Perhaps song writing is no longer needed, and there is an argument that all of the greatest songs have already been written. It could be argued that modern song writing has to be based on cliches and basic rhyming schemes because all of the best lyrics have already been wrote, and this is true. The greatest lyrics have been wrote, so artists now have to find the emotion to write lyrics better than the greatest; but with the availability of technology and auto tuning it seems that they do not need to bother.
Furthermore, whereas artists such as The Beatles would pride themselves on their lyrics and the writing partnership formed by Lennon and McCartney, an artist today does not need to focus on such ‘trivial’ matters. With programmes such as the X Factor returning for its 9th consecutive year looking for ‘star quality’ it us no surprise that the charts are filled with manufactured talent. The singers in the chart are talented; but they focus more on their image and the way that they are advertised rather than the words that they are singing.
One Direction are a band produced by the X Factor and it’s clear that they are 5 talented individuals, but they do not write their own songs, yet they still take up chart positions. One Direction are heavily focused on the way that they are marketed, and as a result of this their songs do feature almost worn out cliches about love – “that’s what makes you beautiful”. Shows like the X Factor have impacted on popular music in a very significant way; changing the way that people think of pop music. Talent shows search for key factors in their contestants: image, physical attractiveness and star quality.
These elements when combined result in who we normally find in the music charts. As such shows have such an influence on the public, popular artists are becoming more and more fulfilling of the criteria presented in talent shows. The significance of these shows on song writing is as follows; as they focus more on image and appearance rather than the importance of the songs being sung, it results in a deterioration of lyrical importance in their songs. Furthermore, the contestant’s voices are important to a certain extent; in fact the current series of the X Factor is being criticised for its lack of creativity and talent.
In 1965, the Beatles played to 55,000 people in Shay Stadium, America. This concert was at the height of Beatlemania, and despite the aura surrounding the show the group only played for 30 minutes. 30 minutes was the average concert time of the Beatles during that American tour, which demonstrates that quality can overcome quantity. The Beatles have had the greatest influence on song writing of all time; including the most famous song writing partnership known to man. The Beatles influence is clear with many artists, such as Dave Grohl, stating that without the Beatles he would not be a songwriter.
The Beatles used simple chords, including the ‘formula’ mentioned earlier in the essay, to write their songs. Their lyrics started out simple – “I want to tell you something, I hope you understand, I want to you something, I want to hold your hand” but progressed under several influences including drugs and different cultures, resulting in some of the greatest albums ever written. Their lyrics were simple, easy to understand and portrayed messages relevant and emotional enough for audiences to understand.
The Beatles, the original boy band, did what every band does now; but the difference is that their legacy heightens the praise that they receive. The Beatles wrote beautiful songs, but if those songs were realised today to today’s audiences would they fair as well? The beauty of the Beatles is that their music was so easily relatable – ‘she loves you yeah, yeah, yeah’. One of the biggest reasons that many critics have slated the music and more specifically the song writing of recent generations is because they have to live up the expectations and standards set by the ‘Fab Four’. Hey Jude’ has already been written, but it seems that everybody is waiting for it to be written again; causing upset when bands that are hailed as the ‘next Beatles’ do not deliver. This is clear by a statement given by Liam Gallagher where he said he wanted Oasis to be bigger than the Beatles; and then once again he said he wanted Beady Eye (his latest endeavour) to not ‘be bigger than Oasis, but to be as big as the Beatles’. Music has changed since the Beatles. Song writing has changed since the Beatles. Song writing will continue to change. Music should be thought of as a living thing, it needs room to grow, expand and evolve.
If music was to stay the same, and the 60’s repeated themselves, then the lyrics would repeat themselves. It is important to allow songs and song writing to go through patches where there are no stand out stars, as there were plenty of average songs written in the times of Lennon and McCartney as well as the songs written by, well, Lennon and McCartney. The greatest factor in determining whether song writing is a lost art is simply opinion. There are plenty of people that will say that the greatest song writers are active now, and there are plenty of sceptics who say that the glory days of music have passed.
In my opinion, the greatest songs have already been written and we are all now sitting waiting for another song to have a similar impact to that of Let it Be, Bohemian Rhapsody, Smells Like Teen Spirit and To Make You Feel My Love. There are so many reasons to why it could be argued that song writing has no place in modern music. It is true that the expansion of technology does mean that anybody can be a star, and with auto tune being used so frequently and with live shows being focused on extravagant light shows instead of the message given by the artist, it is easy to argue that song writing is no longer relevant.
But, the last reason that I will present to say that song writing does still matter is in the form of a Russian all girl rock band named Pussy Riot. Pussy Riot have sparked controversy in Russia and have since been arrested as they sang slanderous songs about Vladamir Putin. As a result, artists around the world including Sir Paul McCartney, Dave Grohl, Brian Fallon and Jarvis Cocker have all encouraged the release and support of the group, as their prison sentence is an extremely harsh 2 years. Worldwide campaigns by Amnesty have gone viral on such websites such as twitter, all because of the messages that the songs sung carried.
Pussy Riot have shown that the lyrics to a song can still cause uproar, controversy and spark worldwide campaigns; hence why Pussy Riot demonstrate the importance of lyrics in modern songs. In conclusion, it seems that song writing is still relevant in today’s pop music. Despite being outshone by the image of an artist, or the lightshow that accompanies the performance, lyrics are still the part of a song that people remember, so no matter what the future for lyrics in music; it is clear that they have a future.
Songwriters are still out there, it is just that they have restricted audiences and are not as exposed to the masses as say Johnny Cash or Bob Dylan is. This is not a bad thing, as not everybody should have to listen to music that they do not want to listen too. Fragmentation simply means that people can listen to their genre of music without the pressure of having to listen to someone else’s, which is not a bad thing. The important thing is that lyrics, song writing and songwriters have not been wiped from the face of music, they are still writing the songs to make us cry, and they are still writing the songs to make us enjoy life.
Music is no longer carved from one piece of wood; there are thousands of artists to choose from. It is true that the songs in the charts do not focus on the significance of lyrics, but it is also true that the songs I listen to do focus on lyrics and telling a story; and in my opinion, despite everything, as long as the lyrics to a song effect even one person, then there will always be a vital role for song writing in modern music. Bibliography: 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die – Robert Dimery McCormick, N. , 2010 What Would Bob Dylan Sound Like With Auto Tune? The Telegraph Music Blog Missing, A. 2011 How Has Technology Affected The Music Industry? Cillers, E. , 2011, Great Songwriters: Who are they, and why haven’t there been any for the past 20 years? Attridge, D. , 2002, Poetic Rhythm: An Introduction Cambridge university press Sillito, D. , 2011 Where are the new music megastars? BBC News Dave Grohl, 2012, ‘Dave Grohl – Under The Influence’ ——————————————– [ 1 ]. McCormick, N. , 2010 What Would Bob Dylan Sound Like With Auto Tune? The Telegraph Music Blog [ 2 ]. Missing, A. , 2011 How Has Technology Affected The Music Industry? http://stcmcmmi12b10. ordpress. com/2011/03/22/%E2%80%9Chow-has-technology-affected-the-music-industry%E2%80%9D/ [ 3 ]. Cillers, E. , 2011, Great Songwriters: Who are they, and why haven’t there been any for the past 20 years? http://www. 3quarksdaily. com [ 4 ]. Attridge, D. , 2002, Poetic Rhythm: An Introduction Cambridge university press [ 5 ]. Dimery, R. , 2010 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die [ 6 ]. Dimery, R. , 2010 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die [ 7 ]. Sillito, D. , 2011 Where are the new music megastars? BBC News http://www. bbc. co. uk/news/entertainment-arts-15694487 [