The Definition of an Artist; or Why Being a Songwriter Is Overrated

One of the most unfortunate results of the 60’s cultural boom in music was the effect it had on defining what art can be. Artists like Bob Dylan and The Beatles–despite ripping off rock from black people–made great strides in an industry that didn’t let songwriters have a visible platform. As a songwriter, you were to pen the song, collect your pittance and bounce. You weren’t supposed to perform the song yourself.

The rise of the singer/songwriter was revolutionary because the music was revolutionary–but still cribbed from more talented people of color, but that’s a battle I’ll never win–the times were revolutionary, and people responded to the raw emotion of many of the 60’s artists. It was less about being entertained and more about being moved. The music was emotional.

In black music, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson rebelled against the Motown machine and wrote some of the best songs of the 20th century. They pioneered new forms (Stevie with synths), arrangements (Smokey might be the best vocal arranger still alive) and melodies (Marvin’s church reared pain was/is unrivaled) and gave dimension to black musicians. They made it impossible to deny that black people were complete musicians. They called racist America on the assumption that all we had was rhythm; their melodies are among some of the most revered in modern music.

However, now everyone and their mother wants to write a song. They feel that they can’t be a real artist unless they do. The assumption in rock criticism (which, let’s face it, still determines what is really “good”) is that a singer/songwriter is inherently better than someone who just sings or someone who is a performer. People are promoted as singer/songwriters because many people will assume that because they write, they must be more “real”, more “honest.” And the tacit assumption is always that if they write at all, they write well.

This phenomenon leads to a chronic misunderstanding of what makes singers such unique artists. We have lost our ability to recognize myriad ways of singing. We have lost our ability to feel music sometimes. We have lost our ability to understand the mechanics of being emotive and being receptive to a singer who is emotive. This is not always true, however. Mary J. Blige is the biggest and best contemporary example of an artist with true emotive and interpretive abilities. And she enjoys quite a lot of success because of it.

But mostly, people think that singing that is loud and arch, lots of bombast, is good. You know, the Celines, Whitneys and Mariahs. It is why Christina Aguilera is so loved. Her instrument is pure, but she has no clue how to use it. She is coached in the studio and her voice nearly always sounds good, but there is nothing unique or interesting about the way she sings. She doesn’t emote, she mimicks other singers emotive styles. Stripped was a disaster, but the one thing it did was allow Christina the opportunity to explore and hopefully she will continue this exploration and find her own emotive strengths.

Young singers, in their quest to be the loudest diva, have forgotten the subtlety of quiet emoting. In trying to be Whitney and Mariah, so many singers miss what is really great about those singers. The way they build up to the bombast. Few singers capture that element of the “great” singers where they bend a note, where they sing quietly, where there is vulnerability. Young singers miss the way Chaka Khan bends notes and skats. Young singers miss the way Mariah uses her wonderfully expressive natural alto voice (which, admittedly, unfortunately, is rare). They miss the control that Whitney uses even when she’s wailing.

And so you get this weird dichotomy with new singers who are shouting for 4 minutes straight on one end and a whole bunch of pop singers who can barely carry the melody but look really pretty while they try to do so on the other end. Neither is really bad, per se, but they are glaring indictments of a limited view of what singing as artistry can be.

In the former case, singers overvalue strength and volume and never really connect emotionally with the song. This is the Christina/Kelly Clarkson Miss Independent strategy. All bombast, no emotion. In the latter, singers think that all you have to do is get somewhere in and around the notes and hope the rhythm (or Pro-Tools) will cover you up. This is the Amerie 1 Thing strategy.

In pop music where the hierarchy seems to be songwriter, then singer, then performer everyone is short-changed if they can’t do all three. And even then, how good they do any of the three is never seriously interrogated. If you are marketed strongly enough, no one will pay attention to any deficiencies in your work.

This is very true of the triple threats.

Alicia Keys is talented, but with only 2 albums, she has written and performed and sung as many bad songs as she has terrific ones. But because she can do all three, she is given an inordinate amount of critical acclaim. It is never seriously interrogated how well she does each of these things on her albums. No one seriously talks about the lazy lyricism of some of her work, most notably A Woman’s Worth which is a bunch of cliché platitudes. Or how much of the last half of her album reads like a 12 year old’s diary (which most of it was as she wrote those songs when she was very young).

Performers are given the short end of the stick more than any other artists. The problem here is that people assume that dancing is easy. And there is a fundamental misunderstanding of just what dancing should do. Dancing, in its purest form, is the physical manifestation of the song.

In the 80’s when Mike and Janet were revolutionizing music video and dance, their movements were designed to complement and give visual dimension to the songs. Beat It was stagey, but it added weight to what the song’s themes. Janet took it a step further by making her albums into sonic, thematic marvels and then making her videos link those themes in image and dance. Rhythm Nation’s masculine, hard movements gave way to the street sensuality of janet., to the caged pain and anger of The Velvet Rope. With each incarnation, Janet’s dancing captured the emotion of what was conveyed in the song, particularly during The Velvet Rope where she captured the pain and rage of violence in What About, and the feeling of emotional release at a person’s death with her and Tina Landon’s choreography of Together Again. How is this not art?

Britney has learned well and despite ripping off many of Janet’s signature moves, Brit is a terrific performer. What Britney does is amazing. It truly is. She’s an artist because she owns a stage and not many people can do that. When Britney hits the stage, you know she is about to turn it out. The same goes for Ciara. These women know how to control the gaze. They become the ultimate desired object and, in their best performances, give visual dimension to the songs. Britney’s debut of Slave 4 U on MTV was perhaps the best performance by anyone of her generation. The movements, the set, her confidence perfectly encapsulated what that song was about. She moved like she couldn’t control herself. How is this not art?

It didn’t hurt that Slave 4 U was, and is, the best song she’s ever recorded. But with that performance, Britney proved that with the right material she can create visual art on par with the greats.

Oftentimes, people get tripped up in trying to define what is an artist to them. You’ll find that people will say they value songwriters (and that is the rhetoric of mainstream music criticism talking). But more and more it seems the people who are truly influential and who sell records aren’t songwriters. They are performers who look the part of a star.

Aaliyah was undervalued in her life, but her influence was everywhere, even before her death. Mya cribbed her style, the baggy pants and trying to appear as mysterious and coy as Aaliyah did effortlessly. Aaliyah’s artistic merit lies in her complete package. She knew how to present herself. She knew how to sing. And more importantly, she could emote. Aaliyah’s songs, even the up-tempos, were emotional. Her videos were flashy, but more times than not, they added dimension to the emotion in the songs. 4 Page Letter was about loss. In the video, you have Aaliyah searching for her man in the woods, lost. And then she finds him and they dance, they court, they, in dance, explore everything about who they were together until Aaliyah sets the place on fire. Burning away the images of it all. How is this not art?

The problem is that people are overvaluing the artists who write songs and not really looking at whether or not the songs that they write are well-written. Mariah Carey is a songwriter, but most of her songs exist in the same emotional place–wispy platitudes about love and loss, nothing truly raw or passionate, just all very surface and sentimental. They take a page right out of Diane Warren 80’s power ballad schlock. Mariah can write a song, but rarely does she write a great one.

Nowadays, every pop star wants to write a song. People like Justin, Christina, Ciara, Brooke Valentine, Jill Scott, D’Angelo, Ashanti, etc are given a large amount of credit from critics and the industry for writing songs. But this is not the case, not completely.

First, they are all lyricists. They don’t usually write the melodies. And there is nothing wrong with this. But what you have is artists getting a disproportionate amount of the credit for a song’s success. Justin and Jill Scott are prime examples. Neither of them, as lyricists, are particularly interesting or unique, but they enjoy the title of singer/songwriters. Justified was written by The Neptunes and Timbaland but people ignore that fact even after it was revealed that The Neptunes tracks and melodies were originally intended, pre-written, for Michael Jackson’s Invincible project. But Justin wrote a few lyrics and he received the lion’s share of the critical lauding. His stardom was orchestrated from the moment the man walked into The Mickey Mouse Club at 12 years old so the industry wasn’t going to quibble about who wrote the songs. Similarly, Jill Scott and D’Angelo are credited with being the saviors of modern soul, despite the fact that the songs are crafted by Jazzy Jeff’s stable of writers who are really the ones creating the soul movement (including Keith Pelzer, Vidal Davis, Ivan Barias, and Junius Bervine). They just lay some lyrics over it the songwriters’ creations.

Now of course, being a lyricist isn’t anything to dismiss, but the point of this is to say that being a lyricist isn’t the same as being a songwriter. And being a lyricist doesn’t mean that you are inherently a good one.

And interestingly, what is noticeable is that people who work in genres that are more respected on the whole are more inclined to get the love as a songwriter even if their involvement is minimal. People question how much Janet and Brandy contribute to their songs, but have no problem heaping praise on Jill and the neo-soulers who are actually really honest about the fact that they are just lyricists, not songwriters.

The bottom line is really that everyone who creates something is an artist. How good of an artist they are depends on a wide array of things that must be weighed equally against one another. It is unfair to say Britney is less of an artist than Christina because they do different things. You run the risk of being disingenuous to both women. Both are artists, but they walk in different forms.

And the fact remains that we are driven by a multitude of things when we fall in love with an artist so we need to be honest about what those things are. So often people will blindly love and respect someone because they are a fan. But if the material is bad, the material is bad. If the singing is bad, the singing is bad. If the performance is bad, the performance is bad. But if the material is bad, but the singing is good, give credit where credit is due. In today’s climate, you might find yourself giving a lot of credit to producers, not the artists, but if you have integrity, you should go ahead and do it anyway.

If (good) songwriters were really the most revered and loved by the public, people like Ciara and Ashanti and Jill Scott would not be the ones in the public eye quite so much. So clearly, there are other factors that motivate us to love and adore and define what art can be.


–This essay was originally written on April 26, 2005 and was dedicated to and inspired by Justin and all the people I talked to/dialogued with about the Mariah Carey album.

About tlewisisdope

I write. I live in DC.
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