Why Do We Look Down on Pop Stars Who Don't Write Their Own Songs?
The art of curation can impact storytelling just as much as songwriting – but why does it pick up less respect?
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.
There's a lot more to making an album than one person writing and recording some songs, packaging them in a way that looks OK and sticking them on Spotify. You've got label meetings about everything from release strategy to marketing budgets, social media campaigns to "activate" and singles that need to reach a certain level of success so your manager won't be pacing the record label offices, sweating all over himself before deciding to drop you. And while the most important element should be whether the music is actually good, this can often get lost along the way.
To that end, take a look at the liner notes for nearly any album over the past 20 years and you'll see loads of names attached to a single track—from songwriters to producers—because that's how music is usually made: collaboratively. But weirdly, there's nothing that upsets self-proclaimed "real music fans" more. I'm sure you can remember that Facebook meme (the worst kind of meme) that very smugly compared the number of writers on Beyoncé's self-titled opus with those on Beck's Morning Phase when people questioned why the latter had won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 2015. Getting salty or questioning the talent and validity of pop stars because they might not solely write all their own material is nothing new. But the album process goes way beyond just being able to write a tune.
"Why do we get so mad at singers who don't write their own songs?!" songwriter Justin Tranter, who's written for everyone from Ariana Grande to Fall Out Boy, recently asked during a podcast hosted by fellow songwriter Ross Golan. "No one's furious with Meryl Streep for not writing her Oscar-winning screenplay. Some singers are not meant to be writers, they're just amazing storytellers; they're interpreters. That is amazing. We need them. We would have nothing without them." Tranter and Golan then name-checked Selena Gomez, someone they both praise as being "the best curator in the business". As Jamila Scott, A&R at Method Music, told me via email, "curation means bringing together various different elements (whether that's writers, artists, samples, whatever) to showcase a specific artistic end goal."
That's where someone like Selena Gomez, according to her own collaborators, excels. Without melismatic over-singing and belting, she's able to convey emotion in a way that many artists cannot—whether the words have come directly from her or not is irrelevant. 2015's Revival was a masterclass in creating forward-thinking, earworm-style pop, while pushing against radio's reliance on EDM. Songs like "Good For You"—co-written by Tranter and 23-year-old Julia Michaels—and "Hands To Myself" did what all good pop music should, borrowing from an array of genres and eras and switching up radio's overriding sound in the process. They paved the way for the likes of Zayn Malik and modern-era Britney Spears to ditch the drops and let things glide.
Thematically, too, Revival's narrative of heartache, sexual exploration and personal anguish hits straight to the heart. "She's one of the greatest storytellers who has ever lived," Tranter said, noting that a lot of Gomez's skill comes from knowing what she wants to sound like, what's cool and what's innovative. "Whether she's singing something sexy or something sad, you believe it more than anybody right now."
Selena might not be sitting down with a guitar and a loop pedal and pouring her heart out about a castle on a hill, but I don't think that makes what she does any less emotive or authentic, and it certainly doesn't negate from her talent. Instead, she acts like a musical biochemist, threading together various ideas and sounds put forward by songwriters and producers to help shape the story she's trying to tell.
"If you become a good curator, you become a more culturally relevant artist," says another A&R, who asked to remain anonymous. "Your music transcends being just a couple of great albums to the point where you're seen as the leader of a scene and all these artists you built around your world are seen as second generations of whatever you started. If we're looking at it in a crude business-like way, it means you'll stay looking cool if you continue to surround yourself with the 'next best thing', even if your music is beginning to sound dated."
In this way, Selena is like this generation's Britney Spears. We don't need to dwell too much on what was going on with Britney in 2007, but during that time she released arguably her best album, Blackout. Producers have talked about how, initially, they were left to their own devices when creating material for the album, but as things progressed, Britney began to shape and mold the sessions into something propulsive and innovative (she acted as executive producer on the record, the first and only time she's taken that role). Her A&R at the time, Teresa LaBarbera Whites, noted that Spears was "very involved in the songs and how they turned out." She continued: "It's her magic that turns these songs into what they are."
While Spears may have once been the industry's forefront curator, that title now seems to firmly belong to Beyoncé. Yet, unlike Spears and Gomez who use curation to help express a moment in time or help tell their story, Beyoncé's approach is, in some ways, more mathematical and assertive. Lemonade, while certainly her most story-driven record yet, saw her leap across genres to create a post-modern muddle of sounds and textures, rather than pop songs for pop's sake.
"The way Beyoncé works is she pieces these things together," British songwriter and producer MNEK told i-D, speaking about co-writing "Hold Up" with her. "It wasn't too dissimilar to the way Brian Higgins [of Girls Aloud hit factory Xenomania] works, where it's a case of hearing a hook you like and then piecing it together to make something that is truly you." Embodying parts of the Yeah Yeah Yeah's "Maps," Soulja Boy's "Turn My Swag On," and even Andy Williams' "Can't Get Used to Losing You," "Hold Up" also includes credits from Ezra Koenig, Father John Misty, and Diplo. In that way, it sees Beyoncé assert her power as an artist with a clear message: she now transcends genre completely.
"Beyoncé is a scientist of songs. I've never seen anyone work the way she works," songwriter Diana Gordon, who co-wrote "Sorry" and "Daddy Lessons," has said of Beyoncé's technique. "She can take two songs, say, 'I like two lines, I like the melody then let me use that for a verse and a bridge and write the whole middle.' It's more of a collaboration. You never know what she'll like. I came to her with a bunch of songs and she was like, 'I like that verse, I like the idea.' But she definitely doesn't take things as is, at least not from me."
For Tom Aspaul, an artist and songwriter who has written for Kylie Minogue, Snakehips and AlunaGeorge, only someone of Beyoncé's caliber could pull off this William S Burroughs-like cut-up method. "It's a skill that people don't really describe or appreciate, although it's becoming more apparent with people like Beyoncé and Drake," he says. "They listen to what's happening on the ground and pick and choose what they like." More Life and its span of the black diaspora is proof of that too but Aspaul suggests that a snobbery exists around these methods. It's not the same as writing material, he argues, but it's equally important. "You can only get so much out of standard songwriting sessions," he says, "and music needs to keep reinventing itself."
In my mind, reinvention comes from both looking backward and towards the future. Beyoncé's use of intertextuality, be it sonic or lyrical, draws to mind the work of Blood Orange's Dev Hynes. Hynes' work, both as a songwriter, producer and artist in his own right, is immediately recognizable. Like Selena Gomez's delivery, there's something distinctive that only he can bring to the table; he interpolates himself into everything he works on. Listening to Sky Ferreira's "Everything Is Embarrassing" or Blood Orange's "Augustine", you know only Hynes could have made them. His Carly Rae Jepsen collaboration, "All That" also hammers home his colorful, beat-heavy Prince influences, while letting his production's understated melancholia take center stage.
"More often than not, curation is about showcasing a wide, rich and varied musical knowledge, alongside being able to promote the work of people you admire," Jamila Scott says. "We live in a sharing culture, from photos of your breakfast to live streaming gigs. We are encouraged to bare all, so why would an artist's musical taste be different?"
If you were to place all three—Dev, Beyoncé and Selena Gomez—in order of who held the most "integrity" or "authenticity", Gomez would most often come out on the bottom. As Scott suggests, this is probably because she makes the most straight-up pop. "I guess that comes from the pop factories that have been in existence for ages now, and specialize in what I suppose you'd call curation," he explains. "Lots of those acts were seen as puppets for major labels and money-making outlets rather than in it for 'the art.'" This is something that Ross Golan says is wrapped up the misogyny attached to being a female pop act, many of whom he credits as "some of the best writers in the music business." It's interesting when you consider how Elvis, who basically just sang songs written for him by other people, has still ended up with the title of King of Rock 'n' Roll.
Writing about Britney Spears for The Telegraph, Charlotte Runcie suggested that "there's a whole lot of talent behind the story of Britney's pop domination, but most of it doesn't belong to Spears." This, she argues, extends to "being a star," which she says has nothing to do with talent at all. In this way, she deftly sweeps together fellow artists like Selena Gomez and, to a degree, Beyoncé, ignoring the fact direct songwriting isn't the be all and end all.
Instead, there's more to putting together albums that innovate. Listening to Lemonade, only Beyoncé could have put out that record, despite—or perhaps because of—all of the collaborators she weaves together. Likewise, Revival is unequivocally a Selena Gomez album, steeped in emotion, vulnerability and her meticulously specific identity. Yeah, she might not have written the hooks, but that's never been the sole point of modern pop music. Rather, as modern society becomes more isolated we want to relate and feel connected to the music we listen to; it needs to feel real. And if being a curator is your way of doing that, I'd say that makes you pretty talented. There's more than one way to demonstrate artistry.
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(Lead image by Amanda Nobles via Flickr)