There’s something about the term “songwriting” that has always remained a bit enigmatic to me. Just what exactly constitutes a good songwriter? Where does “songwriting” end and “music” begin — or is there essentially no legroom between these two concepts? Can an album sound like a dream and still be a piss-poor example of good songwriting? These are just some of the things I wonder when I’m in bed practicing my neuroticism.
Perhaps the inclusion of the root “songwriting” in the elusive “singer-songwriter” term can shed some light on the matter. When one hears the word “songwriter,” it’s tough not to imagine the prototypical image of a lyricist strumming an acoustic guitar and singing along poetically. Thus, it seems safe to conclude that original, colorful lyrics are a cornerstone when it comes to good songwriting.
But what about Elton John? While the Rocket Man certainly seems to be suspended in the eye of pop culture history as one of the greatest songwriters of the past few decades, the fact stands that he didn’t write the lyrics to the vast majority of his songs. Bernie Taupin was the man behind the curtain, feeding John lyrics that he subsequently put to music.
So how much of a blow does this deliver to John’s legacy as a songwriter? If you see songwriting as primarily a form of personal expression, it certainly seems like John would lose a few points here — how strong of a personal connection can you have with your music if the content essentially belongs to someone else? But if you hedge your vote on pure pop genius and chest-clearing, honeybun melodies, John is right there at the top.
One of the other cans of worms that always gets popped open while discussing the essence of the songwriter is the role of post-production and sonic gadgetry. For instance, isn’t a chorus pedal (which basically takes whatever note you play and explodes it into an angelic choir of guitars singing in unison) the musical equivalent of steroids? Shouldn’t a true songwriter be able to write a song that sends chills up your spine without dolloping on a jaded-sounding ocean of reverb?
True, I can name many a band that relies on studio wizardry as a crutch. Without the daydreamy echo-chamber haze obscuring their straight-laced brand of sanitary pop-rock, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart would sound about as vanilla as it actually is. But to put a wall between sound production and songwriting is to deny the fact that musicianship and technology have enjoyed a tag-team relationship ever since the invention of the electric guitar — Jimi Hendrix simply couldn’t have reinvented rock’n’roll on a banjo.
For an artist like Ariel Pink, the line between production and songwriting is fundamentally non-existent. While his music is technically “lo-fi,” there is absolutely nothing gimmicky about his garbage production values. The self-consciously garbled production on his songs is so metamorphic that, with every washed-out beat box and wavery sound pan, it actually sounds like Pink’s world is deteriorating around him, dripping psychedelically against his karaoke-esque vocals. And while one could argue that Pink is an “atmospherist” rather than a classic songwriter, I feel like the visceral power of the final product is all that should truly matter.
So what about musical artists who don’t even write their own melodies? In an increasingly digital world, music comprised exclusively of samples from previously existing songs has become more and more common, especially in the realm of electronic music. But does this mean that the words “DJ” and “songwriter” are mutually exclusive?
Sure, I hear a “mash-up” like the Jay Z-meets-Linkin Park “Numb/Encore” remix and feel like there’s about zero artistic integrity rattling around in there. But good sample-based music goes light-years beyond simply squishing together two radio singles for optimal blockbuster appeal.
Pioneers like DJ Shadow and J Dilla treat sampling like a meticulous scavenger hunt, masterfully colliding disparate ideas from all over the map of music history to open up lush sonic spaces that didn’t exist before. How is it not songwriting to contort Nirvana, symphonic composer David Axelrod, hip-hop super group Gravediggaz and the background synthesizers from the movie “Blade Runner” — among other assorted samples — into a dynamic, seamless composition?
From a classical standpoint, songwriting is indeed a totally separate animal from production and effects pedals. And it’s true that head-trippy studio engineering will never replace tight song structuring and a kick-ass melody. But, regardless of what the word “songwriting” actually encompasses, all I know is that it’s silly to have to mentally undress “Just Like Honey” from its reverb-drenched overcoat in order to accurately assess the song’s quality. In this world, to me, what you hear is what you get. And if you like what you hear, then it’s probably a good song — or at least good sound.