Seeking The Authentic: Does Being A Songwriter Make You An Artist?
The Vaccines’ guitarist Freddie Cowan recently took aim at pop princess Rihanna in an interview with the UK’s Digital Spy, for her inability to write her own songs.
“Rihanna isn’t an artist – she has 15 writers, 15 songwriters and 15 producers all fighting for space on her albums and she’s the face of it. I have nothing against it, but I don’t want to be associated with it,” said Cowan.
Sounds familiar, right? This is just the latest in a long history of indie band rhetoric, where bands get their knickers in knot over the lack of authenticity in mainstream pop music.
But does the ability to write a song make you an artist in the 21st century? Should it be the sole criteria by which we measure a musician as an artist? Does that mean that all musicians or singers who don’t write their own songs aren’t ‘artists’?
Exactly what is an artist? In terms of music, you would expect an artist to be someone who creates music. But music is created collaboratively, often with outside influence such as producers and engineers who work to craft a song into a masterpiece.
And that’s only one half of the picture. In an age where artists derive an increasingly large portion of their income from live performance and touring, their ability to perform their songs on stage is as important as ever.
While Cowan may not have been directly attacking Rihanna’s performing artist status, his comments do raise some important questions. What really makes an ‘artist’ in today’s music industry shouldn’t just be defined by your ability to pen down some lyrics.
Sure, it helps, but modern listeners expect the full package: good songs, better albums and an unforgettable live show – and artists who can tick all those boxes aren’t as common as we’d like.
But what about those who do? While it depends on your own musical taste, the Muses and the U2′s of the world are respected as much for their sonic prowess as they are a stunning live show of awe-inspiring proportions, and their fans certainly think they have the complete package.
At the very least, even the smaller scale indie bands rely on the energy of the performance of their music as much as the detail put into writing it. The spectacle and delivery is sometimes as much as deciding factor as who really put the pen to paper or the note to the stave.
The Flaming Lips are an excellent example, the psychedelic American act are well-known for their prolific output, colourful attitude and love of collaboration. For those who have seen this band live, you would need little reminder on the power of their show, which commonly sees frontman Wayne Coyne birthed out of a vagina before rolling around the audience in his inflatable ball like a hamster.
Coldplay are another, a band who have achieved widespread critical and commercial praise, not only for their soft-rock LPs, but for their stage presence, which has astounded fans across the world.
Surprisingly though, while The Vaccines’ guitarist also criticised the band for teaming up with pop starlet Rihanna – suggesting that it “lacked artistic merit” – Cowan did not however label them as ‘non-artists’.
Yet, Coldplay can’t necessarily be credited as the sole writers of their material either, having openly sampled from others in the past. Kraftwerk’s ‘Computer Love’ was the basis for their stadium-sized single, ‘Talk’, while Jon Hopkins’ ‘Light Through Veins’ was sampled on their tracks ‘Life in Technicolor’ and ‘The Escapist’.
That’s ignoring the plagiarism claims levelled at them – from the striking similarity between Joe Satriani’s ‘If I Could Fly’ and Coldplay’s ‘Viva La Vida’ and openly sourcing Peter Allen’s ‘I Go To Rio’ for ‘Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall’.
Does sampling and influences like this take away from your authenticity as an artist? How do the Vaccines feel about über-sampler Girl Talk then? or Australia’s own mash-up maestros, Yacht Club DJs? Surely there’s artistry to be found in their configurations of other’s music even if they did not ‘write’ the source material themselves?
In The Vaccines’ own interview with Tone Deaf, drummer Pete Robertson openly discussed using ideas from other artists.
“On the last record, we were reaching out and looking directly at being referential,” says Robertson. “We were listening to a lot of records in the studio and very openly borrowing ideas from people, from our favourite records.”
We don’t often criticise bands for getting help and ‘borrowing ideas’ from other artists as being dis-authentic, but by their own logic – should The Vaccines be worried about their status as a ‘artists’?
In fact, Rihanna is credited as being a co-writer on some of her tracks, as is another artist often lauded for being legitimate by such a barometer; 2011′s highest seller, Adele. All of her tracks from 21 were co-written, does this mean that we can heap the British singer on the ‘not an artist’ scrapheap?
Indie bands aren’t always strictly DIY themselves either.
JP Bowersock is the little-known component that helped launch The Strokes onto the world stage with their debut, 2001′s Is This It, credited as a ‘personal mentor’ and influence on the band’s writing. The New York quintet have never hid that fact, however others who hire professional songwriters are less forthcoming.
Roger Gisborne, a professional songwriter from LA told NME that; “in this music climate, labels want to make sure the hits are in place, and more and more are utilizing uncredited writers on rock albums – indie and major – to ensure they have the hits before throwing their money at breaking a new artist.”
Pop stars though, haven’t tried to conceal their lack of songwriting credibility, it’s a well known fact that few of the top 40 hits are written by the actual singers.
We expect it, which makes it a little baffling that Cowan would even bother ranting about Rihanna and her huge team, because - ‘well duh, tell us something we don’t know’.
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