Cosmic Slop #130: Stop With The Bullshit Songwriting Memes
Shaun Ponsonby is sick of all of those memes that tell you why music today is crap based on the number of songwriters, so he’s decided to tell you why it’s bullshit.
Hey, you! Yes, you! The one reading this drivel.
What are your thoughts on the amount of songwriting credits on pop songs?
I bet you think its ridic., don’t you? I mean, you can’t stand Miley Cyrus, so it’s nice to have some scientific evidence to back it up. “Look how many people she needs to write her songs!” you wail with a giddiness that can only come when a self-congratulatory fan of self-described “real music” feels like they have just performed a hostile smack down on someone who likes Debbie Gibson, but think Radiohead are wank (which they are, soz).
I mean, just look at this meme.
Doesn’t that satisfy you? Yeah! #OLDMUSIC4EVA!!!!! Go on, comment underneath with “well said”, and then follow it up with that hand clap emoji. You know you want to, and it definitely won’t be annoying to anyone with anything significant to say. I promise.
In case you’re still on a mid-00s AOL dial up connection for some reason and you can’t see the image, it tells us that “Five people wrote Baby by Justin Bieber. Five people wrote We Can’t Stop by Miley Cyrus. Nine people wrote Imma Be by The Black Eyed Peas. One person, Freddie Mercury, wrote Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen. Let that sink in.”
OK…I’m letting it sink in…and its bollocks.
Don’t get me wrong, taken just on the meme alone, it does look like a pretty dire situation. If one person can write a song that includes balladry, heavy metal and mock opera with lyrics that are purportedly a metaphor for the song’s vocalist coming out of the closet, but it takes five people write a song that just goes “Baby, baby, oh! Baby, baby, oh! I thought you’d always be mine”, then Goddamn it, maybe those whingeing baby boomers have a point, innit.
Sadly, this theory ignores little things like context and facts.
Obviously, quality is subjective. I’m in no way saying that Justin Bieber‘s Baby is either superior or inferior to Bohemian Rhapsody. I’m actually a massive Queen fan – and was long before the movie came out, thank you very much. I’m sure there are plenty of people who like and loathe either one of them.
But in the specific case of Bohemian Rhapsody, the meme tells us that Freddie Mercury was the sole writer and arranger of the song because he was the only person credited. This pithy logic implies that Mercury also wrote Brian May‘s guitar solo in the song. Which is silly, as Mercury about as much skill on the guitar as I have maintaining friendships.
May has stated many times that not only did he come up with it, he requested it go there as there wasn’t originally space for one. One such interview appears on Queen’s Greatest Video Hits DVD, in which he quite matter of factly explains; “This guitar solo is a separate tune, a little counter-statement…I don’t know where it came from, but I could hear it in my head when they were practicising it.” He also discusses the final portion of the song by pointing out that “The orchestrating with guitars is something I did for adornment”.
Strictly speaking, he should have a writing credit just for that. The rest of the band helped write it too – that was Queen‘s process at the time, as May also explained in the 2011 documentary Days of Our Lives; “I remember Seven Seas of Rhye. It was Freddie’s idea, this lovely little riff on the piano, and I think the middle eight is all stuff that I did so we definitely worked on it together. But when it came to the album coming out…Freddie said ‘I wrote the words, and it was my idea so it’s my song’. The sort of unwritten law was the person who brought the song in would get the credit for writing that song, and the money for writing that song.”
Today, obvious legalities have meant big changes in the ways that songwriters are credited. Writing credits are put under a microscope to offset potential lawsuits further down the line. Much of this dates back to a string of lawsuits in the early 90s, most notably Gilbert O’ Sullivan’s suit against rapper Biz Markie.
Biz had racked up a huge hit in 1989 with Just a Friend. His 1991 follow-up album I Need a Haircut featured the song Alone Again and an unauthorised sample from O’ Sullivan’s Alone Again (Naturally). So he sued, his claim was upheld and the landscape of hip hop changed forever. Have you ever wondered why the revolutionary collages of samples prevalent on the Bomb Squad’s production on Public Enemy albums just suddenly stopped? That’s why.
The ruling stated that all copies of I Need a Haircut had to be pulled from circulation, which naturally came at a financial blow for the record company, and Biz Markie’s career never recovered – not that I could envision goofy Biz flourishing into a 2Pac-esque icon anyway.
But this is significant as sampling is one of the main reasons that writing credits appear to have exploded into some kind of free for all. I was talking to one young artist, who bemoaned to me about how Beyonce shouldn’t count as an “artist” based solely on how many people are credited on her songs.
And looking at 2016’s Hold Up – one of the absolute jams of that year – with its whopping 15 songwriters, you would think that maybe he had a point. But take into account that the song features samples and interpolations with Maps by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Andy Williams’ Can’t Get Used To Losing You and Soulja Boy’s Turn My Swag On – there are multiple songwriters on all of those songs, and each is credited on Hold Up.
The initial demo of Hold Up was written by Diplo and Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, but that was just the chorus and a few notes, not a completed song. Each of them get a credit on the song. That’s ten writers right there, and the full song hasn’t even been written yet.
Beyonce – who, in fairness, is often contractually obliged to receive writing credits, and this isn’t uncommon with big stars – then apparently collaborated with a number of people, including Father John Misty and MNEK on different versions of the song, deciding she liked different aspects of each and incorporating various components from each version in the finished product. If she used one line from one version, and another line from another. Guess what? Everyone had to be credited, when in the past this maybe wasn’t such a big deal.
And if you’re naïve enough to think that writing a song this way is down to people’s lack of talent in the 21st century, I’m about to blow your mind. Because it was always the case throughout the days of yore. They’re just more transparent about it now.
To use an example of one of the biggest and most respected “real musicians” of all time, let’s take a look at David Bowie‘s Golden Years.
The only credited songwriter on that song is Bowie himself. However, when I interviewed guitarist Earl Slick in 2016, he confirmed to me that he came up with the guitar riff. Not only that, but he actually lifted it from Outside Woman Blues by Cream, which in itself is a cover of a Blind Joe Reynolds song and usually credited on Cream albums as “Reynolds, arranged by Clapton“.
So, in today’s money, Golden Years would likely be credited at the very least to Bowie/Slick/Reynolds/Clapton, and that’s before the rest of the band start claiming their parts, and before other people come forward to say that they had a role in writing Outside Woman Blues.
So, yeah, five people may have written We Can’t Stop. But five people technically had a hand in writing Bohemian Rhapsody too – each member of Queen, and producer Roy Thomas-Baker. And today they would be credited too.
And while we’re at it, this meme knobs me off as well.
Oh, yes, Freddie Mercury was such a wonderful lyricist. Leaving aside that Run The World is influenced by dancehall and has a much more percussive feel that warrants such repetition, and that Bohemian Rhapsody also features the lyric “Scaramouch, Scaramouch will you do the Fandango/Thunderbolt and lightning very very frightening me/Gallileo, Gallileo, Gallileo, Gallileo, Gallileo, figaro, magnifico“, let’s still take a different Freddie Mercury lyric, and a different Beyonce lyric out of context and see if Freddie still comes out looking like a poet.
Here’s a verse from Beyonce’s Pray You’ll Catch Me:
“Nothing else ever seems to hurt like the smile on your face
When it’s only in my memory, it don’t hit me quite the same
Maybe it’s a cause for concern, but I’m not at ease
Keeping my head to the curb
Pray to catch you whispering
I pray you catch me listening”
Meanwhile, on Queen’s Bicycle Race:
“Bicycle, Bicycle, Bicycle
I want to ride my bicycle, bicycle, bicycle
I want to ride my bicycle
I want to ride my bike
I want to ride my bicycle
I want to ride it where I like”
Oh, wow! The whole argument just broke down immediately! Who’d have fucking thought that a smug prick trying to make a point about how awful something is simply because THEY don’t like it would try to prove their point on such a flimsy premise that doesn’t hold up to even minimal scrutiny?!?!
So, there we have it. Artists are not less talented today, they are just more transparent. You don’t have to like everything, and you don’t have to come away from this with a newfound respect for Black Eyed Peas’ dreadful Imma Be, which actually might be the most annoying song in history.
But there is no need to share ignorant thoughts with an air of superiority, non-proving why certain people are rubbish compared to people for whom the industry was a very different place with very different rules and less chance of being sued. It makes you look like a bit of a bitter dick.