Saturday, January 29, 2022

Who Writes The Songs?

This week has seen a positive torrent of news I would love to have commented on as it happened. I had other things to talk about, though, and games to play. Only so many hours blah blah blah...

Now the weekend's here I'm kind of glad I saved some easy wins to fill some space in a hurry. Don't you loathe that expression? "Easy win"? Makes my skin crawl.

Which was much the same reaction I had to Damon Albarn's absolutely incomprehensible attack on Taylor Swift's songwriting ability, as he claimed in an interview with the Los Angeles Times "She doesn’t write her own songs.

Challenged on this bizarre assertion by the interviewer, Mikael Wood, Damon attempted to reinforce a self-evidently untenable position by asserting Swift's writing "doesn’t count" because it's "co-writing" and "Co-writing is very different to writing". Then, à propos of nothing at all, as far as I could see, he contrived to drag in Ella Fitzgerald, before concluding "A really interesting songwriter is Billie Eilish and her brother. I’m more attracted to that than to Taylor Swift. It’s just darker — less endlessly upbeat. Way more minor and odd. I think she’s exceptional."

Unpack that, if you can! Apparently Billie and Finneas are some kind of gestalt that counts as a single songwriter, not a collaboration, while Swift, whose last several albums have been anything but upbeat by just about anyone's definition, is presumably still knocking out jolly pop songs like it was 2012. It makes me wonder if Damon has ever heard a Swift song, let alone listened to the lyrics.

If you google the controversy now, almost all the results focus on his apology, issued almost immediately as he desperately tried to backpedal his way to some kind of position that didn't make him look old, outdated and misogynistic. Apologizing "unreservedly and unconditionally", he tried to throw some of the shade back on the interviewer or at least the sub-editor: "I had a conversation about songwriting and sadly it was reduced to clickbait."

The NME has an excellent piece on the reaction both the original interview and the apology drew from a number of musicians and songwriters. Both Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner, Swift's collaborators and among those who've co-written the songs Damon thinks don't count, weighed in, with Dessner calling Albarn "obviously completely clueless" and Antonoff suggesting he should "shut the fuck up."

Support from Jedward may not impart much gravitas but others had much more serious points to make.  The Anchoress went straight to the heart of the issue. "It is a distinctly male privilege to be allowed to explore your creativity via collaboration and not have it assumed that a lack of talent or skill drove the decision. Imagine applying the same judgement to Bowie?

She's one hundred per cent correct, of course, and it's all but impossible not to read that subtext into what Damon said, even though his subsequent incoherence, as he tries to clarify his position, does suggest he may not have known what he was going to say until he heard it come out of his mouth.

When I read the original report, my immediate reaction, other than stunned disbelief that anyone with as much media experience as Damon Albarn could expose himself so unwisely and unecessarily, let alone that he might actually believe what he was saying, was to wonder just what he meant by co-writing being "very different to writing."

I mean, just think about it. The history of popular music is made up almost entirely of songs written in collaboration. Want a list? It's not like examples don't come instantly to mind: Leiber and Stoller, Lennon and McCartney, Holland, Dozier, Holland, Jagger and Richards, Gamble and Huff, Morrissey and Marr...

Did someone mention Morrissey? Let's hope it wasn't Marr! Morrissey doesn't like it when that happens. He hates it so much he wrote an Open Letter saying so. In another demonstration of how people who really should don't seem to know what "clickbait" actually means, Morrissey politely (for him) requested Johnny refrain from mentioning his name in interviews and stop "using my name as clickbait."

Johnny Marr's response was somewhat less grovelling than Damon's. Rather than make any promises to comply with Morrissey's request, the Smiths' guitarist chose instead to lampoon what he saw as his old co-writer's archaic use of language: "An ‘open letter’ hasn’t really been a thing since 1953, It’s all ‘social media’ now."

Maybe someone should tell Neil Young. Old rockers will stick to what they know, though, and maybe that's a good thing. (So long as we're not talking about Ted Nugent. But who ever would?) 

Morrissey's not the only one writing open letters this week. Neil, who has form with the form, fired off an open letter to Spotify, blasting the streaming platform on its decision to keep hosting a series of podcasts by Joe Rogan in which, as Neil sees it, "Spotify is spreading fake information about vaccines - potentially causing death to those who believe the disinformation being spread by them."

Young demanded all his material be removed from Spotify, pronto. Spotify was happy to comply, leading to an immediate surge in support for Neil's principled position from... all of Spotify's competitors.

I watched all of this (And a lot more I don't have time to go into. It was a hell of a news week.) with a mixture of emotions ranging from amusement to anger to approval. Perhaps my favorite intervention in any of the many scuffles and spats came from someone who very definitely does understand the concept of clickbait and who uses social media like one born to it, even though he came to fame before the term even existed.

Liam Gallagher, already on record as a fan of Taylor's Swift's songwriting chops, asked by a fan on Twitter what he thought of the dispute, replied with admirable brevity "Love it". Well, he would, wouldn't he? 

When pressed to say what he thought of Damon Albarn's talents, he tweeted "Great songwriter". Asked about Swift, he tweeted "Great songwriter".

If you find yourself being schooled by Liam Gallagher on Twitter you maybe need to take a moment to rethink your strategy. It's like the Britpop wars taught us nothing! Well, some of us...


  1. Have some clown file a lawsuit against Spotify and Joe Rogan for spreading false information leading to the death of someone via Covid, and we'll see how much Spotify still loves Rogan.

    But... You just had to use that title, didn't you? I now have Barry Manilow earworms bugging me. Even ASMR is preferable to this....

    1. Heh! I did actually have "I Write The Songs" as the title but I changed it at the last moment because I thought it didn't really make sense. I'd forgotten that even though everyone thinks of it as a Barry Manilow song, he didn't actually write it! That would have made it a great title. Sorry I changed it now...

      Hey, let's pretend I meant to do it all along. I changed it to make it even smarter, which "Who Writes the Songs?" kind of is, if you think about it. No-one never need know.


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