Why today's pop songs are so bad.

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March 30 2004 4:29 PM

Simply Simpson

Why pop songwriting's not what it used to be.

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"Auteurs" like Simpson are baring their souls. Be afraid!

Earlier this month, Jessica Simpson's new single "With You" reached the No. 1 spot on Billboard's Mainstream Top 40 chart—not particularly shocking, given her popularity and the success of her MTV reality show Newlyweds. What is intriguing, though, is Simpson touting this exceedingly forgettable radio confection as her own, having apparently co-written the single with the prolific lyricists Billy Mann and Andy Marvel.

Pop singers used to be mere entertainers; songwriting was largely the domain of professionals who rarely performed. Today, they want us to believe they're auteurs—singers who are also capable of writing their own songs. Britney Spears is credited with writing/co-writing seven of the 13 songs on 2003's In the Zone. Justin Timberlake picks up co-writing credits on all of the songs on 2002's Justified. Timberlake's 'N Sync bandmate J.C. Chasez takes co-songwriting credits on all but one of the songs of his just-released solo debut, Schizophrenic. Even teen star Hilary Duff gets writing credits for three of the songs on her new record, Metamorphosis.

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Why this shift? Strangely, the celebrity gossip industry of the late '90s and early 2000s may be responsible. Artists, especially those who are expected to talk about their latest creative effort in People and on Access Hollywood, need a story to tell, and an auteur makes for a better interview. Marketing yourself as a singer who bares her soul is much easier than marketing a singer baring a songwriter's soul.

Last July, for example, Billboard reported that expectations were high for Gloria Estefan's Unwrapped because the singer wrote several songs in which—you guessed it—she "bares her soul." Similar terminology was used to peddle Shania Twain's second record, 1995's The Woman in Me. "On my first album I was a singer interpreting other people's songs, and on this album I'm singing my own songs," Twain told the Chicago Tribune at the time. "I think the delivery in the vocal is much more intimate and real."

More than ever, record companies are looking to sell artists as auteurs. From a business perspective, singer-songwriters can save record companies money that would've been spent to pay professional songwriters. Pop stars are able to cash in on the fat royalty checks earned from their songwriting credits and enjoy the recognition that they gain from their creative endeavors. And the camp of pop singers not as lyrically inclined can reap the same benefits by purchasing material from an independent writer and pawning it off as their own—a longtime practice in the industry, for which Elvis was infamous.

Pop music critics have also been instrumental in this shift. As Norah Jones can attest, critics may not take an artist seriously unless she writes a substantial portion of her own material. (Which is why Jones' camp has so strenuously reminded the public that she wrote or co-wrote six of the 13 of songs on her new record. She had songwriting credits on just three of the 14 songs on her 2002 debut album.)

Such pressures were uncommon in earlier decades. The biggest hits of the '50s and '60s were written by songwriters like Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who co-wrote songs like the Searchers' "Love Potion No. 9" and Ben E. King's "Stand by Me." Sammy Fain wrote hits for Johnny Mathis, the Four Aces, and others. Ronnie Shannon wrote Aretha Franklin's version of "I Never Loved a Man," and Don Covay was behind her hit "Chain of Fools." Frank Sinatra's albums rarely credit him as a songwriter.

But by the early '60s, performers like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez hit the pop charts with songs they'd written themselves. The emphasis on the authenticity of their songwriting reflected the gestalt of the era. And it influenced Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and scores of others. As groups such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones emerged on the scene, they proved that commercial bands could also offer immensely catchy singles, even if they did write their own material.

Even then, Baez, Dylan, and others were a breed apart; divas like Cher or Barbra Streisand or Diana Ross still never troubled themselves with writing lyrics; those were the chores of a songwriter. Even Michael Jackson's first solo albums, Off the Wall (1979) and Thriller (1982), were largely written by others. (Later, Jackson supposedly began to write the bulk of his lyrics.) Madonna may be credited, to a certain extent, with fueling the new growth of today's new "self-contained" acts, as they're known in the industry. After she arrived on the music scene in 1983 with an eponymous debut record that she had written herself, pop stars as auteurs started to become the rule, not the exception.  

But Jessica Simpson is no Madonna, and her eager attempt to repackage herself as a soulful auteur may not be the most savvy business decision: As veteran music journalist Jim DeRogatis recently noted in an interview, "Sometimes [these pop stars are] blissfully ignorant of the songs they allegedly wrote." (Simpson apparently believes her writing skills should not be limited to songs: She and husband Nick Lachey are said to be shopping a marriage advice book—more evidence of her aspirations to auteurdom.)

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