In this decade, that deadlock finally seems to be giving way. Digital music-making, the visibility of star writer-producers, and a greater scrupulousness about allotting writing credits is making the collaborative process more transparent to audiences. The tale of “Old Town Road” may include Lil Nas X fooling around with a beat (based on a Nine Inch Nails sample) he bought online, but most people would agree that he's still the song's primary writer. More obviously, although Billie Eilish doesn’t sound much like Joni Mitchell, she’s clearly a singer-songwriter, famously inventing all her creeping, bleeping tunes at home with her brother, Finneas O’Connell. And much more than during the maximalist stadium-pop period earlier this decade, fans now seem to treasure that fact.
The singer-songwriter image may be shifting, but the appetite for authenticity has only grown. At a time when stars are expected to be present and engaged on Twitter or Instagram, listeners want to feel addressed just as candidly through the music. Social media put a premium on spontaneity and fostered a fear of the fake. With “Thank U, Next,” for example, Ariana Grande pulled off the trick of dropping a pop single almost like an off-the-cuff tweet, even though hers was one name among six in the writing credits. Likewise, it might seem counterintuitive to call Beyoncé a singer-songwriter even as she has developed from a more conventional pop star to a willful auteur. But while she may never write solo, studio collaborators such as Cool & Dre, Ryan Tedder and Detail have testified to how she edits, augments and rearranges the material she’s given to express her own vision. Singing and songwriting are just two of the thousand jobs she does, alongside dancing, styling, bossing and slaying. And meanwhile, high-profile producers such as Jack Antonoff (Bleachers) or Dev Hynes (Blood Orange) double as writer-performers in their own rights, between co-creating songs and albums with the likes of Carly Rae Jepsen, Taylor Swift or Lorde.
The folkie baggage of the singer-songwriter term once made it seem a long way from hip-hop, but rappers have always been wordsmiths, measured by their “realness” -- hence the taboo on ghostwriters. Guitar-pickers like Ed Sheeran declare their debts to rap, while crooning (through Auto-Tune) has become common in hip-hop, thanks to the still reverberating legacy of Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak, an album so inward-looking you could call it his Blue. As the genre’s dominance solidified this half-decade, it became more artistically expansive, taking a downbeat, introspective turn, almost like ’60s rock swagger giving way to the classic singer-songwriter era.
Plenty of artists still do mine that troubadour territory, often within the rough boundaries of indie rock. Young women in particular still have stories and ideas to impart through direct address, among them Courtney Barnett, supergroup boygenius (Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus) and Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker. Current identity politics have raised the stakes for what such voices represent, just as being able to hear the stories behind the songs of a composer-performer such as Lizzo redoubles the pleasure listeners take in them.
Meanwhile, country may be the format that has stuck closest to the old Tin Pan Alley/Brill Building model, in which singers relied on material supplied by professional songwriters. There were always exceptions, but now they’re mushrooming. Artists such as Kacey Musgraves, Chris Stapleton and the Pistol Annies spotlight the value of songwriters being the ones behind the microphone, and Music Row is starting to actively seek out such multihyphenates — especially among women whose radio prospects might be slimmer, but who can be longer-term assets as career artists as well as in-house composer-lyricists.
In 2019, then, it’s time to dim the lights on the coffeehouse stereotype. It's time to liberate the words "singer" and "songwriter" from their mystified yoke. Just as the culture has mostly moved beyond the knee-jerk “they don’t even write their own songs” critique, it recognizes that music-making doesn’t respect rigid roles. It's a messy and multifaceted thing. And it’s not only about melodies and lyrics. In the days of Los Angeles’ Wrecking Crew, Detroit’s Funk Brothers and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, studio musicians contributed crucial hooks and licks to hits on which they’d never see royalties. Today, they’d have a case for a songwriter credit. They were, as much as anyone who had ever slung a metaphor, the voices of a generation. -- CARL WILSON