Some time ago, I was at home watching the George Strombolopolous show (why, I don’t know) and ol’ Strombo was giving a breathless intro to his next guest.
“These guys have [however many] top ten hits, blah blah blah. And… [pause for effect] they actually write their own songs.”
Oh, that’s sort of interesting, I’m thinking. I wonder who that might be? After all, writing your own songs is a symbol of seriousness and integrity, distinguishing a true artist from the mindless garbage of mainstream corporate entertainment.
“Please welcome, Nickelback!”
Years earlier, I’d been researching an article about the mysterious persistence of Eddie Vedder-influenced vocals. (The article was never published—although I did get paid for it twice, which I attribute to an act of contrition mixed with corporate sabotage on the part of the editor). During this research I had the mixed blessing of reading several interviews with Chad Kroeger, the lead singer (and songwriter!) of Nickelback. Aside from bragging about how he doesn’t read books, the quote that sticks out to me is (paraphrased from memory, I can’t be assed to re-research it):
“I like the business side of music just as much as the creative side. Maybe even a little more.”
I might also mention the mashup of two of their songs, revealing that their structure is precisely identical (another thing that Kroeger bragged about was his mastery of writing a hit, which he had down to an exact science—obviously, very exact).
(In fairness to Nickelback, I will say that I took their side during their beef with Matthew Good. Nickelback you can at least love to hate).
My point is this: why does it matter whether or not a performer writes their own songs?
I thought of this today when, during the flash riot of people falling all over themselves to outdo each other in deprecating Lana Del Rey, someone proclaimed: “She doesn’t even write her own songs!” as if that proved some kind of point.
Whatever the merits or demerits of Ms. Del Rey’s music may be, I think this criticism needs to be retired. It’s so obviously grounded in a post-Dylan/Beatles rockist mentality that’s just hopelessly retrograde by now. I like a good singer/songwriter as much as the next person, but being one is not a benchmark for quality. At all.
In a nutshell:
Elvis didn’t write his own songs.
Sinatra didn’t write his own songs.
Nickelback write their own songs.
Therefore, writing your own songs in and of itself is not all that.