Where Have All the Songwriters Gone?



If you grew up in the 1960s or ‘70s, you grew up with music on the radio that’s now called classic rock. We didn’t know there was anything classic about it at the time. It was just great music, and there was a lot of it, too much to listen to, too many records to buy by too many new recording artists. Let me refresh your memory with just a small sample of the songwriters and rock bands who emerged in those years: Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin, Yes, Genesis, Supertramp, the Eagles, Bruce Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac, Elton John, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Rush, Janis Joplin, Kate Bush, Neil Young, Paul Simon, the Electric Light Orchestra, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson. That’s a short list. The longer one goes on and on. Most of them are household names, but there are plenty of others too. Many of them are still working today, well into their sixties or seventies, still recording new music and performing concerts around the world. The idea at the time was that rock music—popular music generally—was young people’s music. It was by, about, and for people on the lower side of thirty. In time the upper age limit creeped up to forty, and then it just kept going. Somewhere along the way, we realized that rock and roll isn’t just for the young. Great music is great music, and it jumps over all barriers of age, gender, culture, and everything else. It also has a way of resisting classification. How do you pigeonhole Mr. Dylan: folk artist or country singer, bluesman or rocker? Not a good question, and he let everyone know it. What followed was a generation of songwriters who had no hesitation in shifting genres and styles at will, reinventing themselves, blending and synthesizing as they saw fit. There were so many new records coming out in those years that even serious music fans didn’t have time for most of it. In my own case, which is probably not atypical, I only got around to buying my first Dylan recording a few years ago. Such was the competition.

Let’s jump ahead to the present. I have no wish to say that songwriting has disappeared. I don’t wish to, but—and here I’m going to try to show diplomacy—um, where are they? Who are they? I’m aware of the musical trends that have appeared over the last few decades. Things have changed, as Mr. Dylan says, or some things have. What hasn’t is the public demand for music—great music, by great songwriters. If you asked the question in about 1980, who are the greatest songwriters who have emerged in the last twenty years, and how do they compare to the generation before, you know what the answer would be. There was no shortage of good music before this bunch, but my point is this: if you asked the same question now, what would the answer be? Should we make a short list which we could hold side by side with my list above? Would anyone like to make up such a list? I think I will not.

Let’s not overstate things: the songwriting gods haven’t fled, not entirely. However—rather than finish that sentence, let me quote one of the individuals on my list above, Mr. Don Henley of the Eagles. This is the man who wrote or co-wrote quite a lot of songs that you know: Desperado, Lyin’ Eyes, I Can’t Tell You Why, The Boys of Summer, The End of the Innocence, The Heart of the Matter, Hotel California, many others. In a recent interview, he had this to say; he’s responding to a question about country music, but he’s making a broader point: “The bar is not very high right now. I’m not naming any names. I’m just saying the bar isn’t very high right now. [There is] a lot of bad songwriting going on, really sloppy stuff. Not that country music is supposed to be an intellectual exercise, but it could be better than it is. It could have more meat to it than it has currently got.” Henley believes that one of the factors involved is radio. Even when a lot of great music is being written, it’s not getting air play. As he states, “Music will get really slick and poppy for a while and then there will be an improvement back to pure country or neo-traditional country like Randy Travis…. He ushered in one of those neo-traditional eras back in the late eighties and I’m hoping that’s about to happen again.” He continues: “I’d like to see a good backlash happen again. Radio has to stop pandering to demographics.” The radio DJs Henley grew up listening to, as I did years later, and who vetted and talked about the new music, were replaced long ago by marketing executives. In response to a different interviewer’s question, “Was the best music written in the ‘70s?” he says this: “Maybe. Some people would say it was the late ‘60s and ‘70s. You got U2, but you are right, the best country music was made in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Not all of it though. I think there is a lack of authenticity today. I am seeing a lot of gimmickry today. It’s all about the costumes. It’s like Vegas now. My way of thinking may be old fashioned. I still like the singer-songwriter school.”

You often hear songwriters of Henley’s generation lamenting the state of contemporary music. Here are Elton John’s words from a recent interview: “Songwriters today are pretty awful, which is why everything sounds the same. Contemporary pop isn’t very inspiring.” I suspect that Sir John was trying to be diplomatic. Here again is someone who’s speaking not as a crank but as someone who has written a couple of hundred songs over fifty-odd years and who cares deeply about songwriting. Another veteran recording artist, Neil Peart of Rush, had this to say: “For us to have worked so hard and been successful and respected for it, that goes right smack in the face of cheap panderers…. They’re always saying, ‘Oh man, I have to do it this way, have to make the song simple and repetitive ’cause that’s what people like, ’cause that’s my job and if I can just put a smile on the face of those hard-workin’ people then my job is done.’ You know,” Peart continues, “that attitude has been kind of my enemy all of my life. Ever since I was a kid, I always wanted to play music that I liked, and even when I was in cover bands when I was a teenager we only played cover tunes that we liked. That was the simple morality that I grew up with. It’s hard to think of the number of bands that just do what they want.”

Hannah Evans, a music critic writing for the Independent, observes: “[T]he music sitting at the top of the charts today shows signs of unusual conformity, and with reason—it’s all written by the same people; the same few people, in fact. The majority of hit singles are written by producers who know what they’re doing and who have done it, successfully, before…. It all sounds the same because, when you’re in an industry which is in trouble and you find something that actually works, you stick to it. Co-writers provide the modern-day music industry with the financial crutch it needs; after all, it’s the hits that keep the lights on.” Musical experimentation doesn’t pay the bills. It’s not a sure thing, and a new recording artist is likely to be sent packing if their first efforts are unprofitable. Not so a few decades ago. Then, it wasn’t unusual for an artist’s first few albums to be less than successful, commercially, while they were finding their way and their voice.

The music industry appears to be dying. My hope is that it won’t take the music with it, and I doubt very much that it will. Technology has made it possible for recording artists today to take their music directly to the people while bypassing the record companies. The industry that once gave us so much great music, often without a marketing formula to speak of, today works by formula, and both the formula and the industry are getting in the way. Most of the music I listen to now is newer music by songwriters who had their start a few decades ago. It’s not exactly a case of being stuck in the ‘70s, but for the record, if you’re ever going to be stuck in a decade, musically speaking, that one is a good one to be stuck in.

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