To Write Or Not To Write?
In the wake of Elton John announcing he will be shadow writing The Killers next album, Megan Chown and Fred Savage discuss whether or not artists should be allowed to use ghost writers.
This week in an interview with Shazam, Elton John casually mentioned the likelihood of him collaborating with The Killers frontman Brandon Flowers on their forthcoming album. Now, I love every single album by The Killers, but I can’t deny that they have completely changed their style from the iconic indie rock and roll of Hot Fuss and Sam’s Town. The sudden change to modern synth-pop with Day and Age was a shock to the system back in 2008; it wasn’t bad, it was just incredibly different. But then Battle Born followed with a definitive pop-rock style that counteracted all their previous albums and critics began to worry they’d lost their roots. Yet late last year, like music to my ears, Flowers spoke of developing a ‘powerful rock vibe’ for the fifth album hopefully meaning they’ll return to their signature sound of the golden age of Hot Fuss.
A partnership with Elton John could actually help drag the band back to their original rock style. In an interview with NME, John mentioned how Flowers has often played him both The Killers and solo albums before release, suggesting that they already have a close working relationship. This announcement doesn’t mean the band will have nothing to do with writing their songs; I strongly suspect it will be a mutual collaboration with inputs from both parties, allowing knowledge and insight to change hands. It is well known that John himself works with Bernie Taupin who has written the lyrics to many of his hits including ‘Rocket Man’ and ‘Candle in the Wind’.
To me, a good cover can end up equivalent to the idea of shadow writing. Every single song on Johnny Cash’s American IV: The Man Comes Around is a cover, yet that doesn’t stop it from being one of my favourite albums. Cash gives new life to the music, suggesting that it doesn’t matter who wrote it but who sings it that gives it the meaning and depth. Now I’m not saying the writer or original artist shouldn’t be credited (Prince must find it exceptionally annoying that most people think Nothing Compares 2 U was an original Sinead O’Connor song), but surely it’s better for a song to be sung by the right voice. For example, it might have caused a lot of controversy but All About that Bass was initially suggested for Beyoncé yet when sung my Meghan Trainer herself, it became an honest yet playful track.
Shadow writing causes quite the debate between music fans as many feel it is necessary for an artist to write all of their own music. Yet collaborations in the creative industry more often than not, create some of the most influential and innovative pieces of work. After all, Elvis and Sinatra, two of the most iconic singers of all time, didn’t even write their own songs. As a Graphic Designer, collaborations are something I see daily across the design sector with inspiration being taken from anything from fashion to film. Why should it be any different in music? If an artist simply stays closed and always works within themselves would their work evolve or change? They may never reach their full potential if they do not open themselves up to the wealth of knowledge available through other musicians. Elton John is a perfect example of someone with a history and influence in the industry who could provide insight and new methods into the bands way of working. Surely shadow writing is analogous to working with different producers – Bowie worked with Iggy Pop, Brian Eno and Nile Rodgers, each time reinventing himself yet still remaining true to his distinctive sound, so is this really any different?
The relevance of who writes the songs for a particular recording artist depends very much on the context of the songs themselves; are the songs reflecting some intense thoughts, feelings and emotions from the singer? Are there themes and ideas which are deeply personal to the singer conveyed by the music? It’s cases like these that it is especially important that the singer should have had a major hand in the writing the words for the songs, so as to give the listener a satisfaction of finding the music more authentic. A prime example of this is Amy Winehouse: a woman who was significantly insistent on using authentic lyrics. They ranged from being entertaining to emotional, from personal to pessimistic when portraying interpersonal relationships. She had an incredible talent vocally, and her ability to play colourful jazzy chords on a guitar accompanent complimented her style brilliantly. On the other hand, Miley Cyrus and her infamous ‘Wrecking Ball’ was suggestively said to have been written in response to the breaking of her engagement, yet the song and lyrics were not actually written by her. It’s cases like this where a singer gets an external songwriter to write a song involving the singer’s thoughts and feelings which can become irritating for its audience. If you can’t express your own feelings in a song on your own then can you really call yourself an ‘artist’?
It is also important to consider how involved the artist is with other aspects of their music; many would consider playing an instrument to be more demanding than singing and/or writing lyrics – despite the fact that all of those elements are undoubteldy important – and if one has not played an instrument or written a lyric, they are standing on thin ice when trying to demonstrate authenticity in their music. Although the musicality of a song is not at first obvious unless the listener actively goes to look up the credits of the music, many would argue that these aspects require very little practice or talent, particularly production. Some may even consider it not sufficient to make for authentic music if the singer has not written the words (although this is usually the case with mainstream or sub-mainstream pop music).
It is only when a singer or recording artists has written their own words that they are able to achieve some great historical and critical praise for themselves. Artists like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Dolly Parton, Lennon & McCartney etc. have all achieved such levels of fame mostly because they are known for writing their songs. Certainly there are similarly praised artists who are known for not writing all of their own songs: Elvis, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson all had help with their lyrics, but these artists have earned their praise in other ways such as cultural impact, social/political activism etc. But the nature of this achievement I find to be somewhat less intellectually stimulating than that of being a great songwriter.
If a singer has written their own words, it simply gives the listener some peace of mind that they are listening to more authentic music, whether they actually enjoy the music or not.