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Why Singers Should Write their Own Songs! Or Not?

Noel Gallagher of Oasis has claimed teams of songwriters are ruining the music industry and he said he wouldn't write a song for someone else.

"It's something that I have been asked to do on a couple of occasions, and I just think that they're just performers aren't they? Unless you do your own stuff, what are you? You're just a performing seal for somebody else...I've never written a song for anybody else, I wouldn't have the nerve to ask anybody else to write me a song. Write your own songs, what you asking me for?"

Lady Gaga also had similar criticism. Although she's fine with people who are good singers not writing their own material. But she didn't see the point of people who can't sing well but also don't write their own material.

"But then you think about artists that can’t really sing, that have songs written for them, and it’s like, well why are they artists? Why are companies paying money to promote them? Because they’re beautiful and look good on camera and are kinda-sorta singing along? It’s like karaoke for pretty girls. When you’re a singer-songwriter it doesn’t really matter if you’re beautiful. What matters is that you create a relationship with your fans, and they care what you have to say.

Many Respected Artists Didn't Write their Own Songs

However, many highly respected artists didn't write their own songs. Elvis Presley didn't yet he's still called The King of Rock n' Roll. Janis Joplin is another rock great who didn't write most of her material. Other than exceptions like Smokey Robinson and Lionel Richie of the Commodores, most of the Motown greats didn't write their own songs. This includes The Supremes, The Four Tops, and The Temptations. Not only did they not write their own songs, they often didn't even choose them. They were basically told to go into a studio and sing what was given to them.

Papa Was a Rollin' Stone written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong

Their defenders would say they didn't write their own songs but they're still artists because they had to interpret and bring their own meaning to a song, which in itself is a type of creation and artistry. And do songs like Papa Was a Rollin' Stone, I Heard It Through the Grapevine, Cloud Nine, Ball of Confusion (That's What the World Is Today), and Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me) become less good because the singers themselves didn't write them?

What about an album like Mermaid Avenue by Billy Bragg and Wilco that was based on the previously unheard lyrics of Woody Guthrie? Is it less good because the songs were written by someone else? The concept album The Wall by Pink Floyd was mostly written by Roger Waters and he sings most of the songs. The main character was based on Waters himself. When you listen to The Wall, you're hearing him express his own thoughts and feelings, not someone else's. Would it matter if it was sung by someone else though? Wouldn't those songs still be great?

Some people may be great songwriters but bad singers. Or maybe they're introverts who want to be in the background. Many great songs were written by individuals like this.

Are Singer-Songwriters More Authentic?

Those who favor singer-songwriters may believe their songs are more authentic than those of "entertainers" who don't write their own material. Entertainers are purely in it for the money and fame. The songwriter must actually care about their material. But why assume they must? Even a songwriter can write material that's solely aimed at bringing them wealth or fame or acclaim. This is true of The Beatles first album. They wrote songs that mimicked what was successful at the time. According to John Lennon they were:

"...just writing songs à la Everly Brothers, à la Buddy Holly, pop songs with no more thought of them than that - to create a sound. And the words were almost irrelevant."

And a singer-songwriter may not always be great at what they do. Patrick Taylor from RapReviews said Ed Sheeran's:

"...lyrics are full of cheesy sentiments and cliches...Ed Sheeran is an impressive talent, but his juvenile lyrics and lightweight sensibility make him a tough sell to any one old enough to drink."

Ed writes his own material but he's far from being respected critically with his albums getting ratings of 67, 67, 62, and 57 on Metacritic. Not bad but far from being acclaimed for someone who sees himself as a serious artist.

Personal Songs

It's hard to imagine certain songs about personal experiences being sung by anyone other than their writers. Someone who didn't have those experiences would be faking the feelings and emotions expressed in the song.

However, songs written by singer-songwriters aren't always based on personal experiences. A lot of songs tell stories and don't reflect the singer's life and experiences. Pearl Jam's Alive is only loosely based on Eddie Veddar's own experience of finding out the man who raised him wasn't his real father. The song is actually about a fictional character he created. All I Wanna Do by Sheryl Crowe was based on a Wyn Cooper poem. Irish newcomer Hozier says the book Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce was a big influence on his songwriting. And we know that Johnny Cash never actually shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.

Having said that, the anti-war anthem War is an example of the problem of singers not writing their own songs. The Temptations originally recorded War. Motown and The Temptations themselves were reluctant to release the song as a single fearing it was too controversial and might upset more conservative members of the group's fan base. Perhaps the group didn't feel strongly enough about the message behind the song to take that risk. Edwin Starr who only had one hit to his name offered to record and release War and Motown agreed. It's hard to know if anyone other than the writers Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong actually cared about the meaning of the song.

Pearl Jam - Alive (Lyrics by Eddie Veddar, Instrumental written by Stone Gossard)

Edwin Starr - War (Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong)

Manipulating Humanity

Can a song have the same level of meaning if sung by someone else? Probably yes if that person truly identifies with the song. But if a singer needs an album's worth of material, what is their criteria? That they can personally identify with each and every song at a visceral level? That it has hit potential? That it appeals to their target audience? In many cases the songs are chosen by people at the label or by producers rather than the singers themselves.

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Individual listeners care about different things when it comes to songs. Some want to find their own personal meaning in a song and might have little interest in what the songwriter experienced. They may not even care whether a songwriter was writing from personal experience or was simply throwing together words that would form a hit song. It may not bother them to learn that it was written by a team of people with the sole purpose of getting a hit. They'll love a song simply because it sounds good to them and the origin is irrelevant. Others will feel a song isn't meaningful or authentic unless it's being sung by it's writer.

For me personally, I like to know about the backgrounds of my favorite artists. I like to know about the events that drove them to write their songs. The songs are more interesting when I know the stories behind them. Artist Keith Haring said art:

"...should be something that liberates the soul, provokes the imagination and encourages people to go further. It celebrates humanity instead of manipulating it."

Music is a powerful tool for arousing feelings and emotions. When people say music should be the creation of the musicians themselves perhaps what they're really uncomfortable with is the focus on profits (which have nothing to do with liberating the soul or provoking imagination and a lot to do with manipulating humanity) rather than artistry that's behind the existence of many songs. Maybe cold business decisions driving the creation of what can affect us so strongly emotionally is troubling. Some can only appreciate the honest singer-songwriters who are expressing genuine and raw emotions, rather than singers who may be mindlessly and mechanically repeating someone else's words and ideas solely to get a hit or fill an album's tracklist.

© 2015 LT Wright

What do you think?

GalaxyRat on May 18, 2017:

I don't really care either way, but I respect people more if they write their own songs as artists.

LT Wright (author) from California on August 06, 2015:


Recorded music is expensive to create, promote and distribute, so there is an incentive to get a return on your investment. So there has to be a focus on profit in addition to a focus on artistic creation.

Non-mainstream artists can be pressured to make music they don't really want to make too. I've heard about this kind of thing in rock, folk, and classical. It doesn't just happen in pop. So, any album can have a mix of sincere and made-for-the-charts songs regardless of genre.

Even an indie artist who has complete creative freedom may feel pressure to make what their existing fan base will buy even if they'd rather experiment with different genres. Being able to sell what they create has to be important to any working musician.

JC on August 06, 2015:

What your talking about here is artistic integrity which is more complex than most people consider. When Bob Dylan played an electric guitar at the Newport festival there was an uproar. It was years before he picked up an electric guitar again. Was that artistic integrity to only play acoustic songs when he wanted to play electric guitar as well. He knew which side his bread was buttered on and didn't want to alienate his fans. He made millions doing what was expected of him yet no one questions his sincerity as an artist. I'm a huge Bob Dylan fan so it's not that I'm trying to put him down. What I want to point out is that every musician has to make a living and that often means doing what's expected of them by fans or labels. There are pop stars with sincere and personal songs and rock and folk singers who have songs that there labels or fans expect from them. It's not as cut and dried as people often think.

LT Wright (author) from California on August 06, 2015:

Joe S,

That's true. A performer is considered an artist. But like you said most people think of an artist as someone who creates something new. Few would be dismissive toward opera singers or classical violinists even though they usually don't write their own music. With popular music people may feel differently because they feel songs are often written with the goal of being mega-hits. And that bothers many people. They want the songs they love to be honest and sincere creations rather than something written to top charts.

Joe S on August 06, 2015:

If you look up a dictionary the word artist also applies to performers or people very skilled at something. So based on those definitions someone who doesn't write their own songs is an artist. But then people say "real artist." By that they mean someone who creates something new. Anyone who doesn't write their own songs isn't an artist in that way.

I think of people who don't write their own songs as performers. I don't think of them as "real artists" but that doesn't mean I don't respect them. If someone is a great vocalists it's because they constantly practice and train their voice. If someone is a great musician but never writes their own music again I can respect that because years of training went into their ability to play their instrument well.

But I prefer to think of art as the creation of something new. That doesn't mean I respect every songwriter. I only respect the ones who I feel are sincere in what they do. But to create something new that hasn't existed before that's "real artistry."

LT Wright (author) from California on August 05, 2015:


A lot of people feel that way but can't really articulate why.

Wendy on August 05, 2015:

I can't enjoy someone's music if I know they didn't write their songs. I can't even explain why. It just bothers me but I can't explain why it does.

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