Although pop/rock music has continued to be given a high status in modern culture (shown for example by the extent of regular coverage on the BBC4 channel and the prominence given to the deaths of pop/rock musicians on national TV news) many modern practitioners appear to feel less confident about their individual talents and careers. This, I think, is why they are keen to be described by the media as “writers” as well as singers.
In fact, they are mostly actually co-writers – especially those whose songs are part of the pop/dance genre. People like Beyoncé Knowles, Adele, Pink, Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga, Emeli Sandé, Katy Perry, Will Young, Sam Smith and even Ed Sheeran. Invariably, on closer research, you find their songs have been co-written with one or more other writers and producers.
The first artists in that genre who gained a huge individual success from such collaboration were probably Madonna and Michael Jackson in the 1980s. In the late 1990s came Robbie Williams.
The pop/rock music industry has in my lifetime produced many people who constructed a significant celebrity on a modest ability – but I do think that Robbie Williams is the most startling example of that phenomenon. A competent singer who left a successful group for a solo career, who was not content with keeping fans returning regularly to concerts but always preferred to play vast open-air venues, yet who has little individual skill with an instrument and whose music has been almost wholly composed throughout a 20 year solo career by other people, such as Guy Chambers and Steven Duffy. His success has been gained mainly through fierce ambition and a distinctive stage and media persona (usually characterised as “cheeky chappie”!) which, I can’t deny, has had an amazingly long appeal.
Pop music has long been a highly collective endeavour because it is often something you start doing when you are young with your pals. In the past most people have had the good grace and sense to become a member of a group if as individuals they have only one or two playing or writing skills. In addition, many successful groups sang and played songs written by non-performing songwriters.
At first I thought it was only the modern generation who tended to exaggerate their abilities. It is certainly true, in these internet-dominated times, that it is much harder to make a decent living from music, even if your work is played on national radio or performed in venues up and down the country. Then I remembered two earlier British artists who have gained solo credit for collaborative success.
Ian Dury was a highly accomplished lyricist and a singer and performer of real personality, but he didn’t play any instruments and all those great tunes from New Boots and Panties and elsewhere were composed by Chaz Jankel and some others. Morrissey’s lyrics, singing and stage presence were a natural ally to the tunes of his school friend guitarist Johnny Marr in the Smiths, but his own musical abilities were modest and the music of his solo career has mostly been composed by Steven Street, Mark Nevin and Alain Whyte.
If you were to analyse the appeal of all these three artists, you might discern some interesting similarities. All working-class boys who have covered shyness and vulnerability with flamboyance. All three have felt outsiders: Morrissey openly gay, Williams clearly bisexual, Dury disabled. All have shown a fondness for older musical traditions and developed their careers through a willingness to blend music-hall, rockabilly and swing with contemporary styles.
Another couple of earlier examples of collaboration, sometimes forgotten. Elton John, for many years in the 1970s probably the biggest star in the world, mostly co-wrote his greatest hits with Bernie Taupin – although he did write the memorable tunes rather than the more disposable lyrics. David Bowie is regarded even more highly, as one of the great multi-talented auteurs of the pop/rock era, but his “Berlin trilogy” of Low, Heroes and Lodger is usually accepted as being significantly assisted by Brian Eno, the Let’s Dance album by Nile Rodgers and quite a few other tracks through his career co-written with others.