Jan 26th 2022

Taylor Swift and the Conceptual Revolution in Popular Music

by David W. Galenson

Dr. David W. Galenson is Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago; Academic Director of the Center for Creativity Economics at Universidad del CEMA, Buenos Aires; and a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. His publications include Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity (Princeton University Press, 2006) and Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art (Cambridge University Press and NBER, 2009). David W. Galenson, picture aboce. Derek Walcott, picture in the text.

The conceptual revolution in popular music is not dead.

During the Golden Era of American popular music, songwriters wrote songs, and singers sang them. Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, and their peers considered themselves to be skilled craftsmen, who wrote songs to be sung by popular performers, who included Ethel Merman, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, and their peers. When a new song came on the radio, the audience understood that its lyrics had been tailored to fit the plot of a new Broadway musical or Hollywood movie, with no expectation that its lyrics represented the personal ideas or feelings of the singer.

This division of labor between writers and singers persisted into the early days of rock and roll. Elvis Presley and others performed songs written by professional writers. Now some singers began to write their own songs: Buddy Holly, inspired by John Wayne's performance in The Searchers, wrote "That'll Be the Day." But the popular music of the late '50s and early '60s was still dominated by professional songwriters, as the teams of Gerry Goffin and Carole King and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil wrote one hit after another for a wide range of singers and groups. And it was natural for the Beatles to record songs written by others early in their career: "Chains," written by Goffin and King for the Cookies, was included on their first album in 1963. Indeed the Beatles' original goal in writing, as stated by John Lennon, was that "Paul and I wanted to be the Goffin and King of England."

Then there was a revolution. In 1964, Bob Dylan created a new kind of popular music. The simple, clear love songs of Berlin and his peers were replaced by complex and opaque lyrics, filled with literary allusions and symbolism. Dylan rejected the role of craftsman: "I'm an artist. I try to create art." Nor were his songs intended to be universal: "My songs were written with me in mind."

Dylan's novel synthesis of folk music, the blues, and Symbolist poetry created a radical new model for popular music, as the clear, simple language that generations of songwriters had used to express universal emotions gave way to an avalanche of cryptic and enigmatic verses that expressed the thoughts and feelings only of the musicians who wrote and sang them. John Lennon and Paul McCartney were early converts to Dylan's conceptual revolution, as "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" created fantasy worlds in which nothing was real, and there was nothing to get hung up on. Sgt. Pepper then became another early landmark of the conceptual revolution, using novel recording techniques to create songs that could not have been performed on stage.

Since Dylan and the Beatles, self-respecting groups, from U2 and Public Enemy on, have been expected to write their own songs. But the older craftsman/performer model never disappeared. No one criticized Dionne Warwick for singing songs written by Bert Bacharach and Hal David, and no one objected when Whitney Houston sang Dolly Parton's "And I Will Always Love You," or Judy Collins sang Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns."

But now Damon Albarn, of the Blur, has contemptuously dismissed Taylor Swift as a songwriter, on the grounds that she doesn't write her own songs. Swift's indignant response: "I write ALL my own songs" - often with co-writers, which for Albarn doesn't count. But Swift

then added: "Your hot take is completely false and SO damaging." Damaging only from the perspective of the conceptual revolution. But this is a mistake: Swift's simple and direct songs are not conceptual, but in fact hearken back to the older tradition of American popular
song. Taylor Swift should be proud of belonging to a line of descent that includes such singers as Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Dionne Warwick, Whitney Houston, and Judy Collins. Indeed, no one seems to have complained when Swift herself recorded "White Christmas." So even though Swift considers it damaging to admit that she sings other people's songs, somewhere Irving Berlin and Bing Crosby are smiling.

 

Editor's note:

Background article from the Guardian on 25 January 2022:

Taylor Swift criticises Damon Albarn for saying she doesn't write her own songs

 

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