I’ve been doing an awful lot of songwriting lately. It’s an art-form uniquely tailored to my interests and aptitudes: you can write sappy, self-interested mush all day long, and as long as the tune is catchy, it’s completely vindicated from being passed over like so much high school poetry. You can channel bitterness into lyrics dripping with acid, and then laugh it off with a flippant wave of the hand. You can admit to deep, burning passions into a song, play it for the object of your affection, and, in the unlikely event that it doesn’t inspire them to take you right there on the rumpus room pool table, just insist “Jeez, it’s just a song.”
Not that I do any of that.
My desire to continue to improve upon my craft has lead me to doing some research: who are considered the greatest songwriters of all time? I wish to find them, listen to their music extensively, and absorb their greatness into my own being, like an aborigine warrior eating his slain foe after a battle. But with fewer calories.
I stumbled upon this video from moderately popular Musician/Music Blogger Ben Aaron. As far as I can tell from his YouTube Channel, Ben isn’t any kind of credentialed expert. Nor is he not claiming to be. So take his video– and my assessment of it– with a grain of salt. But my immediate aspirations involve becoming a moderately popular Musician/Music Blogger, so perhaps I should take a cue from him.
Mr. Aaron’s list has some strengths: his tastes are fairly eclectic and he goes out of his way to acknowledge a little-known singer-songwriter that he loves, which is a refreshing change from the types of lists that are put out by those “credentials” types.
I’ll also take a minute here to give a shout out to Ben’s music, where you can listen to here. Ben’s eclectic tastes come through strongly in this unexpected, upbeat music. In 2013, he took on the extremely ambitious task of recording four albums, one for each season. I salute his clearly abundant passion and work ethic, and look forward to listening to more of his music in the future.
There are, of course, some places where ,y opinion divergesa bit from Mr. Aaron’s. For instance, while I love Bob Dylan, I think of him as too unbalanced a songwriter to take the top spot on a list such of this: the man is a genius of a lyricist, but I would argue he’s average at best in terms of melody. And while I applaud Ben’s journey across genres (country, rock, reggae and beyond), I am disappointed to see that nearly all of his choices are rooted in the sixties through eighties. Nothing from the Tin Pan alley days at all. A greatest songwriters list without Cole Porter or Irving Berlin? For shame!
But my biggest beef with Ben (alliteration!) has to be the total and utter lack of women on his list.
This, of course, is at least partly not Ben’s fault: Dan and I got into an argument about sexism in the music industry earlier this week, and my resulting scorn-filled research illuminated with new clarity the extent that women are left out of the business of making music. It may come as little surprise to you that there are almost no female music engineers, very few female music producers, and little in the way of female executives in the larger labels. But while there are certainly some very real hurdles for female musicians, there is, at the very least, a long and celebrated history of female performers and singer-songwriters that you don’t have to go too far to find.
So, since Ben didn’t, I will.
I will endeavor to make this the first installment of a series of posts about songwriters who are, in my humble opinion, the greatest of all time. I will not present them in ranked form at this time– perhaps in a future post. In the spirit of helping poor Ben in his musical education, here are three of the greatest female songwriters.
Whether she’s singing her own words, or being covered by the likes of Judy Collins, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, or Ben’s own Bob Dylan, (for whom Joni apparently has some considerably animosity), Joni has created some of the most iconic music of all time. Here is a woman who is equally capable, on the one hand, of jolting you through the roller coaster of love with its thrilling ups (Help Me, My Old Man) and it’s devastating downs (River, Both Sides Now), and, on the other hand, of weaving together the ironic lambasting of establishment that became possibly the best-loved environmental protest song of all time (Big Yellow Taxi). Adaptable and prolific, her discography rivals just about any male writer. Looking at the list of songs she’s written or co-written, I barely feel qualified to write this paragraph, as I’ve heard such a small portion of her overall body of work. Which will be remedied in the near future.
What Joni and I have in common is a willingness to write about the complicated nature of love, so here is one of here songs that, I think, does a pretty good job dancing that line: All I Want.
The first song I heard by Ani DiFranco was Untouchable Face. I believe I downloaded it off of Napster on a whim, or possibly by mistake. If I recall correctly, I listened to it once or twice, then called my sister into the room to listen to it. Then we immediately drove to Bull Moose where I bought the album, Dilate.
I think of it as good fortune that it happened this exact way. An emotional, passionate teenager at the time, I was totally drawn into Untouchable Face’s vulnerable, angry heartache. The contrast between the shyly-spoken words of the verses and the hissing profanity of the chorus was almost an autobiography of my high school heart. At that moment I fell in love with Ani, and I was open to anything else she had to say.
But anyone who listens to her knows that most of what she has to say is nothing like that initial message. The feminist founder of Righteous girl records, Ani is much more well-known for writing songs about upsetting the unjust establishment (Coming Up), being a strong, self-possessed woman even if you’re Not a Pretty Girl, defending non-conforming sexuality (In or Out), or talking openly and unabashedly about the types of abuses that so many women in this world endure. (Letter to John)
Ani flawlessly, fearlessly and Shameless-ly embodies all that womanhood can be. She is at once a snarling lion and the most genuine of lambs. She can be a Joyful Girl, and she can be profoundly sad. Here’s one of those, Grey:
You don’t respect pop music? Tough. Taylor Swift is amaze-balls.
Taylor’s songs are some of the catchiest, hookiest, have-to-belt-along-with-the-chorus tunes of all time, and she’s only twenty-six: think of what the future may hold! And, yes, with the women I’ve mentioned today, I’ve been extolling the virtues of their versatility. This probably leads some to want to point out that the vast majority of Taylor’s songs are about love and heartbreak. To which I say: Yeah, so?
If there’s one kind of song that can really reach us in a way no other can, that’s the love song. Whether it’s the energizing victory of Love Story (I dare you not to sing along to that last chorus), the simple longing of Teardrops on My Guitar, or the righteous exasperation of We Are Never, Ever Getting Back Together, Taylor writes songs that take people by the hand and assures them, I feel what you feel.
And, okay, if you’re sick of Love Songs and want something more of a statement, here’s Shake It Off, which packages the enduring message of self-confidence and individuality with a very danceable beat:
So, three female songwriters that I think belong in the pantheon. Of course, there are many more that belong in the list, but I’m hoping that, in the future, installments of this variety can include songwriters of both genders without having to make a big thing of it. Because music knows no gender, we’re all just people, insert corny call for unity here.
Feel free to comment below to list your favorite songwriters. Maybe I’ll try to absorb their souls, too.