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This isn’t a post about Wikipedia, but about a philosophy that Wikipedia espouses. As you likely know, Wikipedia’s view is that since no one person — not even experts — can possess all knowledge pertaining to a topic, it follows that the best encyclopedia entries happen when as many people as possible are involved in their creation.
I actually like that philosophy. I believe its strengths outweigh any weaknesses. A Wikipedia-style approach to pulling knowledge together has changed the way we learn, whether we realize it or not. A few years ago, learning how to build a bookcase meant going to the library and reading a few books about carpentry, then getting a book with plans, and then setting to work. It took a few days, at a minimum, to even get going.
Now, you’re more likely to check YouTube for a few short (usually non-expert) videos, and then maybe ask a question or two on a forum, and then look at a few Instagram photos of other people’s efforts. In other words, you’re pulling together the understanding of many different people, and doing it quickly. You’ll be trying your own bookcase in 20 minutes or so.
Whether Wikipedia caused this shift, or is simply realizing that that’s the way we like to learn now, is up for debate. The real point is that we like to learn quickly, and we’re OK with including large contributions by non-experts.
But my question (perhaps fear) is: I wonder if the same thing is happening to the world of pop songwriting. Because I love the Wikipedia approach to learning things, but not to creating things.
For all intents and purposes, songwriting in the pop music genres (pop, rock, R & B, hip-hop, etc.) is a world of collaboration. Check the top ten from practically any of Billboard’s charts, and you’re looking at songs that have anywhere from two to as many as six or more co-writers.
As you likely know if you’ve read this blog, I am a fan of songwriting collaborations, to the extent that they allow a writer with solid skills in one area to hook up with someone who has a flair in another. That kind of partnership can be powerful, giving us music that may not otherwise have seen the light of day.
And history has given us enough wonderful examples of songwriting partnerships that we don’t need to question why they exist at all: Rodgers & Hammerstein, Rodgers & Hart, Bacharach & David, Lennon & McCartney, Elton John & Taupin, and so many others.
But I’m talking about the “other” kind of collaboration, the one that often comes from bands or nameless groups of studio musicians, who cobble a song together for a well-known singer to add to their next recording. In this type of scenario, someone typically creates a chord progression, perhaps a melodic/rhythmic hook, and then rehearsal time is spent playing it over and over. It keeps modifying as someone in the group comes up with a good idea, then a better idea, then more ideas, until you’ve got a completed song.
It’s rather mindless, and that’s not meant specifically to disparage the efforts of the musicians involved. You may have been involved in songwriting of this sort, and the process may have felt creative to you at the time. But collaborative “Wikipedia-style” songwriting will almost never result in the kind of innovative and creative music that will give you that strong sense of artistic pride.
Songwriting collaborations of the type I’m discussing suffer primarily from a lack of initial vision, and then a lack of ideas that result in a cohesive musical experience. To be more specific, this kind of group composition can give us the following:
- songs that lack imagination;
- songs that lack innovation;
- songs that lack a profound message;
- songs that suffer from a lack of cohesion between elements (e.g., lyrical rhythm may not bear any resemblance to backing instrumental rhythm).
- songs that adhere too strictly to a naive understanding of how music is supposed to sound.
Just to reiterate: I am not talking about all collaborations here; I am in favour of any collaboration that results in something greater than the sum of the parts. Sometimes, a song is primarily written by one person, and then a number of other people will tweak and adjust it until the end result is even better. All contributors, however small the contribution, will get a writing credit, and that’s great. That’s a collaboration that works, and one that has possibly given us something we might never have heard before.
But the Wikipedia-style compositional process, where the song is the result of a large group of musicians who come together to write a song, with no strong initial vision, no real message, and meant only to serve the performer… no true songwriter should aspire to that kind of collaboration.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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