In Defence of the Singer non-Songwriter

THEO ZHANG, winner of Cambridge’s Got Talent, asks why we should expect singers- masters of their own instrument- to learn another and write songs with it before they can gain our respect, when we accept Sinatra, Houston and Elvis as icons in their own right.

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Why is it that new artists are expected to play their own instruments and write their own songs as well as sing? Why are those who are unable to now considered fraudulent or manufactured? It’s a relatively new phenomenon, and seems to have become the new criteria for performers to qualify for public respect. In my view it is also a mistake: people should recognise the great skill and talent required to sell a song well. I also suggest this expectation could be depriving us of exceptional vocalists.

In the past people were content for their singers to be singers, and vocalists got the respect they deserved for selling a song emotionally and artistically. Frank Sinatra, Elvis, Billie Holiday and Whitney Houston- none of them wrote many of their own songs or played instruments seriously, but they all remain iconic musical figures in their own right.

Nowadays, the singer non-songwriter has become restricted to pop artists like Rihanna and Britney Spears, and even then it strikes me they don’t get the respect they deserve as performers. Rihanna in particular is an excellent live performer, yet will always get less respect than comparable artists like Lady Gaga who do write their own songs.

For the record, I actually do sing, play instruments and write songs (I don’t claim to do any of these things well, if you wish to judge just search my name on Youtube). The point is, I don’t see why others should be compelled to. Indeed, if someone offered me a good song or offered to play the guitar for me I would happily take it, despite what is expected of developing singers. The results are often farcical: Madonna took up playing the guitar, Britney occasionally mimes behind a piano, and Justin Bieber recently released an acoustic album with the sole purpose of showing his ability to play three chords on the guitar, all in the interest of ‘respect’.

Why? One explanation could be the emergence of reality TV pop stars, who are tested purely on their karaoke abilities and nothing else. They then release uninspiring covers of long-ruined ‘classics’ with a few melodramatic key changes stuck in- so it is understandable why this is considered to require little skill. In fact, you are not even allowed to play instruments or sing your own songs on the X Factor (unless it’s comedic, in which case they’re happy to let you hang yourself). Cue the retort – ‘yeah, but can they write their own songs?’ This is a fair criticism in the context of the show, but has been unfortunately extended by analogy to all emerging musicians.

Another factor is the prevalence of autotune and electronic production. This has allowed poor vocalists such as Kesha, Paris Hilton and Finn from Glee to achieve chart success. Because of this, the public now demand a bit more from their singers and use other factors to discern whether someone is talented.

The voice is itself an instrument. This should go without saying, and skillful use of the voice should be the sole requirement for a singer to be respected. Frank Sinatra is a prime example of this. His intonation and timing are immaculate, and his style has been mimicked by millions of successors. Whitney Houston, who popularised ad-libbing in pop, has an iconic voice which is still unmatched for clarity and emotion in mainstream R&B . If these singers came to a record label today, they might well have been turned down for not being instrumentalists or songwriters, a box which emerging singers are required to tick.

Why can’t we separate the functions of singing, songwriting and playing instruments? The outcome is just as good and frequently better (see Frank Sinatra – My Way, Elvis – Hound Dog and Jeff Buckley – Hallelujah for a few examples). I believe mediocre singer-songwriters are being promoted over those who are exceptionally talented singers, but sadly this seems to be what the public now prefers. We could be depriving ourselves of this generation’s Frank Sinatra through our inability to recognise vocal talent for what it is in and of itself.