Random Thoughts of the Week: Songwriting and the Artist Identity Crisis

I have been wanting to address the lack of good songwriting in mainstream country music since I started this blog, and now is the perfect opportunity. Many of you have heard Danielle Bradbery’s terrible new single, “Friend Zone,” a pathetic attempt at relevancy that relies on fake drums, rap, a token banjo, and confusing sports metaphors to save Danielle’s already underwhelming career. (I had actually planned to rip apart this song, but SCM and Country Perspective have already done it for me, and this song is not going to save Danielle’s struggling career by any stretch of the imagination, so I’ll save my ranting for other worthy songs.) If by chance you haven’t heard it, here it is, consider yourself warned.

This song, as well as The Band Perry’s worse single “Live Forever” (I can’t bring myself to even post this piece of crap), have caused many to wonder if these artists have any sense of identity. Are they sellouts, or are they being forced to sing this bad pop music because they have no idea who they want to be? In both Danielle Bradbery and The Band Perry’s cases, Scott Borchetta was blamed for “turning his artists” into bad pop crossovers. Borchetta probably had a lot to do with it, but as much harm as he has caused the genre, it’s important to be fair here–and in the spirit of fairness, Borchetta also gave us Maddie & Tae, who produced the best mainstream country album of 2015 so far. So why do Maddie & Tae get to have their own “vision” for their music, while other artists are forced to sing whatever the label assumes will sell? I think it boils down to an artist’s identity, or lack thereof. If you watch The Voice for more than ten minutes, you will hear the phrase, “You know [or don’t know] who you are as an artist.” This is a crucial part of an artist’s career; a lot of people can sing, but not many have this part figured out. Maddie & Tae seem to have it figured out, but Danielle and The Band Perry obviously don’t, so they will sell out and sing whatever their label tells them will sell.

So what is causing this identity crisis in country artists? I think a large part of it has to do with the way many of today’s mainstream artists view songwriting–as an art, or as a business. Songwriting should, especially in country music, reveal things about the writer. Good songwriting should tell a story and often reflects the writer’s thoughts and emotions. This makes the art of songwriting relatable and is one thing that makes country music stand out among other genres. Say what you want about Taylor Swift, but there is a reason her music is so popular–she is an excellent, relatable songwriter. Songwriting also helps artists discover who they are and gives them individuality, which is another lost concept in country right now. This is songwriting as an art, and artists who recognize it as such will write good music and/or choose well-written music to release. But somehow, in the past five years, songwriting on Music Row has turned from this personal experience of connecting with the listeners and discovering artists’ identities into a formulaic hit-making process requiring at least three contributors. Thomas Rhett’s latest train wreck, “Vacation,” took fourteen songwriters, and it is one of the worst songs I have ever heard. How can Thomas Rhett or any of these artists ever hope to have an identity if they only contribute a line or two to a song, or rely on the Dallas Davidsons of the world to churn out #1 hits which relate to no one except frat boys and preteen girls? This is songwriting as a business, and if you recognize it as such, of course you would have no artist identity–you have never had to write anything from your heart.

I haven’t reviewed a great deal of albums and singles on this site yet, but one thing that has set good music apart consistently so far has been the songwriting. Jason Isbell, Alan Jackson, Courtney Patton, Kacey Musgraves, Maddie & Tae, and Kasey Chambers all immediately come to mind as names whose songwriting stood out–there were obviously others, and I mentioned them in the reviews, but I named these to illustrate the diversity in style among these albums. Not all of these albums were strictly country; represented here are both men and women, Americana, traditional country, Texas country, pop country, etc. They all stood out because they contained honest, relatable songwriting with the storytelling that sets country music apart. Each of these albums told me, both as a reviewer and as a fan, something about the respective artists. Rather than listening to polished-up, radio-ready singles, I was hearing something real from each of these artists. In short, the albums they made reflected their identities.

By contrast, the albums and singles I have ripped so far have had formulaic, unrelatable songwriting–Luke Bryan and Easton Corbin’s albums, Thomas Rhett’s aforementioned train wreck, and Kelsea Ballerini’s “Dibs” come to mind here. Not all mentioned here were strictly non-country; in fact, Easton Corbin’s album was pretty country musically. However, all of these lacked honest songwriting containing substance and relatability. Rather than telling honest stories, these songs were marketable singles written for the sole purpose of appealing to specific groups of people–in other words, these artists and writers have taken the art of songwriting and made it into a business. Every song I have given a negative review to has lacked the storytelling for which country has always been known best. And without a story to tell, how can an artist be expected to have an identity? And without an identity, why not sing whatever you think/hope will sell? Enter singles like “Friend Zone”–a song that desperately screams for us to relate to Danielle Bradbery when she can’t even relate to herself.

Tomato of the Week: Kacey Musgraves

I debated whether or not to do a Female Friday over Kacey Musgraves because she is well-known, but I think it is needed. Too many people know her and typecast her only for “Follow Your Arrow,” and she is much more than that. See Kacey’s full article on Female Friday!

Random Country Suggestion: Miranda Lambert–Revolution

If you want to find some good country songwriting, early Miranda Lambert is a great example of it. Both this and her first album, Kerosene, display her songwriting in full force.

Listen to Revolution

Non-Country Suggestion: Fleetwood Mac–Rumours

One of the most personal, relatable albums in history, written while all five members were going through separations. Two separations were within the band. They wrote honestly, and this produced the biggest album of their career.

Listen to Rumours

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