What’s in a Writing Credit?

If I was to write this post and retain some credibility, it would involve airbrushing over what actually inspired the idea in the first place. After several attempts at beginning with vague allusions and substitutions, I figured it best to just bite the bullet and get on with it. Basically, I have been listening to my Christmas albums (not actual festive music – surely a bit sad after the event – but the CDs I received as presents) while walking the dog each day. Yesterday, I got round to the Little Mix album. There, that was my stumbling block. I own – nay, bought with a voucher, so truly chose to own – the latest offering by the X Factor girl band winners.

I will not justify the choice here, and merely move quickly onto my point. As I was playing this album, with its exciting 90s-influenced upbeat numbers and less exciting ballad-y type offerings, I was listening out for the songs I knew certain people had written; other writers or singers that I like, who had contributed to the Mix-tape (ha, ha). And then I started to think about how no-one really seems to mind that Little Mix don’t write their own music, as long as it’s got a good chorus and an interesting dance routine. In fact, rather than criticised, they get kudos if they’ve managed to work with some well-respected industry names, responsible for other big hits.

This then led me on to thinking about that other rather successful X Factor group, One Direction. Have you heard of them? They sell quite a lot of albums. They also have to put up with being told they’re not a ‘real band’ for not playing instruments or writing their own material. Why is it that females get a (mostly) free pass in the music industry as long as they can create a spectacle, while men – particularly the young ones – get a hard time over ‘authenticity’?

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Consider the likes of Rihanna and Britney: this is the first year since 2007 that Rihanna has not released a new album. She churns them out. How is it possible in between the world tours, the clothing line, and the excessive Instagram posts? Quite easily, really, when your record company is paying other people millions to do it for you. Npr ran an interesting story a few years ago that broke down the cost of creating one of Rihanna’s multi-million selling hit singles. It is no secret that, on the whole, Rihanna just lends her voice and image to the outcome of one of these writing bootcamps rather than getting involved. But that doesn’t stop the likes of Eminem and Jay Z from wanting to work with her, and hasn’t affected the mammoth sales she enjoys.

As for good old Britney, she’s been plugging away for nearly a decade and a half now, but has contributed to barely a fraction of her musical output. According to those who have worked with her, she’s very involved in making the albums; though not, it would seem, when it comes to putting pen to paper. I suppose Britney, since she appeared as an all-dancing, midriff-baring school girl, has always been about image as much as, if not more than, the music itself. Reviews from her new Vegas show have been favourable, despite the fact that Britney rarely sings live. In fact, USA Today excused her miming by describing her routines as comparable to an American football player having to run and sing at the same time. These girls/women/not-girls-not-yet-women are let off for not really participating in their own music as long as they project the right (also likely manufactured) image, put on a good show, and competently sing, or mime along to, the songs they have been given.

Meanwhile, any article about One Direction that appears anywhere on the internet with a comment section, I would bet my life onedsavings (pitiful as they may be) that there is at least one comment that says, “Yeah, but they don’t play their own instruments, do they?” ‘Beatlemania’ is the media’s obvious comparison for One Direction’s global appeal. Yet – unfortunately for the boys – apart from being British, the comparisons end there. The Beatles will forever be acceptable, even to those who aren’t fans, for writing and playing their own stuff. One Direction have to put up with the manufactured label, particularly given that they come from Simon Cowell’s conveyor belt of ready-made popstars. I am not a crazy One Direction fan in disguise trying to make people see the light with regards to these five dashing, walking haircuts, but they should be given some slack. They’re no different to the likes of Rihanna, Britney, and countless others who are just as micro-managed. And it doesn’t make any of them less of an ‘artist’ – there’s nothing wrong with a bit of manufactured pop. What would the music purists have to moan about otherwise?

My Year in Music

CDs

I went through a messy separation earlier this year. It was a relationship that existed on the basis of convenience and ease. Unfortunately, I have not been able to make the clean break that was perhaps required by the situation.  I keep going back; I keep trying to find a way to make things work. To paraphrase Joey’s wonderful agent in Friends: “I always come crawling back to iTunes”.

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Even before I left my job last month, I had already had to un-sync my debit card from my iTunes account. I have an iPod Touch that makes it so easy – too easy – to hear a song on the radio, decide I like it, and download it without a thought. Because my details were already saved I missed that crucial step in online buying: when you type out your card number, and are thus granted that final chance to ask yourself whether your bank balance is strong enough to withstand the forthcoming assault.

With a few careful taps of my podgy fingertips I could have a brand new song playing through my headphones in under a minute. But I knew it had to end when I became prone to “The Impulse Buy”. My new rule is that I now have to have listened to a something at least twenty times on YouTube before I allow myself to download it (this is also a good test to discover how quickly you can become sick of a song). 

Despite our issues, I still love iTunes. Music vouchers are the only thing I can ever think to ask for when it comes to Christmas and birthdays. I thought I’d look back over my purchases from the past twelve months and assess the decisions I have made.

(NB – I will only recap albums; I bought too many singles. Some too embarrassing to mention.)

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KANYE WEST PRESENTS: GOOD MUSIC CRUEL SUMMER

Various Artists

I ask you: is there a better way to ring in the New Year than listening to a nice young man telling you “One piece of this sh*t/You won’t feel your legs”? If there is, I can’t think of it; evidently, given that this was my first purchase of 2013.

It bugs me that I’m still not sure if I am enjoying these songs ironically or not. I mean, Mercy.1 is kind of ridiculous, right? But it is also a song that I never skip when it comes on shuffle. There are some classic Kanye lines elsewhere: “I believe there’s a god above me/I’m just the god of everything else”, and yet I am able to overlook it because – despite (or in spite of?) everything else about Kanye West – he always picks interesting, obscure samples and a good beat.

Due to my ambivalence towards this record, I’m going to score it 6/10. It picks up a bonus point for featuring an artist (Marsha Ambrosius) that sounds like he named himself after his favourite brand of custard.

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ALL SAINTS

– All Saints

Ah, my favourite girl band, EVER (sorry, En Vogue). I think behind my love for All Saints is the fact that they remind me of a simpler time: a time when a pop star could turn up on Top of the Pops in cargo trousers and a denim jacket; a time when they didn’t give their fans a collective moniker that usually results in tears before bedtime on Twitter; a time when you didn’t even have to bother whether you came across as remotely “likeable”.

All Saints were moody, broody, cool. What I enjoy about this record is the fact that they don’t make it “easy” to like. It feels like they put it together with the attitude that people could take it or leave it. As a listener, it’s the equivalent of being the slightly nerdy kid on the playground trying to get the cool girls to like her.

I don’t enjoy it quite as much as Saints and Sinners, and the ‘Under the Bridge’ cover was horribly misguided. However, this album is home to one of the best pop songs of the last twenty years (that’s as far back as I can really talk with any authority) in ‘Never Ever’ – So. Good.

This album gets 7/10.

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FIVE: GREATEST HITS

– Five

This album. This is why I can’t have nice things. This is why I had to stop my unthinking download purchases.

Overcome with nostalgia thanks to The Big Reunion on ITV2, which reformed some nineties – I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say – supergroups, I went and bought a compilation of Five’s biggest hits.

I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t even preview the songs before jabbing the screen. Caught in the sweeping tide of childhood/early teen sentiment, I forgot a very important detail: Five don’t really have any “greatest hits”. The best reaction you can hope for with this album is internal cringing, and the worst is a full-blown body spasm of painful embarrassment.

Not one song on here was worth the £4 I paid for it. The worst thing about downloading music is that you can’t even palm off naff CDs to a charity shop and pretend to yourself that you’ve done a good deed. Instead, I just had to delete the whole thing from my device. What cannot be so easily erased is the black cloud that remains heavy over my heart.

This album scores a generous 2/10. I don’t know whether to deduct or add a point for the line “Wiggy wiggy, I’m getting jiggy”.

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COLLEGE DROPOUT

– Kanye West

A substantial showing from Kanye West on this list so far. I’m not sure if that could be twisted into some sort of metaphor for the year I’ve had. Or perhaps I should start living by the acronym ‘WWKWD?’ Whenever I am plagued by self-doubt or lack of confidence, I shall simply ask myself what or how Kanye West, self-styled god on earth, would respond to such feelings.

In fairness he has some right to feel a bit smug with regards to this album. Some songs are better, I think, than some artists could hope for across several records.

Although I feel that Late Registration (follow-up to College Dropout) is more accessible in terms of the individual tracks, College Dropout works really well as an overall idea. It’s a bit darker, a bit less mainstream than its successor. And I like albums like that. Perhaps this is the true metaphor: I enjoy albums as awkward and difficult as I am.

It gets a grand total of 8/10.

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CHANNEL ORANGE

– Frank Ocean

This list so far makes it seem that I am a bit of a hip-hop connoisseur. I can assure that this is not the case. It made me interested to go back and find out what sort of list I would have compiled last year, which I can reveal would have included One Direction, N*Sync, Bee Gees, and the Lion King soundtrack. So not the most credible twelve months in my music repertoire.

Channel Orange should more than make up for those past transgressions. (Shouldn’t it? DOESN’T IT?) I mean, *what* *an* *album*. 

There isn’t a particularly dominant track (although my favourite, hands down, is ‘Super Rich Kids’); Channel Orange is about the idea of the album overall, rather than a home for a couple of chart friendly singles. Anything that makes it worthwhile to buy the whole shebang than to just cherry-pick a few decent songs, as downloadable music has made it so easy to do, cannot be faulted in my book.

Having said that, nothing is completely perfect so this album gets 9.5/10.

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DRIVE (ORIGINAL MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK)

– Various Artists

Drive is one of my favourite films of the last two years, and, more than many films I can remember watching, the soundtrack was a big part of that enjoyment.*

This record largely instrumental, bar the odd collaboration with the likes of Lovefoxxx and Electric Youth. Already it should be evident that this is a super cool album. Cliff Martinez’s score is chilling and emotive and I honestly don’t think Drive would be half the film it is without his contribution. ‘Tick of the Clock’ is one of the best pieces of music I have heard this year.

Drive‘s soundtrack – and Ryan Gosling’s abs (sadly hidden in the film) – get a combined total of 9/10.

(*NB: I don’t necessarily mean I “enjoyed” Drive in the typical sense; it’s not exactly a heartwarming or life-affirming affair…)

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AM

– Arctic Monkeys

I broke one of my own music rules with this album: I pre-ordered it. I mean, what’s up with that. I have never understood the point of buying something you haven’t even heard. It’s insane. And insane I was, and too impatient to wait the extra five minutes it would take me to download this on the day of release. I wanted it on my iPod as soon as I woke up!

‘Do I Wanna Know’ made me too excited to wait, and I knew I’d probably end up buying the whole thing anyway, which led me to break one of my own cardinal rules.

It is a much more laid-back affair than the first two albums, which felt like a frantic rush at times. But I love that Arctic Monkeys don’t try to replicate the same magic from album to album, or keep trying to reproduce the same spark that initially made them popular and merely producing pale imitations (cough, Oasis). 

I love the direction of AM, but I do miss the lyrics about waiting in line to get into a dingy Sheffield club. Although I guess that discredits what I’ve just said above. It’s just that I found the topics for much of AM a bit ‘samey’. Surely there must be more in Alex’s superstar life for him to write about other than his attempts at ‘wooing’.

Arctic Monkeys get a toasty 8/10.

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MECHANICAL BULL

– Kings Of Leon

Because of my rash pre-purchase of AM I punished myself by not allowing myself to buy Mechanical Bull, which came out about a week after. I had to put it on my birthday list instead. 

IT WAS SO WORTH THE WAIT. Kings Of Leon are, without doubt, my favourite band. I don’t care how douche-y they are sometimes, I love everything they release – including Come Around Sundown, which even Caleb said he didn’t care for much.

I saw them at the O2 Arena in London earlier this year and it was probably my highlight of 2013, excluding McBusted announcing their formation, but that’s another story. They are so incredible live, and I got to see the first (well, second: there was a show the night before as well) performance of lead single ‘Supersoaker’. (AMAZING!!!!)

I think I love this album too much to properly describe it. I will say that it is more like their first couple of releases than it is the later two, but with added maturity, a bit less screaming, and not quite so impressive headbanging. The latter I believe due to a combination of older age and decent haircuts, folks.

This album gets a totally unbiased score of 9.5/10.

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THE MARSHALL MATHERS LP

– Eminem

2013 was truly the year that I found my inner, repressed street kid.

The Marshall Mathers LP was the only Eminem CD I didn’t have, so, you know…I couldn’t leave it on its own…

The reason I love Eminem’s music so much is for similar reasons that I get excited over Arctic Monkeys, and that is because they deal in damn good lyrics. Songs with pointless or nonsensical lyrics are my biggest pet peeve. I love that Eminem’s songs all have such long verses because he actually has something to say, and isn’t just sending the musical equivalent of a Topshop dress down the production line, so to speak.

I haven’t had this album all that long so haven’t listened to it as much as some of the others, but what’s not to like about cocky, angry, bleach-blonde phase 1 Marshall?

It gets a respectable 8/10.

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So, there we have it. There have been highs, and exceptional lows. And an awful lot of rap. In fact, my iTunes history is a bit of a microcosm of my year in general, really.