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Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Reclaiming Taylor Swift’s Songwriting Genius

Caitlin Wilson tackles Damon Albarn's controversial recent criticism of Taylor Swift's songwriting abilities.

On Tuesday 25th of January 2022, Blur and Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn woke up and chose violence – or at the very least, a monumental dragging on Twitter. Albarn, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, was asked by journalist Mikael Wood if he thought modern musicians relied on ‘sound and attitude’ over true talent. Wood, answering Albarn’s call to name a musician who is more than a slick surface, stated ‘Taylor Swift is an excellent songwriter’, to which Albarn replied – ‘she doesn’t write her own songs’. Thus began – or rather, re-started – a conversation about the state of modern pop songwriting.

It seems wilfully ignorant for a musician to not know of Taylor Swift’s commitment to writing her own material. Swift is no stranger to these kinds of accusations – her 2010 album Speak Now was entirely self-written, in part, she said, to prove her songwriting prowess to the naysayers. But this was over ten years, three Album of the Year Grammy’s and several dozen awards for songwriting ago. US Bookies has done the maths; 30% of Taylor Swift’s songs were written by her alone, and the remaining 70% feature her as a co-writer. Drake and Justin Bieber, on the contrary, have written none of their songs alone.

Albarn’s mistake raises the question; why would a fellow musician and songwriter make a claim so easily disproven? Is it possible he didn’t know that Swift famously pens her own tracks? If so, why would he assume she relied on co-writers to bolster them? And why would he then go on to credit Billie Eillish with talent and acknowledge that her brother co-writes with her in the same breath?

I think part of what attracts the distancing of self-professed ‘real’ musicians from Swift’s body of work is that she makes it look easy. Swift doesn’t use alternate tunings or 5/4 time signature – she uses relatively simple chords, lyrics drawn from her feelings and melodies simple enough to stick in your mind. But all of this requires a level of openness and creativity that shouldn’t be dismissed. Albarn also called Swift’s music ‘relentlessly upbeat’, a charge that only makes sense if you’ve exclusively heard her singles from 2012 to 2019. All this in mind, it’s difficult not to attribute Albarn’s scorn to the kind of subtle misogyny feminine acts like Taylor Swift frequently attract.

In classic Twitter-stan form, Swift fans took to posting the lyrics to Blur’s ‘Song 2’, ostensibly to discredit Albarn’s own songwriting abilities. Albarn defenders returned fire with lyrics to Swift’s hit ‘Shake It Off’, a high-pop anthem that rose to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2014. Neither of these tactics really get at the heart of the matter, funny though they were to witness. The repeated ‘woo hoo’s’ and ‘players gonna play, play, play’s’ of each respective song have their place in pop music, alongside the greater depth of lyrics like ‘so casually cruel in the name of being honest’ in Swift’s critically acclaimed ‘All Too Well’. What is truly important to highlight is that Albarn’s own contributions to his songs have never been in question, whereas Swift is constantly asked to prove that she pulls her own weight.

Ultimately, everyone thinks the soundtrack to their coming of age is the greatest era of music. My writing this article is likely prompted by memories of singing along to ‘Fearless’ on the way to school and belting out ‘Love Story’ with my friends on the oval. But there are great musicians in every generation, brilliant songwriters who distil our experiences with love, heartbreak, fun and fury into notes and words that carry us through our days. It’s easy to be cynical about newer music, to discount younger generations by lifting up ourselves and our tastes. Acknowledging this bias, however, does not negate the hurt men like Albarn cause when they attempt to poke holes in the validity of female songwriters like Taylor Swift.

Swift’s tweet expressing her disappointment in Albarn’s words now has over 716,000 likes, and provoked a pseudo-apology from the man himself. For all I’m sure Albarn wishes this erased the firestorm he perhaps unknowingly stoked, his words have resonated beyond the Swiftie inner-circle, sounding all too familiar to any woman whose abilities have been questioned. In the words of Taylor herself, ‘people throw rocks at things that shine’.

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