WRITERS IN FORMATION
Does Beyoncé Write Her Own Music? And Does It Really Matter?
Years of controversy over whether Beyoncé actually writes her songs are back given the news that 72 people helped her write ‘Lemonade.’ Welcome to the new reality of music in 2016.
It takes a village to raise a music god.
On Beyoncé’s new album Lemonade, already a religious work for its legion of worshippers, that village is populated by dozens of the industry’s most in-demand producers and no less than 72 writers, including James Blake, The Weeknd, Jack White, and, um, Led Zeppelin.
In fact, scrolling through the liner notes of Lemonade turns your browser into its own endless Star Wars crawl, with each song dutifully ticking off every producer, writer, and writer/owner of any sample used on the tracks. The result is that, in “Hold Up,” for example, there are a whopping 15 writers credited.
But the name that appears most often, and for every track: Beyoncé.
Despite what recent memes might suggest, this is actually quite normal, especially among today’s biggest music acts. Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo has over 100 writers. Rihanna’s Anti has over 30. And Drake’s Views, which came out Friday, has over 40 writers. Like he admits in “Big Rings”: “I got a really big team.”
Even Taylor Swift, the “at least she writes her own songs” girl, brought in a team of writers and producers to help complete the transformation from country tween to pop queen. Adele enlisted the help of 11 writers for 25. Neither approaches the village of authors and composers that populate Lemonade, Life of Pablo, Anti, or Views—all of which are still reflective of an artist’s voice and vision. But it speaks to the truth of the way the industry’s top artists create their music today: by committee.
So why is Beyoncé and her industry-norm practice bearing the brunt of the Internet’s outrage over the amount of writers on her songs?
Part of the umbrage with the idea that Beyoncé is a “singular genius” stems from a long history of being attacked for the amount of writers she uses—especially when you compare the dance floor-ready chant lyrics of her club hits compared to some of the more literary lyrics from singer-songwriters, or the more famous examples of artists who exclusively write their own songs. (Bruce Springsteen, Beck, and Prince, for example.)
But another reason is optics. Drake may laud his “really big team.” Beyoncé tends to laud… Beyoncé.
Daniel D’Addario, then writing for Salon, chronicled this pretty thoroughly in a 2013 piece calling out all the times Beyoncé talked about “writing” songs that she, at best, co-wrote with limited contribution.
“You know when I was writing the Destiny’s Child songs, it was a big thing to be that young and taking control,” she said in a GQ cover story. As D’Addario points out, despite her use of “I,” there is not a single song over Destiny’s Child’s existence that she wrote herself.
A 2005 Fox News piece by Roger Friedman put on blast another quote Beyoncé had given to Vanity Fair, again misusing the word “I.”
“‘Crazy in Love’ was really hard to write because there was so much going on… I mean, I had written—what?—seven, eight number one songs with Destiny’s Child, in a row?” But as Friedman wrote, Beyoncé didn’t technically write the song. She barely co-wrote it.
It was heavily sampled from a song written by Eugene Record, of the Chi-Lites, and recorded in 1969. Hip-hop producer Rich Harrison turned it into a sample. Jay Z added the rap. And Bey added… something.
The rumblings turned into a bit of media uproar when legendary songwriter Linda Perry, the former frontwoman of 4 Non Blondes and hitmaker for the likes of Pink and Christina Aguilera, was asked in a Reddit Ask Me Anything a very pointed question about Queen B: “Linda, how do you feel about Beyoncé changing one word on a song and getting writing credit. Does that bother you as a songwriter?”
Perry’s response managed, somehow, to be both generous and biting. Corrected for grammar: “Well haha um that’s not songwriting but some of these artists believe if it wasn’t for them your song would never get out there so they take a cut just because they are who they are. But everyone knows the real truth about Beyoncé. She is talented but in a completely different way.”
In a tweet that’s since been deleted, Frank Ocean echoed Perry’s comments. “It’s a bad trend that artists try to muscle for credits on songs they had no part in writing,” he said. “Writers just say no UNLESS it’s Beyoncé lol.”
Cut to Ocean years later writing the song “I Miss You” for Beyoncé’s 4 album. And, yep, Beyoncé also has a credit.
Explanations for Beyoncé’s simultaneously prolific and questionable record as a songwriter—she receives a credit on nearly every original song she’s performed, but never the solo credit—range from the singer negotiating false attributions to, as Friedman suggests, taking credit for licensing a sample or individualizing a previously written song.
“‘Writing’ a song has new meaning,” he says. “It means ‘licensing’ the song from another writer.”
If it’s a matter of muscling her way into the liner notes, how much does she—or any artist, for that matter—have to contribute before she earns the recognition? What kind of “writing” is she actually doing, if there’s this so-called open secret that she’s not doing much at all?
Some of it is intangible, and has to do with the feel of a song.
R&B star Ne-Yo famously wrote Beyoncé’s number one hit “Irreplaceable,” which Bey eventually received co-writing notices on. She had, true to past behavior, been on a circuit giving interviews about when “I” wrote the song, sending steam out the ears of those in the industry who knew that it was written by Ne-Yo and then given to her.
But in a 2012 interview with radio show The Breakfast Club, Ne-Yo explained—shaking his head, and clearly in distress over the question—that the song he wrote and the song Beyoncé recorded were “two damn totally different songs, with all the harmonies and extra stuff that she put in there.”
“So yeah I gave her writer’s credit,” he continued. “Because that counts. That’s writing.” In summary: “She put her spin on it.”
Ryan Tedder, the OneRepublic frontman and red-hot songwriter for Leona Lewis (“Bleeding Love”), Adele (“Rumour Has It”), and Beyoncé (“Halo” and “XO”), said similar things to Ne-Yo.
Talking about whether Beyoncé deserved writing credit on “Halo,” which again came to her more or less fully-formed, he said, “She does stuff on any given song that, when you go from the demo to the final version, takes it to another level that you never would have thought of as the writer.”
He went on: “For instance, on ‘Halo,’ that bridge on her version is completely different to my original one. Basically she came in, ditched that, edited it, did her vocal thing on it and now it’s became one of my favorite parts of the song. The whole melody, she wrote it spontaneously in the studio. So her credit on that song stems from that.”
But the whole debate reached a fever pitch in 2007 when Beyoncé, who was listed as co-writer of the song “Listen” from her film Dreamgirls, was removed from the list of writers when the song eventually was nominated for Best Original Song.
Exhausted by ballooning songwriting credits on nominated songs—the Counting Crows’ “Accidentally in Love” from Shrek 2 had seven—the Academy ruled that only three writers could be counted as nominees, and others that gave the least contribution to the song would be cut. “Listen” had four writers. It was Beyoncé who was cut.
Maybe she contributed… something. But whatever it was wasn’t ruled substantial enough to make her an Oscar nominee, fanning the flames of the debate.
Those flames burned bright years later when the Beyoncé single “Drunk in Love” surged on the music charts, heavily referencing the track “Good Morning” that Future wrote with producer Detail. Yet when “Drunk in Love” debuted as part of the surprise release of Beyoncé, Future didn’t have a songwriting credit. But Beyoncé did.
Eventually, Detail addressed the whole thing, saying, “Beyoncé is a phenomenal writer. Oh yeah, by the way, she pretty much wrote everything on the song. I came in with the music and I had the idea about drunk situations. She helped build it and turned it into this massive thing.”
So here we have a career of controversies surrounding Beyoncé’s own songwriting credits, and a career of her co-writers (in most case, main writers) defending her contributions.
It makes sense that in this state of culture, this Culture of Controversy, that these kinds of scandals and debates are waged more violently than ever, never bloodier than when Lemonade was released with its 70-plus writers.
But it doesn’t make sense in terms of the state of music in 2016.
It’s a state of music where, sure, Beyoncé, Kanye West, Drake, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, and essentially ever major music star can say “I wrote” in reference to songs where their contributions might not merit that turn of phrase. Maybe that’s to ensure royalties. Maybe that’s because they licensed rights. Or maybe that’s because they literally contributed a worthy amount.
But it’s also a state of music that has, while still respecting them, evolved past the anomalies of the Springsteens, Becks, and Princes who write all their own songs by themselves. It’s a state of music that fosters collaboration, in a manner that art always has.
Sia, Bruno Mars, Ne-Yo, Kesha—they all started out writing songs for other artists, and being associated with those artists proved integral in launching their own solo careers. There are countless other artists who can say the same. And even music superstars in their own right stand to gain by partnering with other major musicians, whether it’s Fun.’s Jack Antonoff writing for Taylor Swift, Mars writing for Adele, Kendrick Lamar for Kanye West, or Jack White and The Weeknd for Beyoncé.
Poet Warshan Shire is now a household name thanks to her contributions to the Lemonade visual album. The game-changing TED talk from Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie became the viral sensation it deserved to be because Beyoncé sampled it on “Flawless.”
A 2014 Associated Press article attempted to explain the phenomenon of a multitude of songwriters for hit pop songs: “Some of today’s hits with a list of songwriters that scroll on and on include others who don’t physically write lyrics: Writing credit can also be earned by producers who design the beats, artists who sing the song and add their own flavor, engineers who mix the track and others who work specifically on the melody.”
Sampling matters, too. Use a piece of an old song in your new one, and those writers also get credits. (This is especially prevalent in Lemonade.)
This isn’t an argument for songwriters not to fight for the rights to their materials and for fair ownership and credit of their songs. But it is a suggestion that, in our shock over the songwriterpalooza it took to make some Lemonade, we’re ignoring the truth about how music today is created.
Does Beyoncé forfeit her claim to being a singular artist, a performer, and creator in control over her discography, her message, and her output because she enlisted other creatives to put her album together? Does Lemonade become less personal, less specifically Beyoncé, knowing that some songs had more than 10 writers contributing to them?
Lemonade is a deeply profound and unilateral work in line with an artist’s vision, even if others helped her realize it. This is what authorship means in 2016. You’re not the lone writer holed up in a cabin in the woods, honing your work. You’re creating in—and with—the village.