If you’re a fan of pop music, there’s one response you’re probably used to hearing when asked about your favorite musician: “She doesn’t even write her own music.” It’s a quip usually delivered from the high-horse of someone gearing up to explain what a real musician is, and that musician is most likely a man. “She doesn’t even write her own music” is a phrase many women artists are unfortunately used to hearing — even the most successful ones of the past decade. It’s meant to insult women by diminishing their hard-earned success and it’s a weak argument lacking nuance. Most importantly, it’s one that needs to stop being made.
Earlier this week, the internet’s music discourse was dominated by arguments around Taylor Swift’s songwriting. It was all thanks to a comment made by Gorillaz and Blur vocalist Damon Albarn. He answered a question from the LA Times about Swift’s music by saying, “She doesn’t write her own songs.” After the interviewer challenged his statement, as Swift has songwriting credits on all her music, Albarn back-peddled his comment (and has since apologized “unreservedly and unconditionally”) by clarifying that co-writing “doesn’t count.”
Of course, many flocked to Swift’s support, including Chile’s president-elect Gabriel Boric Font. The singer directly responded to Albarn’s comments by saying they’re “completely false and SO damaging.” Swift does in fact write all her own music. She’s the only credited songwriter on her 2010 Speak Now album, and more than half of the tracks on 2008’s Fearless and 2012’s Red were written by her alone. Albarn’s comments are a way of attempting to dismiss her talent without directly saying so — and Swift is far from the first female pop singer who’s heard the insult. Ariana Grande had to defend her music in 2019 when a writer said she’s “definitely not a songwriter,” calling her a “a cartoon and a creation.” Grande responded by posting screenshots of songwriting conversations with her producer and shared snippets of voice notes on her phone. Even Beyonce isn’t safe from similar accusations and has had industry insiders assume she hasn’t written “any of her records” for years.
While Swift was referencing her own music, her Albarn clap-back summed up why accusing women musicians of not writing their music is so harmful. “You don’t have to like my songs but it’s really f*cked up to try and discredit my writing,” she said, and she’s right on so many levels. Contrary to what many stans on Twitter may declare, not everyone needs to love Swift’s music. But diminishing her songwriting abilities sheds light on the lofty and unrealistic expectations that are already placed on women in pop music. Not only are today’s top pop stars expected to endlessly deliver hit after hit, but they need to be conventionally attractive and dress in the latest fashion every time they leave their house, otherwise face online ridicule in the case an unflattering paparazzi photo leaks (Billie Eilish, anyone?). Women pop artists are also demanded to execute insanely intricate dance choreography on stage while hitting every note perfectly. Sometimes, the pressure of it all can be crippling, like when Dua Lipa admitted she used to get “bullied online” or how Lorde infamously decided to quit social media completely. In addition to unfair standards, when have you heard someone slander a male musician by saying they don’t write their own music? Probably rarely, if never, as it’s an insult hurled almost exclusively at women. People tend not to care that earworm, chart-topping tracks like Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” has four other credited songwriters, or that Harry Styles’ “Watermelon Sugar” was written and composed in collaboration with three others.
Gender aside, today’s pop music is almost always co-written. According to Billboard, only 13 of the 283 songs that have topped their Hot 100 chart since the 21st century have just one credited songwriter. The last time it happened was in 2017 with Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect.” But even Sheeran’s song is a technicality since the actual No. 1 version of “Perfect” was a co-written duet with Beyonce. More often than not, songwriting is a very collaborative process. Per an analysis of the most-streamed songs of 2018, the average number of writers needed to make a song a hit is nine. In pop music in particular, it’s very common for musicians to write music intended for other artists. Ed Sheeran, for example, wrote BTS’ hit song “Permission To Dance,” while SIA has written for and collaborated in songwriting sessions with artists like Rihanna, Adele, and Katy Perry. Even Ciara’s breakout debut single “Goodies” was almost given to Britney Spears.
Glossing over co-written music and mocking a woman for “not writing her own music” also skirts around a much more pressing issue in the music industry: There’s a glaring lack of women songwriters, producers, and engineers. In fact, women made up less than three percent of producers in 2020 and only 12.5 percent of songwriters according to Forbes. Less than one percent of songs released last year had female-only writers. So, maybe instead of insulting women musicians for inviting co-writers into the studio, we should instead actively foster gender equality in the industry — or at least support organizations who do.
There’s still a long way to go before gender equality is achieved behind-the-scenes in the music industry. But until then, belittling women musicians for the very-common act of co-writing music certainty doesn’t help anyone. It’s time we retire the chauvinistic phrase, “She doesn’t write her own music” as an insult and instead find more nuanced ways to discuss subjective music tastes. It’s fine to not like Top 40’s pop artists, but don’t discredit the around-the-clock work it takes to become a pop star — because it’s by no means an easy job.
Some of the artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.