She writes the songs: Recognizing the art of female songwriting

The music industry undervalues female identified songwriters, which is not surprising since our society undervalues women. Though composer-performers like Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Laura Nyro, as well as songwriters in country music (e.g. Dolly Parton, Cindy Walker, Tammy Wynette) and jazz (Peggy Lee, Abbey Lincoln),  have inspired tribute albums female musicians are primarily viewed as vocalists. When jazz vocalist Cleo Laine released Woman to Woman in 1988, it stood out because it was comprised of songs written entirely by women. Though she noted in the liner notes that there was no shortage of songs to choose from, critics, historians, and audiences view composing primarily as a male occupation. Interpretive singers in a variety of genres cover songs by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, George and Ira Gershwin, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Randy Newman, Stevie Wonder, John Hiatt, and Bruce Springsteen so frequently that it is never remarked upon unless it is a conceptual project by a female singer. For example, Tori Amos’s Strange Little Girls (2001) and Leann Rimes’s Lady and Gentlemen (2011) albums both flipped genders. Audiences seem to accept passively the idea that male songwriting lens are somehow universal, but this is patently false and distorted. Because of this perception female writers struggle for visibility and affirmation.   

 

Brenda Russell, composer of "If Only for One Night" and "Piano in the Dark," is among pop music's most gifted yet unheralded songwriters. In addition to pop songs she has also written music for the musical version of The Color Purple and soundtracks.

Brenda Russell, composer of "If Only for One Night" and "Piano in the Dark," is among pop music's most gifted yet unheralded songwriters. In addition to pop songs she has also written music for the musical version of The Color Purple and soundtracks.

Intrinsic to these issues is whether there is something distinctly gendered about songs, if not in the music, then in the stories they tell. I am less concerned with literal anthems like Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” or Chaka Khan’s hit “I’m Every Woman” than subtler material. This is a difficult issue because while it’s incredibly essentialist to label a chord progression as “masculine” or “feminine,” especially since these notions are constructs, we can more easily tie gender to certain kinds of lyrics.  Female identified people are more likely to experience certain things socially, and female produced art reflects this reality. For example, we believe the multitude of singers who have interpreted the French ballad “My Man (Mon Homme)” (largely associated with Billie Holiday) because domestic violence against women is so prevalent. Similarly, while sexual assault affects people of multiple genders, it is (sadly) predictable that two female composers, Lady Gaga and Diane Warren, wrote the song “Til It Happens to You” as the anthem to the 2015 documentary The Hunting Ground, about sexual assault in higher education, which affects women disproportionately.

 

Pop music is rarely as vulnerable and feminist in its sensibilities as the searing material on Cash's classic 1990 album. 

Pop music is rarely as vulnerable and feminist in its sensibilities as the searing material on Cash's classic 1990 album. 

Slightly less severe, but still relevant, are the sexual dynamics of intimate relationships. Rosanne Cash’s 1990 album Interiors, largely organized around her troubled married Rodney Crowell, has some of the most searing songs, musically and lyrically, in the contemporary folk-country canon. On “Dance with the Tiger” when she sings “Don’t give me your life/It was a brilliant idea inventing the home/Creatures of habit, American fools/Reaching for the stars while we’re standing on stools” the strains of idyllic American domesticity resonate. Though a man co-wrote the song, and might weigh in on marital challenges, the song feels even more poignant when juxtaposed with “Real Live Woman.” Here, she rejects her perceived role, as subservient to a man’s success and sings (probably to Crowell, who co-wrote the song!) “I don’t want to be a man/I just want to be what I am/I don’t want to hide my light so yours keeps shining.” I can only imagine the dinner table conversation about this song, but its premise is distinctly feminine in perspective.

 

Williams's 1988 album featured songs later covered by Mary Chapin-Carpenter, Tom Petty, Emmylou Harris, and Patty Loveless, among others.

Williams's 1988 album featured songs later covered by Mary Chapin-Carpenter, Tom Petty, Emmylou Harris, and Patty Loveless, among others.

I hear similar experiential richness in in Lucinda Williams’s “Passionate Kisses” which was a Grammy winning hit for Mary Chapin-Carpenter in 1992. Women typically push society to view them complexly, hence the protagonist’s plea, “Is it too much to demand/I want a full house/And a rock and roll band.” I cannot imagine a male–identified person singing these verses because women bear the burden of child raising and managing their homes. They deserve the chance to also rock out. What moves me about this song is its plaintive affirmation of women as complete human beings, not just mothers or wives. Similarly, country composer-performer K.T. Oslin, who I have written about previously, has a knack for telling poignant truths about her experience. In 1988’s “This Woman” she is unapologetic about nomadic sexuality, “This woman’s in love with you baby/This woman don’t think you can do no wrong/But I feel it’s only fair to warn you/This woman don’t stay in love long.” 2001’s “Live Close by Visit Often” is equally honest in its jocular and jaundiced declaration, “I'm not lookin’ for a husband/Found out the hard way it doesn't work for me/I need a friend/I want a lover/I have to be alone occasionally.”

 

Ida' Cox's 1924 composition "Wild Women" is still covered by musicians in the 21st century.

Ida' Cox's 1924 composition "Wild Women" is still covered by musicians in the 21st century.

Though we primarily associate the singer-songwriter era with the 1970s era onward women have voiced their distinct experiences for over a century.  For example, Bessie Smith’s’ classic migration tale, 1923’s “Far Away Blues,” speaks of black women migrating to the Chicago area only to miss certain elements of the South. “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues” first written and performed by classic blues singer Ida Cox in 1924 encouraged women to have fun independently of their relationships, which was unique in the 1920s. Maria Muldaur covered Smith’s song in 2001, and Francine Reed and Saffire The Uppity Blues Women are among the many who have interpreted “Wild Women.” In both instances, a classic message of female experience transcended a single era.

 

International superstar Gloria Estefan has written almost all of her material over her 30+  years musical career.

International superstar Gloria Estefan has written almost all of her material over her 30+  years musical career.

Because so many people associate female musicians with vocal performance many may not realize that famous vocalists, such as Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, Madonna, Gloria Estefan, Mariah Carey, Adele, have written or co-written many, or most, of their recorded output. This does not make them inherently superior to non-writing singers, nor does it necessarily qualify them as feminists. But, it’s possible that the next hit you hear is written by a woman who is writing from a specific, rather than generically “universal” place; one that may require you to listen more intently.

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DeShannon has written many of pop music's most beloved songs including "Bette Davis Eyes," "Put a Little Love in Your Heart," "Needles & Pins," and "When You Walk in the Room," among others.

DeShannon has written many of pop music's most beloved songs including "Bette Davis Eyes," "Put a Little Love in Your Heart," "Needles & Pins," and "When You Walk in the Room," among others.

30 highly recommended albums for further listening featuring exclusive, or predominantly, female-authored songs, include the following:

1.      The Delta Sweetie (1968), Bobbie Gentry

2.      Eli & the 13th Confession (1968), Laura Nyro

3.      Tapestry (1971), Carole King

4.      Court & Spark (1973), Joni Mitchell

5.      The Changer & the Changed (1975), Cris Williamson

6.      Gail Davies (1978), Gail Davies

7.      Rickie Lee Jones (1979), Rickie Lee Jones

8.      The Wanderer (1980), Donna Summer

9.      This Woman (1988), K.T. Oslin

10.  Lucinda Williams (1988), Lucinda Williams

11.  Woman to Woman (1988), Cleo Laine

12.  Porcelain (1989), Julia Fordham

13.  Have You Seen Me Lately? (1990), Carly Simon

14.  Heartbeats Accelerating (1990), Kate & Anna McGarrigle

15.  Interiors (1990), Rosanne Cash

16.  You Gotta Pay the Band (1990), Abbey Lincoln

17.  Ingénue (1992), k.d. lang

18.  Diva (1992), Annie Lennox

19.  Maiden Voyage (1998), Nnenna Freelon

20.  The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998), Lauryn Hill

21.  Bitter (1999), Me’shell N’degeocello

22.  Come And Get Me: Jackie DesShannon Best Of...1958-1980 (2000), Jackie DeShannon

23.  Words & Music, Volume 1 (2000), Jill Scott

24.  M!ssundaztood, (2001), P!nk

25.  Tropical Brainstorm (2001), Kristy MacColl

26.  Ultimate Collection: Brenda Russell (2001), Brenda Russell

27.  Verse (2002), Patricia Barber

28.  Essential Dolly Parton (2005), Dolly Parton

29.  I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise (2005), Bettye LaVette

30.  Saffire: The Uppity Blues Women: Deluxe Edition (2006), Saffire: The Uppity Blues Women

 

Jazz singer Cleo Lain's 1988 album features interpretations of songs written by female composers inclduing Blossom Dearie, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, and Melissa Manchester, among others.

Jazz singer Cleo Lain's 1988 album features interpretations of songs written by female composers inclduing Blossom Dearie, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, and Melissa Manchester, among others.

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