Sunday, July 11, 2010

Change a word, get a third

Rumors have been swirling that Beyonce takes credit for writing songs that she doesn't deserve. Again.

In an interview with Bossip posted yesterday, producer Bangladesh hints at the singer's stake in the songwriting process:

“The people outside looking in, they wanna know if she writes her own songs or if she ain’t. At the end of the day, she’s on a level where things are handed to her; people wanna be a part of what she’s doing. She either wrote it, or she can put her name on it – it doesn’t matter because that’s the boss you are.”

Though he doesn't say it outright, his take on Beyonce's involvement in songwriting is more than a little reminiscent of the reports that she took credit for songs as far back as Bootylicious. To add to the long-simmering controversy (though I'm not sure it should be labeled as such, since people would actually have to care about these stories to make them controversial), Ne-Yo and Chrisette Michelle have both gone to the press to assert themselves after Beyonce claimed to have written "Irreplaceable" and "Ego," respectively. The singer Des'ree sued her after Beyonce recorded the song "I'm Kissing You" without her permission, and it has been rumored that Beyonce tried to get copywriting credits for her covers of Alanis Morrisette's "You Oughta Know" and Sarah McLachlan's "Angel."

This news should surprise no one, since people other than Beyonce have been doing the same thing for years. Plenty of rap artists, members of a genre that prides itself on organic skill, have been accused of the same--Drake and Lil Wayne, for example, are rumored to use ghostwriters on the majority, if not the entirety, of their albums. I've read elsewhere that Prince did the same for "Kiss." The saying "change a word, get a third" has been running around songwriting circles since the birth of the recording industry, and as unethical as the practice is, owning a share of the songwriting credits allows an artist to make much more money than they would normally. With regard to Beyonce, it seems a bit more redundant to muscle her way into a song; she has so many other moneymaking ventures that it's impossible to use the "struggling artist" argument for why she would want a larger cut. It's entirely possible, though, that the bottom line is the sole reason; I wouldn't be surprised, given that manager/stage dad Matthew Knowles has long had an interest in advancing his daughter's career over anyone else's (examples: all incarnations of Destiny's Child).

There appears to be a premium placed on songwriting abilities; it seems to legitimize the artist more than any singing or dancing ability can. It's a bit puzzling to me, especially since there has been a long tradition within the music world of covering and re-covering songs. And if you're already head an shoulders above the competition in other areas, why should it matter? It's not as though Beyonce is the Spice Girls, who I remember catching a great deal of flak for allegedly not writing any of their songs (and let's be real--they definitely didn't write any of those tracks.) Beyonce could easily focus on being an amazing performer, give her songwriters the credit they deserve, and still leave a proud legacy. If what she wants is to attain/maintain legend status, she could just as easily take a song and make it so much her own that regardless of who originally wrote it, people think of her first--see Hendrix's version of "All Along the Watchtower," Jeff Buckley's version of "Hallelujah," Eric Clapton's version of "Layla," and every Cole Porter song that Ella Fitzgerald recorded.

(As an aside: I actually want Katy Perry to start doing this. Her covers of Fountains of Wayne's "Hackensack" and MGMT's "Electric Feel" are both great, but the lyrical content of her actual songs never really elicit more than a "meh" from me.)

I'm sure the real motivation here is money. Matthew Knowles more than likely just wants to make as much off of the industry as he can, as quickly as he can. And it may have been necessary to get ahead back in the "No, No, No" days, but at this point, Beyonce really doesn't need to pretend to be any sort of talented songwriter--the gifts that she possesses already are more than enough.

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