The "genius" behind women who write their own music and the men who feel the need to comment on it
Anyone else forget about Damon Albarn until earlier today? The English musician, of Blur and Gorillaz fame, made headlines earlier today for comments about both Taylor Swift and Billie Eilish.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Albarn is quoted saying Swift "doesn't write her own songs." When pressed, he went on to say:
That doesn’t count. I know what co-writing is. Co-writing is very different to writing. I’m not hating on anybody, I’m just saying there’s a big difference between a songwriter and a songwriter who co-writes. Doesn’t mean that the outcome can’t be really great. And some of the greatest singers—I mean, Ella Fitzgerald never wrote a song in her life. When I sing, I have to close my eyes and just be in there. I suppose I’m a traditionalist in that sense. A really interesting songwriter is Billie Eilish and her brother [Finneas]. I’m more attracted to that than to Taylor Swift. It’s just darker—less endlessly upbeat. Way more minor and odd. I think she’s exceptional.
Boy oh boy, where do we start? Of course I am perhaps Taylor Swift's biggest fan, so much so that even casual acquaintances know to ask me for my opinion any time she makes the news or releases a song. I'm also not a fan of Blur. So yeah, I'm going to be biased, both by my tastes but also by the body I exist in day in and day out. I am a woman who could lament for days about the bizarre way in which female songwriters and performers are discussed. The false equivalencies, the compulsion to degrade talent, and most concerning of all the borderline predatory nature with which some grown people in the music industry talk about very young women and girls.
For starters, we all know Taylor Swift writes 100% of her own songs. That's the whole reason why she's re-releasing the majority of her catalogue right now: Because she wants ownership of words she's penned herself. To make sure Albarn (and the entire world) knows what's what, Taylor took to Twitter this afternoon with the following:
To be fair, is the snippet from the LA Times removed from a little bit of context for the purpose of clickbait? Yes, but it's also the same essence of the statement made. Boiled down, apparently if some of your music is happy or earnest or traditional pop in nature, you're a "co-writer" who is uninteresting. Look, if you hate pop music just say that. We can have a conversation another time about how much of that belief is rooted in misogyny, too, but for now we'll cap it.
I won't mince my words here: There is a cultural problem with older men viewing women in the music industry as either vapid fuck-toy unworthy of praise or a weird, barely-legal genius who can be taken advantage of. We see this issue over and over again. In fact, before she was in her 30s and essentially being called a hack, every older man in the entertainment industry was clawing to tell Taylor Swift how talented she was.
Back in 2008 when Taylor Swift was a literal teenager, John Mayer is quoted as saying she "is an anomaly, and they only make a few Taylor Swifts every decade." In another interview, he said, "She's just strange, in all the most beautiful ways...just doesn't belong to this universe type of person. She's just that good."
If you're read up on your 2000s pop culture history, what soon followed was a brief romantic relationship between then-19-year-old Taylor Swift and then-32-year-old John Mayer. For context, it's now been over a decade since the two dated and Taylor only just turned 32. While there's nothing technically illegal about that age gap, you can't tell me an age gap like that doesn't function on its fair share of predatory behavior. Plus, there's nothing sexy about having to remind yourself and those around you that your relationship is technically legal.
The two met after Mayer asked Swift to feature on the song "Half Of My Heart," and whilst promoting the song and his album Battle Studies, was superfluous in his praise of Taylor's merit and genius. What followed? A breakup, followed by Taylor's third album Speak Now, which, oh by the way features not a single co-writer.
The album's fifth track, not-so-subtly titled "Dear John," laments on the relationship shared between Mayer and Swift, asking the question "Don't you think nineteen's too young to be messed with?" Once Taylor used her skill to turn against the well-intentioned more experienced nice guy who saw something special in her, she was apparently no longer the unique genius said nice guy thought she was.
I will say as a songwriter that I think it’s kind of cheap songwriting. I know she’s the biggest thing in the world, and I’m not trying to sink anybody’s ship, but I think it’s abusing your talent to rub your hands together and go, ‘Wait till he gets a load of this!’ That’s bullshit.
Just so we're clear, John, she was an anomaly when you were trying to fuck her, but it's cheap songwriting when she decides she no longer wants to? Got it.
Part of the reason, I believe, why Taylor Swift's reputation is tarnished is because she's made it clear that she takes ownership of her experiences. She has demonstrated to the John Mayers of the world that she has a point of view that holds weight, so as a result? She's a victim. She's a man hater. She's a serial dater who uses and abuses men who any guy would be foolish to touch. It's almost more succinct to just tell the misogynistic truth and say what you mean: She's too old and too smart, so you've removed her from your "impressionable, shiny, and new" bucket and put her into your "frigid, crazy cat lady" bucket.
To modernize the issue and bring things full circle, Billie Eilish appears to now be the new thing. Grammy darling and bedroom musician Billie Eilish has garnered quite a bit of legitimate praise for her dark experimental alt-pop sound. While I'm not really a fan, I do recognize that she has had a meteoric rise to fame while making music that is notably different from everything else on the radio. I've also noticed that she is somehow the new favorite artist of the John Mayer and Damon Albarn types.
The compliments are self-serving in the sense that there's always a tone of "I know better as a tenured professional and I have objectively good taste. I'm so generous to notice that this teenage girl is talented. Look how good and all-knowing I am for discovering what her peers have known for a while. What is my prize for correctly identifying that this young woman is smart and talented?"
Similarly, Ryan Adams (who, as an aside, thought Taylor Swift was such a genius that he did a bizarre cover of her entire 1989 album), came under fire in 2019 when the New York Times released an exposé on his rampant sexual misconduct in the entertainment industry. Part of the article details how he approached Phoebe Bridgers (now a household name, but at the time an indie singer-songwriter) with admiration and the promise of studio time.
Adams had her perform a song and said he was blown away, comparing her to Bob Dylan, Bridgers recalled. Adams gave her a pricey vintage guitar, she said, and told her to return to record with him the next day.
Beguiled by Adams’s energy and enthusiasm, Bridgers brought her best songs. Adams proposed putting them out as a 7-inch vinyl single on his label, setting her on a professional path. But as they discussed the record, Adams started sending Bridgers flirty texts, she said, and a whirlwind romance commenced. Bridgers said the singer began discussing marriage less than a week into their relationship, and insisted that she open for him on his European tour in a few weeks — “a golden pillar of success,” she recalled.
Adams told Bridgers’s mother that it was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to have someone like him looking out for her. Yet in the weeks that followed, Adams’s attention turned obsessive and emotionally abusive, Bridgers said. He began barraging her with texts, insisting that she prove her whereabouts, or leave social situations to have phone sex, and threatening suicide if she didn’t reply immediately.
When she broke off the relationship, Bridgers said, Adams became evasive about releasing the music they had recorded together and rescinded the offer to open his upcoming concerts.
When three songs by Bridgers were eventually released by Pax-Am in April 2015, bringing her serious industry attention, the media gave Adams credit for her nascent career.
Listen, I'm not saying older men aren't allowed to be fans of young women, but notice how many talented women in the industry don't receive the precious ingénue treatment because they are fat or not white or make music that is hyper-feminine. When the praise borders on idolatry and is targeted almost exclusively toward traditionally beautiful female artists of a certain age, I worry that it's a tad predatory. This is especially true when these men are senior in the industry and somehow manage to turn their praise into romantic advances. It's the classic "nice guy" notion of appearing kind or generous with the ultimate goal of personal gain. So in conclusion, I love when men love Taylor Swift. There's nothing hotter to me than a guy telling me "Phoebe Bridgers is so talented." I respect when guys vibe to Billie Eilish. I'm simply asking if these much older dudes can just buy these womens' records and let that be enough.