I’m a huge fan of The Voice, let me say that to begin. The elements of the blind auditions that start each season – the coaches listening to the contestants with their backs turned, the dramatic button pushes that swing the chairs around and the words ‘I Want You’ in lights – are all fabulously show-bizzy.
The show also reminds me of the music business I started in eons ago – when publishers and A&R types listened to tapes that came in and all you’d hear was the sound of the voice and the quality of the song. All this was before Video Killed the Radio Star, of course.
As a fan I follow the press on the show and I read that Season 7 Finale (scheduled for Monday, December 15) is apparently going to include new songs written especially for the show – written, I believe, by Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic. It will be a welcome acknowledgement from the show that songwriters actually do exist.
Why the snark? Because the show’s coaches, mentors, writers, producers and social media outlets consistently refer to the songs performed on the show as though they belonged entirely to the artist who had the biggest or most recent hit record of it.
While I can understand the young contestants making the mistake, I am astonished that even the music professionals confuse the concept of a song and a record. (This is especially surprising in Blake Shelton’s case, since Nashville has succeeded the legendary Brill Building as the home base of the American songwriter.)
Many of the currently charting artists whose songs have been featured on the show this season have been correctly identified as singer-songwriters who write their own material – Sam Smith, Adele, Lorde, and Taylor Swift among them. But these performers all write with collaborators (with whom they happily share credit and royalties I’m sure), and it would be nice to see some awareness on the part of The Voice that these other composers and lyricists actually exist.
The mistake the music professionals make is in almost always identifying a song as ‘belonging’ to an artist. I first noted this in earlier seasons, especially when coaches referred to Patsy Cline’s Crazy and Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You. True, these artists recorded amazing renditions, but the actual songs were written by Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton.
This season’s greatest faux pas for me was coach Pharrell Williams reference when giving one of his contestants “Aretha Franklin’s I Say a Little Prayer for You.” Aretha’s? Not even Dionne Warwicke, who made the original recording? Or any of the more than a hundred or so other artists who recorded the song written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David? Just a reference to Aretha?
The Top Ten Finalists show included a performance of These Dreams, the 80s anthem recorded by Heart that was written by Martin Page and Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s frequent collaborator; only Heart was mentioned. Finalist Damien performed a welcome rendition of She’s Out of My Life, a notable ballad that appeared on Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall” album. The song was written by Tom Bahler, a music business veteran and longtime colleague of Quincy Jones, but on The Voice it was referred to only as Michael Jackson’s.
When I Was Your Man turned out to be a semi-final triumph for Chris Jamison in the competition. It’s a terrific song, with a great lyric and melodic structure, but only Bruno Mars got the mention and not the four songwriters: Andrew Wyatt, Peter Gene Hernandez, Ari Levine & Philip Lawrence.
Actually, Gwen Stefani (who has been a charming addition as coach this season) is the one most likely to blur this distinction between record and song. That was clear when she told her contestant Taylor John Williams “I can’t wait to see what records you write.” Hunh?
(After reading the feature on The Voice in Parade’s December 14 edition, the lack of attention to songwriters is even more puzzling, since both Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani mention how difficult writing a song can be and how it can bring with it a sense of creative power.)
Taylor Swift made a lot of news this year, including her OpEd in The Wall Street Journal, and then the announcment that she was pulling her entire catalogue from one of the music streaming services, partly in objection to the low rate of compensation to the music creators. In a key quote, she said “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for.”
I believe what songwriters do is valuable – and a first step in valuing what they do is acknowledging that they exist. That’s where The Voice has been falling down on the job, and in that failure, the show is contributing to the fantastical notion that singers just make up everything they sing – words, music, arrangements – all magic.
While the end results can sometimes be magic, the process of writing a hit song can be hard work. It’s creative labor, but hard work nevertheless. I’m glad The Voice is finally acknowledging it. Now I hope Ryan Tedder comes up with some great songs.