Saturday, February 09, 2008

Singer/Songwriter: The Sub-Categories

The phrase/term singer/songwriter is over/used, in/accurate and/utterly bull/shit. It’s time someone speaks up about this. I/think I/ shall. 
There have been very few artists in my generation who deserve to be deemed singer/songwriter and many of them barely qualify in both categories. In my humble opinion here are some artists who make the list: Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Otis Redding, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Billy Joel, Lennon & McCartney, Dolly Parton, Roger Miller, Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen, Janis Ian, Neil Young, Cat Stevens, James Taylor, John Prine – and yes, I am leaving many off the list – probably your favorites. Even within this list of stellar artists many of you will question my choices. Perhaps you can’t stomach the sound of Dylan’s voice – especially in recent years when it sounds as if people dragged a jagged rake over his vocal chords and washed them off with a mixture of coal dust, cheap whiskey and burley tobacco. Well, you are certainly welcome to disagree. 
I suppose at least two questions regarding my thesis are merited: how does one truly define a singer/songwriter and who gave me the license/authority to act as judge/jury? Well, since I started this, let me try to explain my logic.
I’ll answer the second question first. No one gave me this authority; it’s just that I have this web site and I’m free to fill it with my own brand of madness. I’ve also sat with a guitar in my lap and a tablet and pencil on my kitchen table for the past 35 years and have managed, with some great effort, to keep my family fed, clothed and sheltered by making up songs. Along the way I have had the good sense to do everything in my power to keep the moniker ‘singer/songwriter’ detached from my name. I find the term to be both shallow/arrogant and I don’t like it – never have. I do not sing well and my modest success as a person who writes songs arrived ‘on a train bound for nowhere*’ along with carloads full of hard work, heavenly blessings and luck. So, if I had to give myself one of those defining ‘slash phrases’ like singer/songwriter I’d go with something like ‘not a good singer/has written songs.’ 
Now, on to the other question. Singers, I think, should possess, at least, one of two qualities: an exquisite ability to sing or a vocal personality that is compelling. A rare few have both. For example - Every local, oh-so-hip-rag of a free newspaper in every almost-a-city in this wonderful country of ours sells advertisements based primarily on the fact that young people want to know where the music is or need a roommate. Punk had its moment, as did glam-rock, new wave, head-slammer, disco, folk-rock, psychedelic, etc. And now, in the endless cycle of popular music there seems to be great benefit to be considered a singer/songwriter; at least, the large percentage of musical offerings listed in the ‘What and Where To Hear It’ columns in these local rags are of the singer/songwriter category. When photos of these performers are included they tend to have that distant look of torture, confusion, contemplation, surprise, constipation and hopelessness. Very appealing. From what I have heard in recent years, the music these artists offer is reflected in their photos. 
I am of the opinion that the term singer/songwriter needs sub-categories: new, ‘defining titles’ to be given to this host of artists based on their music, persona and performances. Here are some suggestions: 
singer/potential ax murderer
boring/really boring
sings sharp/incapable of using a hammer
lesbian/really pissed off
terrible singer/really bad songwriter
can’t play/can’t sing
amelodic/without a soul
born too late/born too soon
thinks he’s the shit/awful
darkly good-looking/vacuous chamber
potential ax murderer/songwriter
the next Bob Dylan/junkie
oh so hip/idiot
as cool as it gets/never had a job
self involved/unoriginal


Blogger Nick Marcario said...


Funny you should write this today, with the Grammy Awards telecast being tonight. I stopped watching the Grammy's and most other
"award" shows, because in the past 10 years or so, I am hard pressed to find anything worthwhile to see in them. I would much rather spend those 3 or 4 hours listening to real people who write real songs and have real voices. So I reach for my headphones and plug in something to which I can relate. Something with heart, something with meaning. James Taylor has been nominated, but even if he wins, it won't be televised. They give the awards for music I like, off the air. This leaves them more time to show people who dress, act, sing, and speak like complete idiots. Thanks, I feel a little better now.
Nick Marcario

February 10, 2008 at 1:49 PM  
Blogger Thom Schuyler said...

hey nick - thanks for your message. glad you got that off your chest. take 2 old tom waits tracks and call me in the morning. schuyler

February 25, 2008 at 10:53 PM  

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