Opinion

Taylor Swift, Phoebe Bridgers, and Rihanna: How women took over songwriting

We're living in the golden age of women songwriters

As with many other forms of human endeavor, men have dominated musical composition in the Western world. This includes everything from classical music to various forms of musical theater, rhythm and blues, jazz, the American "standards," and folk music.

The pattern of male dominance continued well into the rock 'n' roll era as well. Within a few years of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones bursting on the scene, Joni Mitchell and Carole King had made an important and lasting mark. But they were hugely outnumbered by the boys. The list is so long it almost seems foolish to attempt typing it out: John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Marvin Gaye, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Elton John and Bernie Taupin, Jackson Browne, Neil Young, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Tom Petty, Michael Jackson, Elvis Costello, Prince — and on and on.

But this is no longer the case. Just as women have made enormous strides in closing the gap with men in nearly every field from which they were formerly excluded, so they've also caught up when it comes to songwriting. But they haven't just matched their male peers; they've actually leaped ahead of them to take over the top ranks of pop songwriting in terms of quality, quantity, and longevity.

It's long past time we recognize the achievement.

Standing behind this judgment, first and foremost, is the looming presence of Taylor Swift, a songwriting force of nature. Swift wrote or co-wrote all the songs on her debut album, released in 2006, when she was just 16 years old, and she's been gaining confidence and proficiency ever since, with her popularity, artistry, and productivity reaching astonishing levels over the past two-and-a-half years. How astonishing? In the 16 months between August 2019 and December 2020, she released three complete albums of new material containing a total of 53 songs.

Swift is also deep into the process of re-recording much of her back catalogue in order to dilute the value of the original records. (Since 2019, she's been embroiled in a dispute over ownership of the original masters of her first six albums.) Two of these have been released so far — Fearless and Red — and they have each included six previously unreleased ("from the vault") tracks, bringing the total number of "new" songs Swift has put out over the past 28 months to 65.

But she's not just surpassing the competition in terms of quantity. Her 2019 album, Lover, was a glossy record packed with insanely catchy technicolor pop songs. Then came the pandemic and scuttled plans for a concert tour. That inspired Swift to turn inward as a songwriter. The result was the two most mature and artistically accomplished records of her career: Folklore and Evermore, released just five months apart. Their 34 songs, most of them collaborations with The National's Aaron Dessner or producer Jack Antonoff, deployed restrained, atmospheric indie-rock arrangements in support of Swift's lyrical explorations of character, love, and personal conflict. Where she goes from here is anyone's guess, but we have every reason to think the still only 31-year-old songwriter will be an incredibly formidable presence on the music scene for a long time to come.

Which doesn't mean there isn't plenty of room for other women at or near the top, judged by standards of creativity, commercial appeal, or both.

As I noted in a column over the summer, rock performers typically peak early and then go into artistic decline by the time they hit their 40s. But recent releases by Aimee Mann (61) and Tori Amos (58) stand as exceptions to the rule. Mann, who enjoyed early commercial success as the lead singer and songwriter for the new wave band Til Tuesday during the mid-1980s, has released a string of consistently first-rate records every few years since the early 1990s. Her latest, Queens of the Summer Hotel, released earlier this month, is an artistic triumph — a moving song cycle about mental illness inspired by the novel Girl, Interrupted and graced by intricate, baroque arrangements featuring piano, strings, and woodwinds.

Amos' latest release, Ocean to Ocean, shows that she remains a vital force as a songwriter nearly thirty years since she commanded the attention of listeners with Little Earthquakes, one of the most powerful and influential debuts in rock history. (I recently listened to it all the way through for the first time in years, and it still gives me chills from beginning to end.) On her new album, Amos explores new facets of the musical terrain (cabaret-infused piano-focused alternative pop) and themes (sex, power, spirituality, and myth) that have marked her music from the beginning, showing that her artistic drive remains fully engaged and intact.

Then there's the long list of mid-career female artists continuing to write and perform compelling songs to critical acclaim and with varying degrees of commercial success. Adele, who's on the younger end of this group, has a strong new record out that is sure to cement her status as one of the top-selling musical acts in the world. But there are many others: Beyoncé, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, P!nk, Brandi Carlile, Sara Bareilles, Fiona Apple, and Regina Spektor. (I'm also a great admirer of Vienna Teng, a piano-based singer-songwriter who released five fantastic albums between 2002 and 2013 that went nowhere commercially. Give her a try; you'll be glad you did, especially if you start here.) Ranging from hip-hop to pop to folk-country to alternative rock to theatrical art songs and cabaret, the breadth and depth of these artists is stunning and, so far at least, shows no signs of letting up.

Thankfully that still leaves room in the marketplace for up-and-coming female songwriters — and there are plenty. Among the most impressive is Phoebe Bridgers, whose 2020 record Punisher I called the best album of last year. Her debut, released in 2017, was also remarkably accomplished. The two records develop a distinctively moody and murky form of emo folk-rock, with lyrics that explore a range of relationships with candidly brutal insight and honesty. I expect big things from Bridgers over the coming years.

I could say the same for Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo, while also admitting that so far their songs don't truly speak to this middle-aged white man (they're both still teenagers). But both display undeniable talent and have achieved extraordinary things at a stupefyingly young age. I will be eager to watch and listen as they continue writing, recording, singing, and performing.  

Where does all this leave the men? Falling behind, for now, it would seem. Which is fine: There's no reason to reach for sweeping conclusions about sex or gender on the basis of how many artistically talented, prolific, and commercially successful songwriters are working at any given moment in history. And there are, of course, still plenty of accomplished male artists around. Kanye West has produced some of the most breathtaking soundscapes in pop-rock history, even if his recent work has been less distinguished. Ed Sheeran is a one-man pop hit factory. Harry Styles has put out a couple of strong albums and may well go on to do great things. Taylor Goldsmith of the band Dawes and the solo work of Semisonic's Dan Wilson help to keep alive the classic singer-songwriter tradition of the 1970s.

Yet there can be no denying that two decades into the 21st century, it is women who are pushing the boundaries and exploring new directions of popular songwriting. They have risen to the top ranks of the pop pantheon and show no sign of relinquishing their position anytime soon.   

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