Matt Yglesias is upset that Taylor Swift’s new Diet Coke commercial perpetuates unfortunate stereotypes about songwriting. He doesn’t like that the video shows Swift scribbling lyrics in a notebook. According to Yglesias, that’s just not the way it’s done in the modern world. He claims that songwriting is collaborative. Well, it often is. But that’s not really what he’s getting at. When he gets down to it, he quite properly writes, “The unfortunate reality is that [Swift’s] operating in a world that’s oddly averse to celebrating the virtues of collaboration and division of labor when it comes to music.” And here I thought we were talking about songwriting!
I love songwriting. And nothing shows off a good song like simple production just as nothing fixes a weak song like great production. Production is very much a team sport. Sure, the geniuses can sit alone and do great work all by themselves. But even they benefit from collaboration. But production is something you do to a song. The song just is. And most songs to this day are written by individuals.
Personally, when I write a song, there is a process to it. I do not pick up a guitar or a notebook. Melodies just come to me. I play with them in my head. I try different lyrics with them. And most of the time it just stops there. But if I think it has potential, I’ll store it in my phone or write it down. Later, I will craft what is usually just a line or two into a song. That’s pretty much it. The whole process can take an hour or years. A lot of times, I’ve finished a song but have never felt that I really did justice to it. Not that any of this really matters. All my songs just sit in notebooks and on tapes (and increasingly in bytes). But my approach is entirely typical of how songs get written.
I’m not against attacking Taylor Swift. Unlike Matt Yglesias, I think she’s a talentless singer and a so-so songwriter. But I have no doubt that the commercial is more or less how most of her songs are written. Now the song “22”? I don’t know. My guess is that Swift wrote the base of the song and then Max Martin and Shellback fixed it. Like I said: she’s a so-so songwriter. Also, they are the producers and maybe they did so much work on the song, it was considered fair to give them songwriting credit. Or maybe it was in their contracts. Or maybe they wrote the song and just added Swift’s name. All of these things happen. But nothing in the commercial is particularly incorrect about how a song gets written.