In an interview with the Guardian, British singer Rachel Stevens—whose “Sweet Dreams My L.A. Ex”* and “Some Girls” are two of the most fabulous pop singles of the past three years—explained why it’s OK that she doesn’t compose her own material: “‘I mean, think of all the great bands from the past who didn’t write their own music, like the Beatles.’ A slight pause. ‘Well, actually, the Beatles did write their own music, didn’t they? But loads of others.’ ” Ah, Rachel, you’ve hit the pop nail on the head.
Professional songwriting ceased to be a respected occupation with the emergence of the Beatles, the band that forever commingled self-expression with authenticity and independence. For the past 20 years, however, the division of labor established in New York’s Brill Building in the late 1950s and early 1960s—songwriters on one side, singers on the other, and never shall the two meet—has been revived by a slew of European hit-makers. They are more than happy to make their mark on music while letting the likes of Rachel Stevens show their mugs on television.
The cream of the current crop is England’s Xenomania, which revolves around Brian Higgins, Miranda Cooper, and Tim Powell. The collective has dedicated fans who buy Xenosongs no matter who performs them. Xenomania, which Higgins describes as “a Motown-type set-up,” is responsible for a slew of oversized, irresistible tracks by the likes of Sugababes, Kylie Minogue, and Saint Etienne—collaborations with New Order and Texas are due out soon. The group reserves its finest work, however, for Girls Aloud, a reality-TV creation whose two albums, Sound of the Underground and What Will the Neighbours Say?, display a nongeneric sound and an appealing sexy hostility. The Aloud doesn’t make excuses for working with a packager like Xenomania—unlike poor Avril Lavigne, who spent months trying to explain that yes, she had contributed to her debut album, and no, she wasn’t just a mouthpiece for the studio collective known as the Matrix.
Avril doesn’t help matters by making like she’s a rocker—plus, her main fan base is in North America, where performing your own material is the only path to mainstream respect. Perhaps feeling this pressure, most of the key songwriters and producers of the past decade have released albums under their own names; it’s worked for some (Missy Elliott) but not for others (Timbaland, the Neptunes, and the largely overrated Kanye West). The harsh reality is that few people can write and sing. Burt Bacharach is a brilliant songwriter who should never have opened his mouth, while his latter-day collaborator Elvis Costello should consider shutting his trap more often than not. As for Rufus Wainwright, who writes superb songs but has a grating, nasal voice—why does he think Cole Porter didn’t venture onto the stage? The reverse is true as well: k.d. lang is an exquisite interpreter whose musings should remain in her diary.
The connection between originality and artistic credibility isn’t as dominant in Europe, where critics and tastemakers realize that a Brill Building-style division of labor can be a great way to make memorable music. The rebirth of quality pop manufacturing dates to the 1980s and the advent of Stock Aitken Waterman, whose confections dominated the European charts from 1984 to 1992. The powerhouse team launched the careers of Kylie Minogue, Dead or Alive, Bananarama, and Rick Astley by crafting bubbly hybrids of Hi-NRG and pop. While Pete Waterman handled the business side and worked on promotion, Mike Stock and Matt Aitken wrote and produced the material and even played most of the instruments. The trio operated out of their own London studio, providing one-stop shopping for singers, and was quickly dubbed the Hit Factory.
While “factory” suggests soulless conveyor-belt manufacturing, many SAW productions illustrate how the mixing and matching of songwriters and performers allows for surprising sonic collisions. In a 1999 lecture about love songs, Nick Cave remarked that “[the SAW production] ’ Better the Devil You Know’ is one of pop music’s most violent and distressing love lyrics. … When Kylie Minogue sings these words there is an innocence to her voice that makes the horror of this chilling lyric all the more compelling.” The best songwriters and producers don’t just peddle their wares to whomever will buy them. Instead they closely work with singers in order to come up with appropriate material. The results are often a lot less jarring than a good song ruined by a songwriter’s inadequate vocals.
SAW broke up in 1992. That same year saw the birth of Cheiron, the Swedish company that created much of the late-’90s teen-pop explosion. Made up of a team of songwriters-producers-musicians that included Denniz Pop (aka Dag Volle), Tom Talomaa, and Max Martin, Cheiron provided all-in-one convenience for American popsters looking for new tunes. Martin, for instance, wrote or co-wrote hits for the Backstreet Boys and *NSync as well as Britney Spears’ two iconic tracks, “… Baby One More Time” and “Oops … I Did It Again!” Cheiron disbanded after Pop’s death in 1998, but Martin and Talomaa resurfaced in 2001 with Maratone, another cooperative that gathers writers and producers under one roof.
Being away from the spotlight can also help nurture long, profitable careers: While Britney sinks into B-list tabloid hell, Martin recently co-wrote and co-produced the memorable hit ” Since U Been Gone” for Kelly Clarkson. Many successful writers actually had early success as performers before realizing there was less pressure behind the scenes. Cathy Dennis charted under her own name with “All Night Long (Touch Me)” in 1990, then disappeared behind the velvet curtain to co-write brilliant pop songs like “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” and “Come Into My World” for Minogue, “Toxic” for Spears, and ” Sweet Dreams My L.A. Ex” for—yes!—Rachel Stevens. Andy McCluskey, formerly of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, created the girl group Atomic Kitten in 1999 and is now behind Genie Queen, a trio audaciously attempting to fuse R&N and ‘80s-style techno-pop. McCluskey recently declared in an interview, “Master craftsman is my job nowadays and I take it very seriously indeed.”
Obviously there are hacks who continue to give studio songwriting a bad name—Diane Warren and Rodney Jerkins, for example, are bottomless fonts of one-size-fits-all banality. But for outfits such as Xenomania, pop writing is a genuine art in which cleverness and distinctiveness supplant authenticity and credibility (two terms that should never be written out without cautionary quotation marks). They embrace clichés only to subvert them. In the liner notes of the Brill Building Sound box set, Greg Shaw and Dawn Eden write, “True, these songs seldom transcended commonplace themes of love and loss, but it was the manner in which they were handled that mattered: the beat, the street slang, the sheer sonic power acted to reinforce a subtext where the real action was taking place.” These lines still apply to the work of Xenomania and their brethren—even if they’ve also proved that the real action takes place out of sight.