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GREIN ON GRAMMYS: SONGWRITING BY COMMITTEE

Four of the seven co-writers of "The Middle": Grey’s Kyle and Michael Trewartha, Maren Morris, Zedd

The days of the popular song written by just one or two people are going the way of Billy Joel and Goffin & King. This year, for just the second time in Grammy history, all the nominees for Song of the Year were the work of three or more writers.

One of this year’s Song of the Year nominees—the jingle-turned-smash “The Middle”—is the handiwork of a gaggle of seven (count ‘em) songwriters. Amazingly, that isn’t a Grammy record, though it’s close. Last year’s winner, Bruno Mars’ “That’s What I Like,” was co-written by eight songwriters. Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name,” a 2000 nominee, and Estelle featuring Kanye West’s “American Boy,” a 2008 finalist, were also the work of seven songwriters.

The trend to songs written by small armies of writers is accelerating rapidly. Sixteen songs with five or more writers have received Song of the Year nominations since the category was introduced in 1958. All have come since 1994. Eight of the 16 have come in just the last three years.

In the first 16 years of the Grammys, all Song of the Year winners were written by just one or two songwriters. “The Way We Were” (1974) was the first winner co-written by three people—composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricists Alan & Marilyn Bergman. U2’s “Beautiful Day” (2000) was the first winner co-written by four people. That record was broken last year by “That’s What I Like,” which asserted that eight (songwriters) is enough.

Christopher Cross’ “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)” (1981) was the first Song of the Year nominee with four writers. Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do” (1994) was the first nominee with five songwriters.

Things used to be very different. Six consecutive Song of the Year winners (from 1967 through 1972) were written by just one songwriter. They were Jimmy Webb’s “Up, Up and Away,” Bobby Russell’s “Little Green Apples,” Joe South’s “Games People Play,” Paul Simon’s “Bridge over Troubled Water,” Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” and Ewan MacColl’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.”

OK, that was a long time ago. But as recently as 2002, four of the five Song of the Year nominees were the work of just one songwriter. They were Jesse Harris’ “Don’t Know Why” (which won), Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles,” Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” and Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).”

The most recent Song of the Year winner written by just one person was Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” (2007).

The trend to songs written by small armies of writers
is accelerating rapidly.
  

This trend is linked to the increasing prevalence of artist collaborations. Of the 16 Song of the Year candidates with five or more writers, six were popularized by collabos.

This trend is also linked to the rise of hip-hop, but bear in mind that many of the songs that were written by large groups of writers, such as “The Middle” and “Despacito,” have nothing to do with hip-hop.

Now, here’s the big question: Have songs gotten better with the multiple viewpoints being brought to bear in their creation? Or is something lost when songs are written by committee? You decide.

For those of you who like neat little lists, here are the 16 Song of the Year nominees with five or more songwriters. Bruno Mars and two of his longtime cohorts, Brody Brown and Philip Lawrence, participated in three of these songwriting sessions—Mars’ two hits and also Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You.” Beyoncé, Kanye West and another Mars colleague, Ari Levine, have credits on two of the songs. Clearly, these are team players.

Eight songwriters: Mars’ “That’s What I Like” (2017).

Seven songwriters: Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” (2000), Estelle featuring West’s “American Boy” (2008), Zedd, Maren Morris & Grey’s “The Middle” (2018).

Six songwriters: Mars’ “Grenade” (2011), West featuring Rihanna, Kid Cudi and Fergie’s “All of the Lights” (2011), Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee featuring Justin Bieber’s “Despacito” (2017), Drake’s “God’s Plan” (2018).

Five songwriters: Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do” (1994), Train’s “Drops of Jupiter (Tell Me)” (2001), Green’s “Fuck You” (2010), Katy Perry’s “Roar” (2013), Beyoncé’s “Formation” (2016), Logic featuring Alessia Cara & Khalid’s “1-800-273-8255” (2017), Julia Michaels’ “Issues” (2017), Kendrick Lamar & SZA’s “All the Stars” (2018).

One last thing: Lest any of you think I’ve forgotten one—God forbid—let me explain that while Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together” (2005) is credited to 10 songwriters, just four of them received Grammy nominations. The other six had works sampled in the song, but they weren’t nominated. (That’s why their names were listed in parentheses on the Grammy nominations list that year.)

 

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