From Rosalía to Taylor Swift: The female songwriters wrongly suspected of not creating their own work
Men are often assumed to be the true mastermind of a song if they feature on the credits, even though most pop music has multiple authors
When Puerto Rican rapper Rauw Alejandro and Spanish singer Rosalía began dating, she had been working on her recently released album Motomami for 18 months, as she explained several days ago in an interview. Alejandro appears on the credits of two songs from the record, but his contribution was minimal. Specifically, he supplied the word “naki” in the much-sung chorus of the song Chicken Teriyaki, and he deleted a second of the drums from Bizcochito.
With style, Rosalía stated that she had given her boyfriend a credit out of sheer deference, just as when a friend’s mother, she explained, appeared in the studio to make a visit and that made her think that she would also put her down as a co-writer on the record. “I include everyone, even if they’ve only done 1%, or 0.01%, or whatever, because those are my ethics as a musician. I always think that things are a collective effort,” the singer said.
It’s a generous practice, but also a risky one, especially for a female writer, as Rosalía knows well already. A year and a half ago, in a conversation with producer and artist Pharrell Williams that was recorded for the Billboard Latin awards, she complained that streaming algorithms – and whoever programs them – act in a sexist way and marginalize female artists when there is a song with multiple authors and performers, as usually occurs in current pop.
She cited the example of what happened with the song Relación. Even today, if you look for that song on Spotify, it appears as a song by “Daddy Yankee, J. Balvin and Sech,” even though Rosalía is the main artist on the remix. “Then there are major artists who have big numbers and it’s in the interest of the algorithm for them to be listed as main artists and the females as featured artists. That means that they get all the mechanical royalties from the digital streamers and she doesn’t,” she explained in the same conversation. And, she added: “Women always have to be proving themselves, fighting for what belongs to us, putting ourselves to the test all the time.”
At the start of her career, Rosalía also had to listen to more than a few voices who stated that her best songs were the work of her then-partner, C. Tangana, who has credits on eight of the 11 songs on her album El Mal Querer.
The rule in the era of hyperpop is that all songs have a series of authors. Billboard processed that data in 2020, and found that of the 283 songs that were number ones on its global list since the start of the millennium, only 13 had a single author. Some of these were global hits, such as Happy by Pharrell Williams, or Fallin’ by Alicia keys. But these days, they are the exception.
Another study from 2018, published by the magazine Music Business, found that for a smash hit – the type of song that you’ll hear in the supermarket as well as on the soundtracks of an animated movie – you need an average of nine authors. Sicko Mode, by Travis Scott and featuring Drake, has up to 30 listed authors. As was explained in this article in GQ, this is due to the fact that producers and arrangers are now counted among the list of composers. That’s to say, if The Beatles were around today, the majority of their songs would credit Lennon / McCartney / Martin, including the producer of nearly all of their songs, George Martin.
But it is also to do with the nature of current urban music. The aforementioned Travis Scott song contains a sample by The Notorious B.I.G., and at the same time sampled another three hip hop tracks, meaning that the authors of all of those songs ended up on the already long list of credits.
The moment people see men and a woman on a list, they assume – you know how it is. I’ve seen what happens to BjörkSpanish singer Rosalía
While this is the norm right now, suspicions about the authorship and authenticity of songs are more often raised about female composers, as also used to happen with female writers, from Mary Shelley to Charlotte Brönte. In 2019, writer Zara Lisbon said that Ariana Grande is just “a cartoon and a creation,” and made unfavorable comparisons with Taylor Swift, given that the latter, she said, writes her own songs. Grande reacted in an unusual fashion to the attack from a little-known author, who had fewer than 2,000 followers on Twitter – perhaps because her pride was hurt – and began publishing voice notes and screenshots of conversations that she had had with the producers of her songs, on which she normally appears as a co-writer, to show that she does get involved in the process. Grande has also written songs for other artists, such as Normani.
Not even Taylor Swift, who became famous as a teenager with a guitar who sang very personal songs, has been free from suspicions. A few months ago, Blur frontman Damon Albarn incurred the wrath of the “swifties,” as her fans are known (not to mention Chilean President Gabriel Boric), when he said that she didn’t write her own songs. “I’m not hating on anybody,” Albarn added, once his comments had caused an outcry. “I’m just saying there’s a big difference between a songwriter and a songwriter who co-writes.” Sometimes the rumors come from the industry itself. Singer and composer Renee “Shi” Wisdom, who has created songs for Drake and Rita Ora, said in 2014: “For the longest time Beyoncé didn’t write any of her records. I personally still don’t believe she’s written any of her records.”
Rosalía herself, who highlighted the incredibly hard work that went into Motomami while she was promoting it, reflected on this during an interview with The New York Times, stressing her self-confidence. “I don’t care how small your contribution was to the song, I’m going to put it in the credits. That’s how confident I am as a musician,” she told the US daily .”But I know it’s detrimental to putting light on me as a producer. Because the moment people see men and a woman on a list, they assume – you know how it is. I’ve seen what happens to Björk. I’ve seen other women that have been through that.”
The truth is, however, that in this case there is not much danger that anyone would suspect that Rauw Alejandro wrote Rosalía’s tracks Chicken Teriyaki or Bizcochito. The Puerto Rican artist has assumed the role of his partner’s number-one groupie since the album was released. “Motomami is a mood, the sounds and melodies are on another level,” he tweeted shortly after the record came out. “There are no other Latinos or gringos with that sound or level of production… I’ll leave it there,” he concluded.
When someone on social media suggested again that C. Tangana was the brains behind El Mal Querer, Alejandro came to her defense once more. “The fucked up part of this is that 95% of that whole creation was just her. She is a genius. A complete artist.” And he dedicated the “100″ and “brain” emojis in his post to his partner. He concluded the argument with a very motopapi tone: “While they are hating, we’re making money.”