The ‘professional’ singer-songwriter in the 1970s

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When introducing his 2001 oral history of the Brill Building for Vanity Fair magazine, David Kamp suggests that the early 1960s marked a paradigm shift in American popular music, from the workmanlike output of New York’s contracted composers to the more baldly personal material from the singer-songwriters that followed: The Brill Building sound was the sound of bigness and tidiness, of exuberance underpinned by professionalism - the fulcrum between the shiny craftsmanship of Tin Pan Alley and the primal energy of 60s soul and rock. It represented the last great era of assembly-line-manufactured pop - before the success of The Beatles and Bob Dylan lent a stigma to not writing your own material. Kamp’s historical trajectory here corresponds tidily with a common narrative about popular music’s changes in the 1960s. In many listeners’ views, that decade saw the ascendance of the introspective voice in songwriting, a tradition derived perhaps from Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, and best defined through the iconic examples of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and Joni Mitchell. For half a century, popular music had depended on a symbiosis between the offstage composer (a lineage that ran from Irving Berlin through George Gershwin to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller or Gerry Goffin and Carole King) and the celebrity performers of stage, film, and record. The late 1960s, on the other hand, merged these roles dramatically. From Dylan onwards, the story apparently goes, the singer was more likely to have written his own material, offering an emotional proximity and raw sincerity that eschewed overtly commercial gloss. Moreover, in this narrative, this ostensible earnestness continued into the following decade, with artists like James Taylor, Janis Ian, and Bruce Springsteen. But the 1970s also saw the rise of a different kind of singer-songwriter: namely, the ‘professional’ composer. These artists were steeped less in the naked performance of the folk tradition than in the more businesslike conventions of Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building, both of which Kamp perhaps too quickly presumed dead by the early seventies. In short, to remember that not all singer-songwriters after the mid-sixties aspired to unchecked autobiography or raw introspection is to complicate the monolithic narrative that Kamp and others propose.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to the Singer-Songwriter
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages11
ISBN (Electronic)9781316569207
ISBN (Print)9781107063648
StatePublished - Jan 1 2016


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