The One Real Problem With Rolling Stone's 'Greatest Songwriters Of All Time'

The One Real Problem With Rolling Stone's 'Greatest Songwriters Of All Time'

8:16am Aug 24, 2015
Duke Ellington: Not on the list.
Duke Ellington: Not on the list.
John Pratt / Getty Images

Lots of magazines do big lists, but few rely on them as heavily as Rolling Stone does. The magazine cranks out a list for just about every aspect of popular music. All promise authoritative, canonical overviews of various elements of the art; at their best, these offer context and critical insight, helping readers fill gaps in their knowledge.

The lists have become a lucrative part of the Rolling Stone brand. They're also instant controversy magnets. So it is with the latest one — devoted to The 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time.

Right on cue, this list — which was sponsored entirely by Apple Music (raise eyebrow over editorial independence here) — has generated its share of dissonance. In some Internet precincts, howls of outrage can be heard over certain regrettable omissions: No Jim Morrison! No Nick Drake! No Warren Zevon! No Public Enemy! (Curiously, though, The Notorious B.I.G. is represented.) No Pink Floyd! No John Mellencamp! How could they?

Elsewhere, the indignation has to do with the artists who were included: What is R. Kelly (ranked on the list at no. 80) doing on the same list as Holland-Dozier-Holland (15)? Taylor Swift (97)? Really? And Kanye West (84)? Why is James Taylor (69) here when his output amounts to a small handful of enduring originals and tons of covers?

Then there's the inevitable ire over the ranking order: What explains the presence of Bob Marley (11), whose songs use and re-use the same chord sequences and simple melodies, ahead of the architect of the most soaring, creative melodies in pop history, Brian Wilson (12)?

Valid gripes in all directions. Obviously, we could go on all day — in part, that's the nature of these lists. They exist to torture the obsessed, to challenge one's internal ranking system. At the same time, the lists that prove useful help us discover important stuff we might have missed. (Full disclosure: I worked on the magazine's 100 Greatest Guitarists feature years ago, and wrote a book that listed a bunch of places to begin exploring music, 1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die.) They argue for the underloved and little-known and the forgotten, the artists whose once-influential contributions now exist in the margins.

That's not what Rolling Stone gave us this time.

This list represents another trip through the hagiographic, hermetically sealed rock hall of fame, with the same stars you've been reading about in Rolling Stone since the dinosaur age. Had the magazine titled this survey "The 100 Greatest Songwriters of the Rock Era," there would be minimal griping — it's what readers have come to expect. But Rolling Stone aimed higher, at least in that title. All Time. As in: Encompassing an endeavor since the beginning. Implicit in the title is an inclusionary spirit: Here's an inventory of those who developed and advanced the art of the song, and did it at such a high level that their work is essential to anyone who cares about songwriting today. Regardless of whether the honorees are presently trending on social media.

Yet this list is populated almost exclusively with songwriters from 1950 forward, and weighted heavily toward R&B and rock. It's as though Tin Pan Alley and the Great American Songbook never happened. And jazz never happened. Rolling Stone fixed its arbitrary starting point at "Peggy Sue," give or take a few years, and felt the need to look backward only long enough to acknowledge Robert Johnson (23), the first great auteur of the blues.

There's no context around the list, no justification for the historical limitations — canonical omissions that are more serious than any individual inclusions or exclusions. By putting an arbitrary historical bookend on the endeavor of songwriting, Rolling Stone actually does a disservice to the idea of songwriting. The magazine ignores the pioneers who paved the roads the rockers represented on the list all travel — including people whose works have endured for generations, like Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Cole Porter and Antonio Carlos Jobim. That sends the message that the now moment is all that matters, that those historical figures have little to teach the gifted tunesmiths of today.

These composers and others ignored by Rolling Stone understood what came before them — in the exact same way Bob Dylan (1) understood and built upon what Woody Guthrie (28) had done. And then, song by song and year by year, they stretched the commonly used structures and formats. They aimed high, seeking to capture something universal while avoiding, or subverting, convention. They relied on rich, unusual chords and crafted melodies that expressed yearning, lust and heartbreak in ways that made those feelings inescapable — whether you comprehended the words or not. In the space of a couple of verses and a refrain, they conjured highly specific emotional realms that still resonate today, and do so when delivered by the original artist or a snarling postrock trio.

Rolling Stone's list doesn't completely ignore the existence of songwriters who contributed to the Great American Songbook. There is a mention of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, the prolific Broadway tandem that gave the world "Where Or When," "My Funny Valentine" and "The Lady Is A Tramp" (all three of those appearing in the 1938 Babes In Arms). A paragraph honoring Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia (36) identifies the Grateful Dead tunesmiths as "the psychedelic Rodgers and Hart."

But there's no hyperlink, no footnote to this reference, no trail for a curious reader to follow. Many, many, many musicologists place Rodgers and Hart on the shortlist of all-time great songwriters, right up there with the transformative figures topping the Rolling Stone leaderboard, like Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and John Lennon. Rodgers and Hart wrote over 500 clever songs, most of them loaded with earworms and marked by intricate chord sequences and melodies that stretch out far longer than two measures. All they rate is a glib little insider mention?

It can't be that sales figures were the primary metric in the list. Because the overlooked composers all wrote music that met with massive commercial success — Jobim's "The Girl From Ipanema," a song notable for its sly, sleek, mind-burrowing melodic invention, is frequently mentioned with McCartney's "Yesterday" as one of the most often played songs of all time. When the discussion is about the "All Time Greats," in any discipline, the decision has to go beyond sales figures and popularity. Rolling Stone's task was to include a range of writers — geniuses who moved the entire art form forward, as well as professionals who created sturdy genre hits. The choices were clearly difficult to make, but by championing a formula kingpin like Babyface (#90) while excluding a legendarily impactful figure like Duke Ellington, the magazine sends the message that in winnowing the list, considerations like overall contributions to songcraft were not always front and center.

Here's one mark of a great song: It transcends the moment and genre of its creation. A song is a generalized map, not a set of GPS coordinates; its ideas can be adjusted and altered in a zillion different ways. (Just ask Rod Stewart or any of the aging rockers who have had encore-career success by "interpreting" the Great American Songbook.) The wistful surge that is the melody of Gershwin's "Someone To Watch Over Me" describes a feeling that prevails no matter what instrumentation surrounds it or drum beat is underneath it. That song might register as a rush of pure beauty, but it's not just a recurring hook and a bunch of words. It's the result of deliberate construction, the kind you'd learn about in any Songwriting 101 class. Its stickiness is directly related to the zillion small choices Gershwin made at every step of the way — about the progression of the harmony, the cadence of the words, the tension embedded in the melody.

Really, all the editors of Rolling Stone had to do is talk to the artists they celebrated, people like Brian Wilson and Bruce Springsteen, about the composers they learned from and in some ways emulated. Because these stars understand that songwriting is a continuum, a protracted conversation stretching across generations. Songwriting evolves when present-day creators seek new ways to incorporate the devices of the past. To one degree or another, all of the truly great songwriters of the rock era went to school on the works of All Time Great tunesmiths who are not represented on this list. John Fogerty (40) manufactured humid rock mythology out of the inspiration he got from bluesmen like John Lee Hooker and others. Paul Simon's (8) solo works carry hints of the introspection and urbane sophistication that animates so many songs by Duke Ellington and Cole Porter. Even when it's impossible to draw a solid line of influence between generations, there are times when some distant flyspeck is evident — many hear traces of Jobim in Beatles songs like "And I Love Her."

By not reaching beyond pop and rock for its 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time, Rolling Stone missed the opportunity to celebrate these longer arcs and less obvious (yet still critical) influences. The magazine's list might be defensible, but it represents narrow, factionalized, closed-loop thinking that severs vital connections between the towering songwriting geniuses of the prerock era and our current practitioners. No matter what Rolling Stone says, the music of George Gershwin still has plenty to offer anyone who's striving to stir hearts with a song.

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