Compile enough best-of lists for public consumption, and you’ll start to realize that the more general your subject, the more difficult it will be to defend your selections as authoritative. As Rolling Stone is finding out right now, via a heavily Apple Music-branded list that was received with a collective social media eye-roll, songwriting is one of those impossible subjects.
There are plenty of reasons for readers to argue with the magazine’s ranked list of the 100 best songwriters of all time: Predictably, it’s over 70% white and features only nine solo female songwriters (five other women are included as part of mixed-gender writing teams). Classic rock is overrepresented; every other genre and subgenre of popular music is underrepresented. The fact that Kurt Cobain is ranked #54 to Bob Dylan’s #1 is as concise a summation as any of Rolling Stone‘s institutional attitude toward every generation other than baby boomers — and if you’re not convinced by that juxtaposition, consider that only about 15% of the songwriters came to prominence in the last 25 years.
While the overall list is probably far more inclusive on all of the above counts than a 48-year-old mainstream rock ‘n’ roll magazine would have managed even a few years ago, the percentages are even more dramatically skewed toward AARP-eligible white men in the top half. In fact, the alarming thing about the list — and believe me when I tell you that I do not generally find cause to use the words “alarming” and “list” in the same sentence — is that only one of the top 50 songwriters launched his career in the ’90s or later.
The man in question is the Swedish songwriter/producer Max Martin, who composed or co-wrote some of the biggest pop earworms of the past two decades; RS cites such undeniable hits as Britney Spears’ “… Baby One More Time,” Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” and Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream.” In the past year, Martin has dominated the charts with a slew of collaborations from Taylor Swift’s 1989, as well as The Weeknd’s currently ubiquitous “Can’t Feel My Face.” All of which is to say that only a diehard rockist would argue against Martin’s inclusion (so I’ll leave that polemic to RS‘s base). Is he the most talented songwriter of the past 25 years, though? And more importantly, is he the only Gen X or millennial songwriter worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Neil Diamond (#47), Jackson Browne (#37), and Bono and the Edge (#35)?
To most people born since 1970, the answer is obviously “no.” Look at the bottom half of the list, and you’ll find plenty of younger songwriters ranked far lower than they should have been: Cobain, Missy Elliott and Timbaland (#96), Kanye West (#84), Radiohead (#73), The Notorious B.I.G. (#52), Björk (#81) — frankly, I would have placed all of them far higher than Don Henley and Glenn Frey (#49). Off the top of my head, a few names that should have shown up somewhere on the list but didn’t are Tupac Shakur, Sleater-Kinney, Jarvis Cocker, Jeff Mangum, Linda Perry, St. Vincent’s Annie Clark, Erykah Badu, Damon Albarn, Polly Jean Harvey, Kendrick Lamar, and Sia. (I should note that I’m purposely avoiding more obscure names; a Rolling Stone list is never going to be a WIRE or even a Pitchfork list, and that’s fine.)
The point isn’t that you should agree with all, or even any, of my choices; it’s that despite how many names there are to choose from, Rolling Stone believes no songwriter in the past 25 years, save for a lone chart-topping Swede, has contributed to pop music on the same level as dozens of musicians and writers of the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and (to a lesser extent) ’80s. That’s a problem! It’s a declaration that the music made by artists under 60 — music RS faithfully covers, though not always with the same enthusiasm it reserves for Mick, Bruce, and Sir Paul — is decidedly inferior to the music of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. If, by Rolling Stone‘s reckoning, we’ve seen so few all-time great songwriters since 1990, it would seem to follow that Rolling Stone believes songwriting to be a dying art.
It’s no use getting upset about a list that was always going to be impossible to get right — unless that list unintentionally makes the point that the thing your magazine exists to celebrate has spent the past few decades in a long, steep decline.