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The songs of others

- The Washington Times - Friday, August 10, 2007

The recent flare-up over songwriting credits between Avril Lavigne and Chantal Kreviazuk may have seemed like an intra-Canadian spat, but, really, it's as quintessentially American as apple pie.

"Singers insisting on sharing authorship with songwriters is an unfortunate American tradition," says Paul Zollo, author of the critically acclaimed interview collection "Songwriters on Songwriting."

For the uninitiated: Miss Kreviazuk, a fairly obscure (at least in the U.S.) singer-songwriter who was tapped as a co-writer for Miss Lavigne's 2004 release "Under My Skin," seemingly confirmed in an interview with Performing Songwriting magazine what many had already suspected — that Miss Lavigne's aptitude for songwriting was a trumped-up illusion.

"Avril, songwriter?" she said. "Avril doesn't really sit and write songs by herself or anything. Avril will also cross the ethical line and no one says anything."

Miss Kreviazuk quickly recanted the statement. But her tale still resonates for a simple reason: What she describes has been the industry norm since time immemorial.

The practice of singers receiving dubious authorship credits is typically pegged to the early rock era. Mr. Zollo notes the famous example of the 1956 Elvis Presley classic "Heartbreak Hotel," which was co-written by Nashville songwriter Mae Boren Axton and pedal-steel guitarist Thomas Durden. Miss Axton included Mr. Presley in the byline, she said, to help give his career a boost.

Mr. Presley also is credited for "Love Me Tender" along with composer Vera Matson — even though, says Mr. Zollo, neither one had a thing to do with the song: Its tune was adapted from the Civil War ballad "Aura Lee," while Miss Matson's husband, Ken Darby, wrote its lyrics.

But Mr. Zollo says songwriters have been cheated out of recognition — and, hence, publishing and performance royalties — for as long as songwriting has been a profession.

Stephen Foster, the seminal 19th-century American composer, "was exploited by ruthless music publishers who sold his songs in sheet music and paid him no royalties at all," Mr. Zollo says. "It's an old story."

And until the 1960s, it was primarily a mercenary story.

Then came the deification of the performing songwriter, which begat a powerful new motive to grasp for authorship credits: the aura of creative authenticity.

Singer-songwriters such as Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Fats Domino and Sam Cooke had been performing their own material for years. But the explosive popularity of the Beatles and Bob Dylan generated a critical establishment that elevated self-contained songwriting above all else.

It was "almost as though non-songwriting performers like Frank Sinatra had never existed," says J. Douglas Waterman, editor in chief of Nashville-based American Songwriter magazine.

Critics, in turn, "pushed this idea in the minds of music fans," Mr. Waterman adds.

Says Mr. Zollo: "Songs took on a more intimate and personal perspective when written by singer-songwriters. So singers feel their work has more gravity when their name is part of the songwriting credits."

The problem, ever since, is that many singers aren't natural songwriters. And yet they crave the respectability that comes with the role.

Madonna, for instance, claimed to Mr. Zollo she contributed musical elements of songs she co-wrote with songwriter Patrick Leonard. Mr. Leonard, however, told the author she wrote only lyrics.

Some singers accept the limitations of their talent; indeed, there's a case to be made that a gifted vocalist is not really "limited" in any meaningful sense.

Art Garfunkel, harmonic foil to singer-songwriter Paul Simon, defended his artistry in a recent interview with Mr. Waterman:

"I have an instrument. I'm a musician. It's called my vocals. Think about directors and the big screen ...

"Being in front of a camera is very similar to being in front of a mic in the recording studio. You make sure the truth in the lyric or script comes through you as an expressive human being — a relaxed, credible teller of the story, whether it's through a script or a song."

Country singer LeAnn Rimes, meanwhile, discovered relatively late in her career a capacity for songwriting. She told Mr. Waterman that so pleased is she with the discovery, "I could just write for the rest of my life."

Snob appeal aside, Mr. Zollo says that shady authorship is still mostly about the money. "Performers can earn substantially more money if they have partial songwriting credit," he says. "So it is very common for singers to make sure they have their names on songs."

When it comes to grafting one's name onto a byline, often the flimsiest excuse will do. Mr. Zollo says a common tack employed by singers is to make negligible lyrical changes to a song. Mary J. Blige, for example, did so for her hit "Be Without You."

In fairness, songwriters are not always victims in this game; sometimes, they're accomplices.

The early-20th-century star Al Jolson often insisted on songwriting credits before agreeing to perform a song, Mr. Zollo says. And since songwriters stood a reasonable chance of scoring a hit through Mr. Jolson, they'd agree to the charade.

It's just this kind of back-scratching arrangement that might explain Miss Kreviazuk's hasty retraction: If not for her relationship with Miss Lavigne, what are the chances that we would have heard of Chantal Kreviazuk at all?