Lyricists: The Sung and the Unsung
Most people associate songwriting with the act of writing lyrics when, in fact, that is only one of element involved in writing a song.
A songwriter is defined as “a person who writes the words or music for popular songs.” Songwriters, therefore, can be separated into two distinct categories: lyricists and composers. Composers are songwriters who write the music for a song, while lyricists write the lyrics. It can be said, then, that all lyricists are songwriters, but not all songwriters are lyricists.
Despite this fact, people still tend to associate songwriting with lyricism and songwriters with lyricists. And it’s not hard to see why; some of the most famous songwriters in the history of the music industry were known for their lyrics rather than their musical composition.
Take Bob Dylan, for example. With lines like “I gaze into the doorway of temptation’s angry flame / And every time I pass that way I always hear my name” and “Shedding off one more layer of skin / Keeping one step ahead of the persecutor within,” Dylan made a name for himself as a remarkable lyricist and a poet. While his riffs are adequate, they are nowhere near as memorable as the lyrics they are played behind.
Another example that helps solidify the notion that “lyricist” is synonymous with “songwriter” is the case of John Lennon. The Beatles front man wrote some of the most iconic songs in The Beatles’ discography, including “Come Together,” “Help!” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” He also wrote “Imagine,” a song that was ranked as the third-best song of all time by Rolling Stone. An inspiring composer in his own right, most of Lennon’s songs stand on the merit of their lyrics rather than quality of their composition. Lennon’s lyrics are a part of our cultural lexicon and, because of this, Lennon is remembered as a lyricist, not a composer.
Contrary to the two previous examples, not all lyricists have names you will recognize off the bat. In fact, some very not-so-well-known individuals wrote many very well known songs. To illustrate this notion, consider the name Bernie Taupin. To the average person, the name Bernie Taupin carries no significance. That same person, however, will most likely recognize the songs “Tiny Dancer,” “Candle in the Wind,” “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” and “Bennie and the Jets” as some of Elton John’s most popular singles.
What that person may not know is that the lyrics to each of these songs and a number of Elton’s other tracks were actually written by Taupin and not Elton John himself. Since the lyrics for a song are often assumed to be the work of the song’s performer, lyricists like Bernie Taupin generally go unnoticed by the common fan. Be that as it may, the impact a lyricist like Bernie has on the music world cannot be understated, as it is because of these lyricists that many artists achieve their success.
Frank Sinatra is the perfect example to help demonstrate this point. For many, “My Way” is considered to be Sinatra’s definitive song, yet Sinatra had no hand in the song’s lyrics or composition. The song’s music is based on the French song “Comme d’habitude” and another behind-the-curtains lyricist by the name of Paul Anka wrote the song’s lyrics. Yet, when “My Way” is brought up in conversation, Sinatra is the name that the song is attributed to. Lyricists like Paul truly are the unsung heroes of the music industry, and I believe that is exactly the way they want it to be. Their lyrics are what should be sung, not their names.
All lyricists are songwriters, but not all songwriters are lyricists. All lyricists write lyrics, but not all lyricists sing them.
What do you think Studio 602 readers? Do you generally associate songwriting with lyricism? What are some of your favorite lyricists? Let us know in the comments section below!