Damon Albarn Doesn’t Get To Decide What Songwriting Is
Blur was one of the two bands at the forefront of the electrifying Britpop era of the 90s. Gorillaz, even two and a half decades after its inception, stands by itself as a spectacle of multi-dimensional artistic excellence and originality. Damon Albarn is the architect behind both these projects and several others that have enjoyed a great deal of success. He went from being the poster child of UK pop rock to a DOOMesque comic-book-style anonymity, and he perfected each of those roles down to a science.
The shape-shifting mystique he created around his character has made him one of the most influential and groundbreaking musicians of the modern era, but it is for that exact reason that he is also pompous, snobbish and dismissive when it comes to other artists — a given when you’ve created your own lane and have the privilege of operating within it.
On January 24, Albarn played a one-off show in the United States at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles following the release of his 2021 solo album, “The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows.” On the morning of the performance, he sat down with LA Times critic Mikael Wood to discuss his most recent work and current outlook on the music scene. While discussing contemporary composers, Wood asked Albarn about Taylor Swift, to which he responded by saying that she doesn’t write her own songs.
But what about co-writing ...?
“That doesn’t count,” said Albarn. “I’m just saying there’s a big difference between a songwriter and a songwriter who co-writes.” Imagine saying a songwriter isn’t a songwriter while referring to them as a “songwriter.” Albarn wasted no time in contradicting himself — same sentence, same breath, only a few words apart.
He went on to clarify that he wasn’t “hating” on Swift because there are so many artists he’s fond of who never wrote their songs, like Ella Fitzgerald. First mistake (besides the original sin): equating co-writing to not writing at all. He then praised Billie Eilish and her brother’s efforts and said he prefers them over Swift. Second mistake: applauding an artist who co-writes her songs right after dismissing an artist for co-writing (some of) her songs.
Albarn certainly deserves credit for one thing: the courage to be so effortlessly condescending while talking about a figure as guarded by her fans as Swift. Anyone even remotely interested in American popular music knows that the words “Taylor Swift” are to be spoken very, very carefully in a public space. There’s a very simple and valid reason for this — she has touched enough people at a profound level to have, at this point in her career, amassed an army of incredibly protective fans.
Music tends to have that effect.
Apart from the flood of criticism Albarn received online, Swift herself clapped back on Twitter soon after the article was published to make it clear that she wasn’t having any of it — she writes her songs and he’s wrong to say that she doesn’t. Sure enough, Albarn issued an apology in the replies, saying that his comments had been “reduced to clickbait.” What makes this particularly amusing is that there’s absolutely no way to take “She doesn’t write her own songs” out of context. Those were his exact words and the quote doesn’t change the meaning of what he was saying because that was his entire comment!
And that was pretty much the end of it.
Albarn played an outstanding set later that night — just him, a string quartet and a guitarist; tender, stripped down yet sophisticated. If we were to isolate Swift's contributions from songs she co-wrote, it would sound a lot like Albarn’s renditions that night: intact at its core despite having several layers peeled back. Both Albarn and Swift function within a broad spectrum of sounds, from simple to complex. They both work with a variety of artists; they both credit those artists.
What seems to be the problem then?
It appears that Damon Albarn has a very specific criterion based on which he determines whether or not a songwriter is the “real deal.” He has undoubtedly covered more ground than the average musician, but that doesn’t make him any more of a songwriter than someone else who also writes songs. What's even more confusing is that Albarn is solely credited for writing only two of the eleven songs on his most recent album.
Albarn’s comments weren’t sexist nor were they “Trumpian” as Jack Antonoff recently suggested. He’s always been uppity and dismissive toward artists he doesn’t care for, like that time he accused Kanye West of trapping Paul McCartney in an “abusive collaboration” or when he said this about “Glee”: “It’s a homogenization of everything and it ultimately will lead to emptiness.”
Damon Albarn has always elevated a diverse range of artists throughout his career and his creativity is still expanding. However, he isn’t among today’s leading songwriters whereas Taylor Swift is. He might be traditional and he might be a purist but he no longer guides culture to the same capacity as her. For that reason alone, he doesn’t get to decide what the “right” way to do things is.