One of the people I follow on Twitter raised a question this week, and I was dumb enough to Tweet an answer.
There was some routine online ugliness that followed, but for the most part, the whole experience was kind of fun.
Who is the greatest American songwriter of all time?
I didn’t have to hesitate. The answer was obvious, in my mind.
There were literally thousands of other responses, but from what I could see, I was the only one who said that.
The list of songwriting names covered a surprisingly wide range of musical genres. It included Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Woody Guthrie, Willie Nelson, Prince, Hank Williams, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Diamond, Johnny Cash, Warren Zevon, Billy Joel, Brian Wilson, Phil Spector, Tom Petty, Cole Porter, Stevie Wonder, Leonard Cohen, Richard Rodgers, Buddy Holly, Jim Steinman, Smokey Robinson, Paul Simon, Burt Bacharach, George Gershwin and many more.
You could make an argument for any one of those artists, and you wouldn’t be wrong. After all, this is not a science. This is a matter of opinion.
When it comes to music, you either like a song or you don’t. My thing is not necessarily your thing, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Personally, I like songs by each and every one on that list of American songwriters, but Carole King was the first person to pop into my mind.
I typically have facts and numbers to back up my opinions, so here you go.
One-hundred and eighteen songs (that’s right — 118 songs) written or co-written by Carole King hit Billboard’s top 100 chart. More than 400 Carole King songs have been recorded by over 1,000 artists. Among dozens of others, King wrote hit songs for the Beatles, Aretha Franklin, James Taylor, Bobby Vee, the Drifters, Dusty Springfield, the Everly Brothers, the Monkees, the Byrds and Grand Funk Railroad.
If you listen to a music playlist with songs written after 1960, there is a very good chance that there’s a song written by Carole King on that list — and you probably don’t realize it.
And I like most of those songs. My favorite, if I have to choose one, is probably “One Fine Day,” originally a hit for the Chiffons in 1963. King recorded her own version years later, and it’s priceless. The piano riff that opens the song is both beautiful and remarkable. I’m no dancer, and it makes me want to dance.
My Tweet was rudely challenged on Twitter by some others who seemingly couldn’t stand the fact that I chose a songwriter who wasn’t their favorite songwriter, but I didn’t engage the argument. I pretty much just told them to leave me alone, because it’s a silly thing to argue about, as far as I’m concerned.
If my favorite food was prime rib, and your favorite was lobster, what good would it do to argue about it? You’re never going to convince me that lobster tastes better than prime rib, and I’m never going to convince you that prime rib tastes better than lobster, so further discussion would be a waste of time.
The same rule applies to musical taste. It doesn’t bother me if you don’t like something I do.
Something else did bother me, however. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered why I was the only person among thousands to mention Carole King as one of the great American songwriters.
Look at the numbers again — 118 hits, over 400 songs recorded by over 1,000 singers. No one else on the list even comes close to that.
Now look at all the other songwriters who were mentioned. A diverse and talented group, covering many genres — but what do they all have in common?
Think about it a minute, then take a guess.
You’re right. They’re all men. Not a female songwriter among them.
In fairness, there were a handful of people on Twitter who mentioned Dolly Parton — and it’s really hard to not like Dolly Parton. She’s an American treasure. Loretta Lynn was also mentioned, by just one person.
Other than that, it’s all men. No mention of Lucinda Williams, Joni Mitchell, Dorothy Fields, Billie Holiday, Grace Slick, Taylor Swift, Joan Jett, Lady Gaga, Valerie Simpson, Christine McVie or any of the hundreds of American women who successfully penned songs over the years.
That’s just wrong, and it’s indicative of a misogyny embedded into our consciousness.
As the father of two adult daughters who are trying to carve their place in the world, as the son of a mother who already has, as the brother of a sister who can do anything as well as I can, and as the husband of a wife who can do it even better than me, it makes me a little angry.
Yes, women can write songs. They can write books and opinion columns, too. They can also run companies, drive trucks, read the news, coach a football game, fight fires, carve meat, pilot airships, combat our nation’s enemies and solve complex problems.
And judging from the high number of them currently running for president, it’s not a stretch to think they could run the country — possibly better than it’s ever been run.
One fine day, we’ll find that out for sure.