When I was looking up information about Sky Ferreira’s debut album, I was struck by the familiarity of some of the names of people who were writing and producing her music with her. One name in particular stood out, only because I happen to have seen his name while looking up another young woman who has broken out into pop stardom this year, namely one Olivia Rodrigo. The man’s name is Daniel Nigro. Now, many people will not be familiar with Daniel Nigro, because as a musician his career has been far less openly popular than that of other people, but as a songwriter and producer he is very well known and has worked with a substantial amount of people who are much better known than he is, being the co-writer and main producer for the entirety of Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour album, most notably.
We live in an age that is obsessed about identity politics, but one of the (not-so) dirty secrets about the world of popular music is that a great deal of what is sung by women and viewed as being the sign of feminine power has in fact been written and produced by men. I do not consider this to be a bad thing, by any means, but it is something that we must recognize. In the early 1800’s, Jane Austen complained that it has been hard for women to get a good hearing because the pen has been in the hands of men. And to a great extent this is still true. To be sure, there are certainly women who have been notable songwriters (Diane Warren comes to mind), but it is far more frequently the case that men are writing songs for men or other women, and pop singers are often performing what is written for them.
This is by no means a new phenomenon. In the 1970’s and early 1980’s, for example, we had the phenomenon of Dionne Warwick singing “Heartbreaker,” a song written by the Bee Gees. We had artists like Laura Branigan and Cher singing songs that had been written originally by Michael Bolton before he became famous as a singer in his own right. We had the Carpenters, where a familiar division of labor made Karen with her wonderful and emotive voice the foreground while Richard with his instrumentation and songwriting and A&R and production served as the background. We had a similar situation in ABBA, where the two women were the lead singers but the men were the producers, backup singers, and songwriters, a situation that would continue in later Scandinavian acts like Roxette and Ace of Base. That is to say, there is a pattern where the voice of women as it is heard in public, and the image and persona of women as they appear have been strongly influenced and shaped by important men as songwriters, producers, and musicians, even where women are receiving attention as the visual and audio focal point of the group.
I do not say this to criticize it, but merely to point it out. There are a great many people, for example, who would like to see Sky Ferreira release a lot of new albums again. The people who helped to write and produce her music have largely moved on to other, more successful acts. Sky Ferreira is not some independent do-it-yourself star who has shown comfort in writing, producing, playing on music without having a large studio backing, and her music did not prove to be popular enough to maintain that backing over the long haul. I think this is to be regretted, but if she does come back and try her hand again at making popular music, she would need a team behind her, a team that includes songwriters and producers who are likely going to be men who have their own history and connections within the music industry. This is by no means unique to her, but is the general fate of a pop artist. Popular artists, in general, and for a long time, have had other people writing and producing their music while they served as the face of operations. It is time we spent more effort understanding what was beneath the surface.