If asked to list my top five vocalists, I’d have to say Sammy Davis Jr., Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Myles Kennedy. I’d consider all of them true artists: all were or are unique and bring something special to the songs they sing. But with the exceptions of Kennedy and Franklin, they’re more famous for singing songs that were written for them, rather than for singing their own songs.
It really grinds my gears when people argue that for someone to be an artist they must write their own music. Some of the biggest musical names in all genres are not artists by this criteria, so why do we always judge music negatively if it’s not been written by the performer? Is a performer not an artist? Admittedly a song written by a competent performer for themselves often has more impact and meaning, but must an act have a deeper meaning behind their music to be an artist? Of course not. If we judge this way then we fail to give credit to what a good performer does, which is take a song and change it so completely that it becomes theirs.
An amazing artist like this is one of last years’ The Voice contestants, Leah McFall. Her renditions of iconic songs such as ‘I Will Survive’ were barely recognisable as their original counterparts as she had switched them up and made them her own with such skill, or Vince Kidd’s shocking yet brilliant series two audition piece: Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’. Are we to say that these individuals are not artists, when their performances were so masterfully rearranged, or that Frank Sinatra is not one of the most iconic artists, as others wrote the majority of what he is known for?
If an artist doesn’t have to write their own music to be considered an artist, how do do we clarify what a real artist is? I think an artist has to have some semblance of talent. Sinatra, Fitzgerald, and The Voice contestants, all have or had a mastery of their vocal, and the prowess to come up with unique arrangements of their music. It’s the distinction between the scores of people trying to be Taylor Swift on YouTube and true artists: some people want to take a song and make it so completely their own that the original is old news. How can we possibly consider ‘UK Guns N’ Roses’ and the like as artists when their aims are purely to pretend to be their favourite bands? This sort of role play can make for a brilliant live show, but they don’t create anything. Nothing is switched up, changed or otherwise altered and to be an artist the music should be taken and remoulded, made the artist’s own.
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