How the Rugged Individual Myth Distorts the Power of Collaboration in Art

If you want to understand the Taylor Swift v. Damon Albarn public dispute, I suggest exploring the history of super hero comics in the U.S.

I know that may seem odd, but from the wonderful novel by Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, to the infamous fights over who created what at Marvel (Stan Lee v. Jack Kirby and many, many others), to the rising awareness the the Marvel Cinematic Universe is generating huge amounts of wealth on the backs of ignored and marginalized creators, we have ample evidence that identifying single creators of complex art is much more difficult than people tend to imagine.

While there is no question that Albarn was factually wrong in his claim that Swift doesn’t write her songs, and glaringly inept in his sweeping discounting of the value of co-writing, I think the debate offers an excellent opportunity to interrogate how people often use the word “write” to mean “create,” and how the rugged individual myth (or better framed as a lie or delusion) distorts the power and reality of collaboration in almost all creative acts.

While rewatching some of the Netflix series based on Marvel characters, I noticed, for example, four creators identified for Luke Cage—Archie Goodwin, George Tuska, Roy Thomas, and John Romita Sr. This list identifies both writers and artists as creators, highlighting the essential problem that has existed in the super hero comic book business since the beginning.

Essentially, the comic book industry over the past century is an embarrassing story of denying creative contributions and resisting the essential nature of collaboration. Ironically, Marvel infamously experienced a crisis in the 1990s because a new wave of celebrity artists/creators began to assert their roles in creating comic books.

Throughout pop culture, what is created and consumed by audiences and who actually creates the product are overwhelmingly about collaboration—not only comic books (typically created by scripters/writers; pencil, ink, and color artists; and letterers) but TV series and films, and of course, pop music.

In a ham-fisted way, Albarn is speaking from and into an idealized view of the rugged individual as Artist.

The silly part of all this, of course, is that everyone knows the pop music industry is necessarily collaborative. In my own music fandom, for example, I learned to appreciate groups and solo acts that viewed pop music as both popular and art—notably my fandom of R.E.M., CAKE, Ben Folds (and Ben Folds Five), and The National.

And while there is a sort of wonderment to believing that performers such as Prince and Ben Folds created and performed entire albums “on their own,” and to watching Folds perform solo in live concerts, the truth is that nothing is really created in a complete vacuum of rugged individualism.

During the 1980s and 1990s when the disaster was brewing at Marvel, Athens, GA-based R.E.M. was rising to prominence and made the only right decision a musical group could make—assigned equal credit for all song to all four founding members of the band—Berry, Buck, Mills, Stipe. For many years, R.E.M. also did not include lyrics with their album releases to maintain (some claimed) a focus on the whole product.

I don’t see much value in teasing out the Swift/Albarn back-and-forth itself because, frankly, Albarn’s comments were daft and even his apology is lacking. Swift is the creator of her catalogue; she, like all artists, did not do that alone, but the work is still unequivocally hers even if and when it isn’t only hers.

But Albarn’s original comments are worth unpacking in terms his use of “writes.”

Since I am a pop music fan, I have always noticed a jumbled overlap of fans who use “writes” to mean lyrics and fans who use “writes” to mean music (and then subgroups of different instruments, song parts, etc.).

Whether it is super hero comics, pop music, or film/TV shows, people are apt to look for ways to identify who deserves the real credit for “writing” a product.

That urge, I think, is driven by the rugged individual myth that pervades U.S. culture, and that ultimately distorts the power and importance of collaboration.

Michael Stipe, formerly of R.E.M., has recently begun working more seriously on solo music and has openly acknowledged his role as mostly the lyricist for R.E.M. and thus needing others to help him (re)learn how to write music as well.

Folds rose to fame with his group, Ben Folds Five, but his transition to a solo career was quite different since Folds worked as a writer of lyrics and music in the band [1].

And if we circle back to Swift, she is a powerful example of creative ownership since she has begun to reclaim her catalogue, including famously working with Aaron Dessner (of The National) to critical success (Dessner also defended Swift against Albarn).

Were the original songs under a different producer Swift’s? Are the new versions Swift’s? And is her “ownership” or “writing” diminished by collaboration?

It seems beyond silly (and mostly sexist) to challenge Swift as a writer/creator of her work, and it also seems careless not to acknowledge that her collaborators do matter; the collaboration is an important element of creativity that is undervalued in American culture (as a subset of the larger sexism driving who is allowed to be individually great).

I think we should take much more time to acknowledge and celebrate collaboration, assuming it is nested there in virtually all creative acts and products; “no [hu]man is an island,” and all that.

But we should also take better care of how we talk about creativity; in many cases, we should prefer “creates” instead of “writes” because art/products often include initial ideas, more detailed fleshing out into products, and the performances of many people with gifts and talents.

Especially with pop music, we should also acknowledge that part of creativity is performance; Swift is an artists and a performer (and as many people have pointed out, Frank Sinatra, Elvis, etc., can be described as entertainers more so than artists in terms of their lack of creating/writing songs by comparison).

The Swift/Albarn clash is a great deal of mansplaining rubbish; Albarn simply shouldn’t have made those comments. But it is also a powerful message about the distorted view of creativity and art in the U.S. because of our rugged individual myth-delusion grounded in a pervasive sexism.

[1] Folds’s “One Down” has great lines about the role of the pop music song writer:

Ben, just make up junk
And turn it in
But i could never could quite bring myself
To write a bunch of shit
I don’t like wasting time
On music that won’t make me proud
But now I’ve found a reason
To sit right down and shit some out

“One Down,” Ben Folds