I've never liked the term "singer-songwriter."
It's just so bland and so... literal.
By contrast, "rock and roll" describes the physical reaction the music causes in the bodies of people who hear it. The driving beat causes people to move and to remember that they are a wholeness of mind, spirit and body. After centuries of Puritanism, it was a revolution to re-engage their body.
And "jazz" reminds us of the jasmine perfume worn by New Orleans' prostitutes. This immediately conjures up all sorts of images and impressions. You can practically taste the thick, smokey, perfumey air of a New Orleans piano brothel. You can hear the raunchy trombone slide, smokey suggestive sax and the falsetto orgasm of a trumpet.
But "singer-songwriter?" Well, it describes a group of people who write songs. And sing them.
What a terrible name for a genre and/or classification of musicians.
It's even worse to use this term when better ones exist: My favorite is "troubadour." It carries with it a sense of drama. The word has courtly love origins but to me it goes beyond that. There's mission and purpose carried by that word. I imagine someone who puts all their belongings in a knapsack--she or he has a message--a positive message of hope--and a call to travel the world to share that message.
There are layers of color with the term "bard," too. I imagine a chubby, bearded fellow entertaining a rowdy crowd at a tavern with humor, innuendo and fun songs of adventure of days gone by.
"Balladeer" makes me think of someone who spreads love and sappiness everywhere they go, perhaps for profit--cheesy and sometimes too commercial, but hey, there's still something of interest here.
"Folk singer" is good, too, but I'm picky about who gets to use this term. Few singer-songwriters are true folk singers in the sense of carrying the voice and songs of the people with them. When the 60s gave way to the 70s, I'm glad they stopped calling themselves folksingers because that would devalue the term. It just wasn't accurate anymore.
70s singer-songwriters are some of my favorite artists of all time. I just wish they had a better name for themselves.
Maybe the reason why today's singer-songwriters don't use any of the above terms is precisely because they aren't driven by any sense of mission. They just want to draw attention to themselves without giving us a reason to deserve that attention. "Hey... look at me... I sing. And write songs. I'm not part of any movement nor do I represent anyone other than me" So maybe the phenomenon is aptly named, after all. Ah... our words give us away, don't they? It's a sign of the times: The ultimate reality is the self, isolated from all connections, commitments and associations. "Bard," "troubadour," "balladeer" all connote that you have a role as part of something bigger than yourself and that you have a mission as part of that role. By contrast, "singer-songwriter" is a way of saying, "I am my own genre--I am more than any particular role or mission." And at first glance, that sounds good to the contemporary ear... but I don't think it works. "To be human is to be social" as Aristotle said. We think we get farther by elevating the self but I don't think we do. Anyway, that's a discussion for another day.
But there's more. There's another reason the term bothers me, and I think I've figured out what it is:
There are no two groups of people less compatible with each other than singers and songwriters. The combination is an absurdity. Ne'er the twain shall meet. I hate to be reductionist (by nature since I'm in the first category) but there might be some truth here...
Songwriters be like:
OMG... (pointing excitedly) WOW! EVERYBODY LOOK: THE WORLD! waking up from the brink of nihilistic oblivion... I'm compelled to shout celebrations to the cosmos using this broken dish as percussion... because the way the rain hit the roof gave me a renewed sense of hope... and I might shower this week, but not if you tell me to... Clear the way--I need coffee and a guitar and a whole lotta space! THERE'S TRUTH THAT NEEDS TO BE SPOKEN!
Singers be like:
Umm... yeah... your pitch in the third measure was a bit flat and that's why no one can stand you as a human being, but we won't actually tell you, just indicate it passive-aggressively. Fake smile and sit up straight, darling! This is not how it was done in 18th Century Vienna. I'm sure your "ideas" are wonderful (*smirk*) but we do Mozart as intended, sweetie (meanwhile the ghost of Mozart (who built 18th Century Vienna) wants to GTFO and hang with the people in the first category)...