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They're Playing My Song is a column by Bruce Pollock, where he focuses on the one song that had the greatest impact on a particular artist or songwriter's career. Here, he speaks with Shelly Peiken about the hit she wrote for Christina Aguilera.

"What A Girl Wants"

Artist: Christina Aguilera
Writers: Shelly Peiken and Guy Roche
Album: Christina Aguilera
Label: RCA
Year: 1999
Chart Positions: US: #1, UK: #3

For most songwriters, achieving the vaunted pinnacle of a #1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 chart would represent a breakout moment, a professional coming of age leading to a long-awaited hot streak of unprecedented visibility. For Shelly Peiken, who'd been placing songs with major artists like Celine Dion, Brandy, Cher, and Britney Spears for 20 years, the feeling she got when "What A Girl Wants," the song she wrote with Guy Roche for Christina Aguilera, peaked at #1 in January 2000, was more like "the universe saved that little cherry on top for me."

"I've got to tell you," she added, "in the '90s and the 2000s lots of records went Platinum. I'm sitting here in my office and I've got Platinum records all over my wall. Many of them went double and triple Platinum, because there wasn't any other way to hear the music than to buy it."

This situation has changed dramatically in the new century, but, for songwriters, not for the better. "What really changed things is when Napster came about," says Peiken, who is at the forefront these days of the fight to get songwriters their proper rewards. "Then iTunes thought, We're going to put a Band-Aid on it. We're going to sell tracks for 99 cents. The album format disappeared because everybody was listening à la carte. In the early days, whatever you bought, whether it was a single or an album, had to be a physical copy. Right now, there's no physical copy. I used to make a really nice living from songs that were album cuts that nobody ever heard on the radio. It didn't have to have a big hit. Publishers were signing writers because they could recoup from album sales, but there aren't any more album sales. The only thing you can make money from is airplay. Fortunately, there are so many more stations than there were 20 years ago. So, when you have a hit it's played more repetitively because people are more connected to the familiar. On the other hand, it might not be a copyright that you're going to remember in two years, because everything is coming and going so much faster right now."

Peiken's two biggest hits are a case in point. The Aguilera title (as well as her part as the team that wrote her next #1 song, "Come On Over Baby") doesn't get licensed as often as her other major hit, "Bitch," by Meredith Brooks, which peaked at #2 in the summer of 1997, kept out of the top slot by Puff Daddy's "I'll Be Missing You."

"Meredith Brooks had a development deal on Interscope Records," says Peiken. "She was writing and turning in songs to them and they kept dismissing her songs. I think she had one more song left and if they passed on it she would have to leave. She was introduced to me by her manager and I went to see her play at a club in Hollywood. I thought she had balls. I thought she could really sing. But I didn't know what to write with her. Then I had this really miserable day and I started writing a song with the line, 'I hate the world today.' I thought, Oh my God, I'm gonna call that girl Meredith because she needed a song to bring to Interscope.

So I called her the morning after I had this idea and she loved it. She came over and we wrote it together start to finish. She picked up an acoustic guitar and honestly, it was just line, line, line, line. It was like ping pong. It was really wonderful. That's the way it's supposed to be: Somebody says a line and it makes you think of another line. When we were done, we were excited, but I never like to get my hopes up because this business is full of disappointments.

She made a demo and took the song to Interscope and they passed! Her manager got in the car and went over to Capitol and Capitol signed her that day. She called me and she said, 'They're gonna release this as a single.' And I thought, 'No way.'

I had been writing songs that were recorded as album cuts for 10 years without ever having a song on the radio in my country. When I first heard it, I was riding down a hill in Laurel Canyon in my tiny little Miata. I had a huge pregnant belly up against the wheel and I was listening to K-ROQ and I heard, 'I hate the world today' and I nearly peed in my pants.

I didn't do anything to promote it. All you can do is watch Billboard every week. Or you call in to the record company or you call managers, because they have all these behind-the-scenes numbers. How is it doing? How many ads this week? And it just kept going up and up. I'm sure there were a lot of people at the label I could have talked to, but my hands were tied. I didn't know any of those people. I wouldn't have known what to do. So I just prayed a lot. It's one of those things that when the record starts moving, then the label gets interested and they get behind it.

I hung out with Meredith a lot at the time, watching her career suddenly take off. We used to take daily walks together. Once they signed her we wrote six more songs for that record. None of them were big singles, but her album sold 3 million copies. When you have six songs on a record that sells 3 million copies you could buy a house and build a home studio. But you couldn't do that today because there aren't any albums."

Shelly Peiken:
Peiken with Christina Aguilera
Remarkable things can happen on very ordinary days. My friend Todd Chapman had called me to come over to his house in North Hollywood. He said Ron Fair, an A&R guy at BMG, wanted to make a record with this girl. She was an ex-Mouseketeer. He was collecting material for her first album. He said, "Why don't I send her over and you can see how compatible you are?"

So Todd called me to come over and meet her. She wasn't glamorous. She was very shy and quiet. We worked with her for a couple of weeks and she tried her voice out on some songs. Then I went to work with my friend Guy (Roche) and we wrote the song called "What A Girl Needs" and we sent it to Ron. It was sort of like cheating on Todd, but I mean, you can't worry about that.

Ron asked me to switch the title to "What a Girl Wants." The demo we sent over was way different from the single. First of all, it wasn't Christina singing it. We hired somebody. It was slow and plodding and honestly, I can't believe that Ron heard through it.



They sped it up when she cut it. He wanted it immediately but we probably thought about it for a week before letting him have it, because she wasn't really anybody. Right now, it's almost impossible to get a song cut unless you write it with the artist. Back then we had choices, so we waited. They took it right away. They didn't say, "Well, we've got to hold on to it for six months before we decide." But honestly, everything's on hold until the album comes out.

I didn't go to the studio on that one and it's always been a little thorn in my side. I think I would have liked to be there. Very often I am at the studio when somebody's cutting my song. That's half of the thrill. Some producers might think it can be a distraction. They tell you not to come or just don't tell you about it. I could have said, "You know what, I wrote the song. I'm coming." I do remember being a little sore about not being there.

I think "Genie In A Bottle" was already out when they told us the next single was going to be "What A Girl Wants." Sometimes you don't even listen when people say that. It's not like they're lying, but there's just no way they can tell right then because so many things can happen.

Christina and I didn't party together. We didn't go out to dinner. But we wrote a couple of times together and I took her home a couple of times, so we got some car rides together. Or if she would perform at a concert, I'd see her backstage very often and give her hugs. She was always very sweet. I had a baby in 1997, so my daughter was really little and she'd always ask about her. But she didn't cut any more of my songs after the first album. Sometimes I think artists want to distance themselves from the cluster of the first stuff that they recorded. She probably felt like she was really young and she wanted to get into more sophisticated stuff. Often artists like to try out new people and move on to new producers.

When you're on an album that's on its way to selling 8 million copies, you never realize it right away. You know it's showing signs of doing well, but you try not to jinx it. It's always exciting when you have a hit going up the charts. "Bitch" was exciting because it was my first big hit and "What A Girl Wants" was exciting because it went #1.

I was reading my daughter Winnie The Pooh when I got the call that we went #1. As much as I wanted to jump up and down and scream, as a mother, knowing what's most important in life, I couldn't interrupt story time. I finished reading, tucked her under the covers, and sat in the rocker in the dark like I did every night until I was sure she was sleeping. And then I left the room, closed the door gently and jumped up and down in the hallway. I still couldn't scream because that would wake her up. That was the extent of my celebration. And that was enough.

June 26, 2018
Shelly's blog is located at shellypeiken.com. Her Grammy-nominated book is called Confessions of a Serial Songwriter (Backbeat Books).

    About the Author:

    Bruce PollockBruce Pollock ("The Next to Last of the Rock Journalists") is the Deems Taylor Award winning author of 15 books on music, including Bob Dylan FAQ, America's Songs, V.3 Working Musicians: Defining Moments from the Road and The Rock Song Index: The 7500 Most Important Songs of Rock and Roll History. Visit Bruce at brucepollockthewriter.comMore from Bruce Pollock
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