Photo by Dia Morgan
I Hate The World Today: Songwriter Shelly Peiken Looks Back On Writing "Bitch" With Meredith Brooks
Shelly Peiken might not be a household name, but the songs she's written very much are. In the mid-'90s, she and alt-pop singer Meredith Brooks reclaimed one of the more cutting slurs assigned to women with their 1997 GRAMMY-nominated anthem "Bitch." A few years later, Peiken co-wrote one of Christina Aguilera's earliest pop gems, "What A Girl Wants" with producer/songwriter Guy Roche. And that's just the beginning: Among her other recognizable co-writes are songs like Aguilera's "Come On Over Baby," Brandy's "Almost Doesn't Count," Mandy Moore's "I Wanna Be WIth You" and "Who You Are" by Jessie J.
In 2018, Peiken wrote a book, Confessions of a Serial Songwriter, that chronicled her years in the industry, and now, she's at last releasing a set of solo material in a debut album, 2.0, which was released in late August and comprises reimaginings of "Bitch" and a handful of brand-new originals.
"Sometimes I wonder if that song loosened the lid for more risqué language [in pop music]," Peiken, who is also a founding member of SONA (Songwriters of North America), wonders out loud about her and Brooks' smash hit. "Once that was accepted, I think a lot of songwriters felt like they could get away with more."
Below, Peiken shares her memories from the "Bitch" era with GRAMMY.com, and looks back on writing songs for Aguilera and the significant ways songwriting has changed over the last few decades.
How are you doing with everything?
I'm doing okay. I'm counting my blessings. In the beginning it was sort of freaky because I waited my whole life to make this one album and I drop it like as soon as I could quarantine. So you can't really get out there and enjoy it.
Everybody's had a heartbreak and everybody's had a kid not be able to graduate. Everybody's had something. So, I'm trying to have perspective. A friend of mine said to me the other day, "Shelly, we're all in the same storm, but we're all in it in different boats. There are people who are alone in tiny little boats and it's a whole different experience."
That's a lovely way of putting it. In regards to the timing, you've been writing songs for years. Why did this feel like the right time put out something of your own?
Well, I started out many years ago. I'm going to date myself now. In the '80s, I got out of college, I put a band together and I thought I would be an artist myself. I loved performing, I loved writing songs, and I thought I'll sing my own songs. Labels started coming and I didn't get signed, but they started recording the songs I had to sing. I thought to myself, that's a really nice alternative avenue. I was in New York City. I loved being there. I didn't need to travel and promote. At the time, you could make a decent living as a songwriter, even if you didn't have big hits because physical albums were selling. For every physical album that's sold, even if you had an album cut on it, you could make 9 cents. So if an album went gold or platinum and you had one or two of them a year, even if nobody ever heard your song as a single, you could pay your rent.
So, I thought, this is okay. That lasted a really long time—up until when we switched over to digital delivery and physical albums stopped selling and songwriters could not sustain a livelihood anymore because digital royalties didn't pay. To add to that, I was getting older in a very youth-oriented industry. I had had a handful of hits in the gold rush, so I was okay financially. But my spirit was like, do you write if you're not going to make any money?
Yes, you do, but it was harder to get in rooms. Technology made it possible for a person to be a songwriter without actually being a musician. So, there were hundreds of thousands more of us, and I got into this big funk. So, I started writing and blogging and posting about it, and those musings took on a life of their own and were published as a book called Confessions of a Serial Songwriter. I felt like, wow, that was a magical moment. That came out of, what am I going to do now? I followed my truth and I narrated the book and it was nominated for a GRAMMY in Best Spoken Word.
It's not how-to book—it's about the emotional journey of all this stuff changing. But the reason why I made my record is because I toured the country with my book for a couple years, and it was a really fun ride. I went to the high schools and colleges and music students. Then I was like, "Now what?" Now I'm even older than I was three years ago.
Mind you, there are a lot of really young kids who would do anything to be in the room, writing a song with me every day. But most of them would prefer to be with people their own age, in their own culture, and I don't blame them. I mean, I'm not writing about going to clubs and going to parties and hooking up, and that's what you think about when you're young. So, I thought, maybe I'll make that record now—the one that I never made in the beginning.
I could see students being enthralled by your presence when you visited music schools—your "gold rush" era’s aesthetics are so on trend right now. I’m talking about the late ‘90s and the early ‘00s.
Shortly after I wrote “What A Girl Wants” and “Bitch,” women would come up to me and say, "Oh my God, that song is my jam." But now I'll be out and about, and some young person will come up to me and they'll say, "Oh my God, ‘What A Girl Wants’ and 'Bitch,’ those songs were my mother’s jam." I'm like, "Oh, my god."
But you know what? [Those songs] are still recognized. They are still in the zeitgeist. I have to tell you: Those two songs have really saved my life. I talk about them all the time. They are still are being licensed and used, and contestants use them on TV shows. Just a few months ago, “Bitch” was rerecorded by Ruby Amanfu and used in “Little Fires Everywhere.” It was a huge scene. I just feel like there's so much content out there. A lot of it is great, but there's so much of it, and it gets recent. It's here today, gone tomorrow. Songs used to stay hits for 30 weeks.
"Bitch" did such great work to showcase women as complex beings, especially in popular culture, which tends to present women as being two-dimensional. How do you feel “Bitch” has aged—or not—in the time since its release?
Women who love that song and relate to that song—they don't think of it as aging at all. The message is still the same. The version I cut from my album is way darker, more cinematic, but it doesn't have to be that. I mean, I love Meredith Brooks’ version too, but as far as the use of the word at the time, Meredith and I looked at each other, we didn't assess it as we wrote it because while we were writing it, we were just in the zone. This is what we want to say. This is how we want to say it. But after we were done, we looked at each other and said, "Will anybody ever put this on the radio, with the word?"
And the truth is, The Stones did it, Elton John did it. Nobody ever kept their songs off the radio. But two women calling themselves a bitch—that they were going to stop. But when you think about it, that song coming out now would be beige. When you think about the language in pop that gets by and the things that are spoken of, it's pornographic.
Sometimes I wonder if that song loosened the lid for more risqué language. Once that was accepted, I think a lot of songwriters felt like they could get away with more. I mean, there are explicit versions on Taylor Swift's album. She uses, I think the word S-H-I-T in the first or second song.
Women are complicated. We're not two-dimensional, and men who would be worthy of being with us realize that and they embrace it. In fact, they love it. We're not boring. That was sort of a nod to... You wouldn't want it any other way. The people who love us as we are.
Can you expand on your memories surrounding the release of "What A Girl Wants"? What was the process like, writing that? Did it at all resemble the collaboration between you and Meredith Brooks?
Yeah. I did not write that song with [Christina Aguilera]. That was from an era where you could get together or go to a co-writer, write a song and pitch it because labels solicited outside songs. They wanted material. Now it's like they see a song coming in and they're like, "No, don't pitch me any songs."
And really, no one’s doing A&R at labels anymore. The artists have a posse around them and that posse is really writing all their [songs] with them. Once in a while, an outside song will slip in, but it's very unusual.
So, [“What A Girl Wants”] was a song that Guy Roche and I had written and pitched a number of times with a lot of acts passing on it. And finally, Ron Fair, who was making this record with Christina, heard it and thought it would be a good fit, but when I think about the passes we got on it, and then Ron taking it to number one… It was the right song at the right time.
Right. Well, also if you're lucky you get a movie named after one of your songs.
Yeah. That was funny, right? So, I have to tell you about that movie. You're talking about “What A Girl Wants?”
I am. Seminal early 2000s content!
With that movie, they had requested “What A Girl Wants” and said, "We want this song so badly for a spot in this film that we will pay you way more than the everyday license fee in order to have an exclusive on this song for six months. You can't give it to anybody else to put in any ad or any other movie." At first, we were like, "What! This is a big hit. People are going to call and we don't want to give you this license for this little amount of money, because we want to put it in other things as well if we get called." And they said, "We don't want you to do that." It was called an exclusive and they upped it to this exorbitant number I can't even repeat. We said, "Okay, deal."
Sounds like they really made it worth your while.
On the night of the movie premiere—I wrote about this in my book Confessions of a Serial Songwriter—Guy and I get together and we go to the film and we're so excited, [saying], "Oh my God, we're going to have the best placement ever." The opening scene comes and there's no “What A Girls Wants.” And we're quarter of the way through the movie, and there's no “What A Girl Wants.” Then the montage comes through like, "Oh, here it is. Here it comes," and there's no “What A Girls Wants,” and then the closing credits, and there's no “What A Girls Wants.” We're like, "Okay, well, they always do two songs back-to-back in the credits." They never played it.
So, the movie, which is named after your song, doesn’t actually include your song in the soundtrack?!
It was not in it. We left the theater just looking at each other embarrassed because we had gone to the premiere. We were bragging to everybody. "Oh yeah, we're the writers of ‘What A Girl Wants.’" It wasn't in the film.
I thought for some reason it was in the montage where Amanda Bynes is running around London, shopping with Colin Firth.
No. Right. You remember it wasn't. After we got over the embarrassment and the mortification of it not being in there and I was bragging about it, we looked at each other. We said, "Oh my God, what about that exclusive fee?" We turned down all these other requests and then they didn't even use it. What about the fee? So, we went to the afterparty and we drank many cocktails. Then in the morning, the first thing I did was I called my publisher and they said, "Oh, if somebody offers you an exclusive and you agree to take your song off of the market, they have to pay you whether they use it or not," which I didn't know. But I always think about it as the biggest fee I was ever paid for nothing.
At least they kept the movie title the same! Though now that I think of it, sometimes I hear a song prominently in a film trailer and then it never shows up in the film itself. Did it not even appear in the trailer?
They didn't even play it in the trailer. But you know what? It gives everybody the illusion when they see that title, they think of my song and it keeps it in the zeitgeist.
I have a big movie poster in my office, framed with Guy and I standing in front of it with our thumbs up before we saw the movie thinking, “This is because of us.”
Moving a little later in the decade, you wrote a song for Britney Spears—“Out From Under,” which appeared on 2008’s Circus. Were you aware of what she was going through at the time?
I was sent a piece of music. I write all different kinds of ways, Rachel. Sometimes I sit down at the piano by myself, I put my hands on the keys and words come at the same time as the music comes. And other times—like this time—I was sent a whole piece of music, the whole backing track. I was asked to try to write something for Britney, and very often backing tracks don't inspire me at all. They don't make me feel anything. This one did. It was really easy to write to. I didn't think of what she was going through legally. It felt like it was an unrequited kind of love song, and I knew she had broken up with Justin Timberlake recently, was it?
Actually, it was Kevin Federline at the time.
Yeah. It was somebody. She had had a big breakup and I put myself in her shoes. We've all had a big breakup and I just channeled that emotion, and those words seem to marry and her label loved it. Teresa LaBarbera Whites, who was in the mix, really loved it too. And there was all talk of it being a single for her. I was really excited about that because I truly loved that song. But when push came to shove and I don't know if they just told me this, it was a lovely thing to say. They said, Britney decided against it because it made her seem too vulnerable. And I thought, "Well, I'm glad the song works that it made her feel that way or made her feel period." My other thought was, "Yeah, but what's wrong with that?" I think recently there's been a surge of songs that did make us appear more emotional or victims, but at the time that it wasn't who put that out there. Now it's like what people want.
Yeah. That's all that Selena Gomez puts out!
Right. Exactly. In fact, I heard Selena on the radio recently and I feel like every artist that's coming out with another record after not having done one—they always have the story about "this journey I've been on." I was on top and I crashed because of the guy or drugs or fame or something. They always have to have this arc in order to almost have an excuse to come back. [But] you don't have to have [an arc]. It's just how you feel.