The Hit Bitch

spinsep90.jpgI wouldn’t have guessed that a Chicago video would prompt one of the liveliest discussions we’ve had about any aspect of the 1988 countdown, but there you have it–if you haven’t read the comments on “Look Away,” go join the party.

The debate over songwriter Diane Warren inspired me to dig up one of my first professional bylines: a 1990 Spin article about her. (I believe it was the second profile I wrote for Spin, after an interview with the short-lived “supergroup” Bad English.) There’s lots of sentences in this piece I’m tempted to rewrite twenty years later, but in the interest of historical accuracy, I’m leaving them all untouched (except for correcting the spelling of Diane’s first name–somehow she made it into the magazine as Dianne).

Michael Bolton calls her the “Hit Bitch.” She calls herself “the luckiest person in the world.” Most people don’t call her anything; they just walk around humming her songs.

Her name is Diane Warren and she’s the most successful songwriter in America. She’s written five Number One songs, including Milli Vanilli’s “Blame It on the Rain,” Bad English’s “When I See You Smile,” and Taylor Dayne’s “Love Will Lead You Back.” Some of her songs never transcend formula (Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” another Number One). The best, however, are seamless songcraft, disposable but timeless (Belinda Carlisle’s “I Get Weak”). All of them seem most at home on the Billboard Hot 100, where she’s had as many as seven singles simultaneously. “I write songs that I’d like to hear, and I grew up listening to hit radio,” Warren says. “So I guess if I love it, it’s going to be pretty damn commercial.”

Seven days a week, twelve hours a day, Warren is in her Sunset Boulevard office–alone with her grand piano and DX-7 drum machine–writing songs that sound like pop hits. Six months later they are, but for years no one would listen to them. Her big break came in 1983, when she wrote the lyrics to Laura Branigan’s Top Ten “Solitaire.” (Warren spent her royalties on a lawsuit with her publishers.) Two years later she wrote DeBarge’s “Rhythm of the Night,” and soon became a prime source of the nation’s pop wealth. Now Warren could retire and live off her royalties, but she doesn’t even slow down. When she leaves her piano to eat dinner, she feels guilty for wasting time she could use to write a song.

Even when she was a child, reading the fine print on record labels, Warren knew she wanted to be a songwriter rather than a performer, although she did make a few errant stabs at fame, including a gig at a restaurant when she was fourteen. “I played one song and the guy paid me fifteen dollars to get off the stage,” Warren laughs. “The first money I ever made in show business was to be asked to stop.”

Warren succumbed to her stage fright and retreated into happy anonymity; people know her music but not her face. “You know what was really neat?” Warren asks. “I was at the magazine stand a couple of days ago and this girl next to me starts singing one of my songs, ‘I’ll Be Your Shelter’ by Taylor Dayne. I look at her and I go, ‘I wrote that song!’ and she says, ‘Oh! Oh, right, yeah!’ She didn’t believe me.”

Warren doesn’t mind obscurity: Her place in the industry affords her other pleasures–like flipping radio stations while she drives, looking for her songs. Her greatest frustration comes when singers don’t want to record a song she knows will be a hit. Rod Stewart turned down two Warren tunes that hit Number One for other people. Tina Turner rejected “I’ll Be Your Shelter” before Taylor Dayne snatched it. Cher didn’t want to record “If I Could Turn Back Time.” When it became her biggest hit in 15 years, she passed on a message through an engineer: “Tell Diane that she was right and I was right. Isn’t it nice that we can both be right?”

“True Cher style,” snorts Warren. “That was her way of saying thank you.”

(Article by Gavin Edwards. Originally published as “Solid Gold, Easy Action,” in the September 1990 issue of Spin.)

You can also read that entire issue of Spin online, if you like; it also includes pieces on hot breaking artists like Monie Love and the Lightning Seeds.

I hadn’t thought about it until just now, but the Warren article is a nice bookend to my recent profile of Dr. Luke–they’re two very different characters, but they’re both insanely prolific L.A.-based pop songwriters.

posted 1 July 2010 in Articles and tagged , . 3 comments

3 Comments on The Hit Bitch

  1. Chris M. Says:

    I’ll take a Dr. Luke song over a Diane Warren song any day, but I suppose that just reflects my biases — not sexism, I hope, but rather my preference for songs that have a sense of fun rather than mawkishness.

    It’s interesting that both Warren and Luke have scored many of their biggest hits writing for the opposite gender.

  2. Rob Says:

    Monie Love turns 40 today, a total coincidence, but it’s not every day her name comes up twice. (Monie in the middle! Where she at? In the middle!)

    interesting that when you did this piece, D.W. had already written almost all of her big songs. There were a few big movie themes yet to come, and a few other lesser hits I happen to adore (“Save Up All Your Tears,” “Un-Break My Heart,” “I’ll Never Get Over You Getting Over Me” to my shame) but her career arc is oddly front-loaded. I’d have to compare her to Gooden (Dwight, not Lolita).

  3. Chris M. Says:

    when you did this piece, D.W. had already written almost all of her big songs. There were a few big movie themes yet to come

    …like the granddaddy of all Warren schlock, Steven Tyler’s award-show meal ticket “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.” I might loathe that one most of all.

    and a few other lesser hits I happen to adore (”Save Up All Your Tears,” “Un-Break My Heart,” “I’ll Never Get Over You Getting Over Me” to my shame)

    As long as we’re confessing shame, I actually really like — almost love — “Un-Break My Heart.” I have no idea why that song makes it past my Warren filter, but there it is. I’m not even a huge Toni Braxton fan, but something about the structure of that song almost makes it sound like a classic Italian-pop ballad. We all have our weaknesses, I guess.

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