“What A Girl Wants” Songwriter Shelly Peiken Talks “Song Sex” and A Changing Industry [ANATOMY OF A SONG]


There are some songs we all just know. There's no telling exactly when or where we picked them up, but the melody is inexplicably ingrained in us. A shining example is "What A Girl Wants," the female empowerment anthem that marked a career milestone for Christina Aguilera as the first #1 hit of the millennium. 

Co-written by Grammy-nominated songwriter Shelly Peiken,"What A Girl Wants" helped to define the sound of early 2000s pop. Peiken has an impressive resume, from working with Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Brandy, Meredith Brooks, and more to being a mother, a founding member of SONA (Songwriters Of North America) and most recently penning her first book, Confessions of A Serial Songwriter.

We sat down with Peiken to deconstruct "What A Girl Wants," a changing music industry and the term "Song Sex."

BRAIN: The Thought Process

OTW: Take us through the writing session for "What A Girl Wants."

Shelly Peiken: I had just had a baby and wasn't going to a lot of sessions. Todd Chapman invited me to come over and work with this ex-mouseketeer. He told me she could really sing. I was skeptical, because everyone says they can really sing, but I went. She was really sweet, petite and polite. And when she opened her mouth, she could really sing! Ron Fair wanted to make a record with her and was putting her with different people to see who she'd be compatible with. And then, on another day, I went to work with Guy Roche. We were fooling around with this idea and we thought it was pretty hooky. But we had to see if we felt the same in the morning. A good test is, if you wake up and it's the first thing you think about, it's probably worth revisiting. I feel the same way about shopping. If I like a jacket, I'll leave it behind in the store, and if I'm still thinking about it the next day, I'll go back and get it.

As it turns out, we still liked it in the morning. I felt kind of bad about sending the song to Ron because it was Todd who brought me into the project. But I sent it anyway. Ron asked if we could switch the order of the “What a Girl Needs" and the "What a Girl Wants." Maybe he thought the "wants" was sexier, plus it alliterated with the "what." I didn't want to change it at first; I’d have to change the whole rhyme scheme, but she could really sing. So I did. And no regrets. The song became the first #1 song of the millennium.

OTW: You mention that verses come easily to you in your book. How do you usually start a song?

Shelly Peiken: Well, when I write with myself it is. I start having a conversation about whatever is on my mind. The title, which is usually in the hook, reveals itself when it's ready.

OTW: In your book you mention "Song Sex." Can you elaborate on that term?

Shelly Peiken: "Song Sex" is a term I coined for the act of writing a song. "Song Sex" with yourself is very satisfying in that you know exactly what you like. And you don't have to compromise. "Song Sex" with two or three other people is a whole other game…you have to compromise and be flexible. But if you're writing with suitable collaborators, they might take your idea and go in a totally new but exciting direction. And that's how you learn!

HEART: The Core Emotion

OTW: How did you come up with the lyrics for "What A Girl Wants?"

I had these words about my boyfriend giving me space when I was trying to get the courage to move to LA. All my most successful songs come from real life experience.

OTW: How did it feel watching the song you wrote send Aguilera further into fame?

Shelly Peiken: Effing Amazing!

LEGS: The Means To Take Off

OTW: Tell us about your journey to becoming a songwriter!

Shelly Peiken: I was writing songs since I was a kid. But it wasn't like I knew I wanted to be a songwriter when I grew up. Plus, I thought all the songs I heard on the radio were written by whoever sang them. I never met a songwriter before college! Didn't study music at school. But after I graduated and came to NYC, I heard about this group of songwriters that met every week and of course I went because I was curious. What I found was a room full of song junkies just like me and I was in heaven. They took me down to the village where all these singer-songwriters had their 20 minutes of fame every night at the Bitter End and Kenny's. I just knew I wanted to do that too. So I became a witness.

OTW: Your first U.S. hit was "Bitch." How was writing different after that?

Shelly Peiken: It was funny cuz after "Bitch," everyone wanted me to write another "Bitch." And it doesn't work that way. Very frustrating.

HANDS: Advice For Songwriters Who Need A Lift

OTW: What advice would you give songwriters who aren't sure how to get a break? 

Shelly Peiken: If there is something else you love to do, consider doing it. Because this business is not for the faint of heart. On the other hand, if your fire is pretty consistent and you're just having a bad day, distract yourself. Go to the gym…it definitely gets the endorphins going. And for God's sake, get out of the house. Be available for opportunities to find you.

OTW: What advice would you give to songwriters who are balancing other commitments like motherhood?

Shelly Peiken: Make sure your partner, if you have one, is someone who wants to share parenting responsibilities. Duh! And if your partner has some bucks and you don't have to wait tables, you're going to write a lot more songs. If you don't have a partner, make a songwriter friend who you can trade off with. Good luck! It's do-able. Just a lot less downtime. And you learn to edit a lot more efficiently.

OTW: How did you come to the decision to write a book?

Shelly Peiken: I was reeling from all the changes in the business and I was a lot older than I was when I started out. There were stories to tell. Funny ones. Heartbreaking ones. I started writing them down, and it kind of took on a life of its own. I made a decision to finish and put it out myself if I couldn't find a publisher. But I did find a publisher in the 11th hour. That shows you how the universe works. It wanted me to do that work. And I did it. I followed my truth. And that's what it's all about.

OTW: Who are your Ones to Watch?

Shelly Peiken: Hamish Anderson, Phoebe Bridgers, Lemon Twigs, Leon Bridges.