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The weird genius and brilliant success of Diane Warren, songwriter to pop’s biggest stars

Andrea Warner

If you think you’ve never heard a Diane Warren song, think again.

She is basically the living Jeopardy answer to all of the following:

“On Nov. 18, 1989, this songwriter became the first person ever to earn both the number one and number two spots on the US charts for Bad English (‘When I See You Smile’) and Milli Vanilli (‘Blame It On the Rain’).’

“These karaoke staples — Cher’s ‘If I Could Turn Back Time,’ Toni Braxton’s ‘Un-Break My Heart’ and Celine Dion’s ‘Because You Loved Me’ — were all written by the same person.”

“She gave Aerosmith their first number one hit, ‘I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,’ 28 years after the rock band formed.”

But, let's start at the beginning. Warren’s first hit was Laura Branigan’s “Solitaire” in 1983.

Since then, the now 59-year-old Californian has penned songs for a record store’s worth of mega-popstars including Rihanna, Cher, Elton John, Toni Braxton, Taylor Dayne, Beyonce, Justin Bieber, Mariah Carey, LeAnn Rimes, Roy Orbison, Avril Lavigne, Lionel Richie, TLC, Meat Loaf, Heart, Tina Turner, Reba McEntire, Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston. And that’s not even half the people who have sung her songs.

Warren is the first songwriter in the history of Billboard to have seven hits by seven different artists on the charts simultaneously, a mind-boggling feat until you understand Warren’s genuine love of her craft. She works at it. Hard.

In a 2008 Billboard interview, she talked about how every day she goes to her office in LA and starts writing at 8:30am.

“I love writing songs and I can’t wait to come to work every day,” she said. But her work ethic is just part of the equation. In the interview she also discusses finding inspiration in everything (“I always have my antennas up”), being confident and committed (“If you wouldn't die without doing it, don’t do it”), being a lifelong learner (“every time I write a song, I'm always learning something different”) and her lack of formal training (“You don’t have to be a great musician to be a great songwriter. You just have to be able to write great music.”).

Not every song has been a number one hit, but a substantial percentage have become pop culture staples. We've already talked about some of them, but consider a few more and their lasting legacy.

Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” arguably the best part of 1987’s Mannequin (a movie I actually really loved as a kid).

Many of Michael Bolton’s biggest hits have been collaborations with Warren, who was partially responsible for solidifying his shift from “hard rock” (his band, Blackjack, once opened for Ozzy Osbourne) to power ballads. Though she only co-wrote one song with him on his 1987 breakthrough, The Hunger, Warren was a huge influence on 1989’s Soul Provider, co-writing “How Can We Be Lovers,” and co-writing or writing half of the album’s 10 tracks. Warren also wrote the title track of his 1991 hit, “Time, Love and Tenderness.” 

Ace of Base covered “Don’t Turn Around” (credited to Warren and Albert Hammond) for their 1992 breakthrough album, The Sign. But it was also recorded by Tina Turner in 1986, Bonnie Tyler in 1998 and Neil Diamond in 1992.

In 1997, LeAnn Rimes’ “How Do I Live” spent a record-breaking 69 weeks on the charts.

In fact, by 1997, Warren’s music was so insanely popular and commercially appealing that US Air, Delta and United Airlines devoted entire in-flight channels specifically to her songs.

Warren has also written songs for so many Canadians, she’s practically an honorary one at this point.

She and producer David Foster have collaborated numerous times, and she’s also penned hits for a variety of Canadian superstars. Some of those relationships have been of the one-and-done variety (Justin Bieber’s “Born to Be Somebody,” Avril Lavigne’s “Won’t Let You Go”), while others have proven fruitful and long-lasting. Dion has sung more than a dozen Warren numbers in her lengthy career including “Love Can Move Mountains” and the aforementioned “Because You Loved Me.”

And then there are the — well, weirder collaborations.

Some of those work beautifully like this track from Snoop.

Others, like this David Hasselhoff track, are tougher to swallow, though that’s not really a reflection of Warren’s song, but rather Hasselhoff’s interpretation.

This is Hasselhoff performing the song live in Germany, and it’s fascinating. He looks like a wet seal, so it’s no wonder he can’t carry a tune or find the right rhythm. He fumbles Warren’s song at every turn, from the way he slinks all over lines like “ya gotta help me feed this hunger that is driving me wild” or grinds up on the repeated utterances of “oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah.” He also really stiff, as if his body has never known the joy of finding a beat. From his slighly out-of-sync kick alongside the drum kick to the listless, half-hearted, headbanging hop with the guitarist to his stage lumber-that’s-meant-to-be-a-strut, it’s a delicious disaster.

But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Warren’s lengthy career is the control she’s maintained over her songs.  Warren publishes all of her material through her own publishing company, Realsongs, making her an entrepreneur, business person and a songwriter.

“I became my own publisher because I was in a lawsuit and I couldn't sign with anybody,” she told American Songwriter in 1997. “That kind of forced me to own my own publishing company, because no one was allowed to sign me or else they would have become part of the lawsuit. So the whole publishing company started by accident pretty much. [There are] no other writers. I don’t have the desire to sign anybody else. That’s not what I'm in this for.”

Follow Andrea Warner on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner

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