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20 Years After the First No. 1 Song of the 21st Century, What a Girl Wants Now (Guest Column)

Shelly Peiken co-wrote Christina Aguilera's breakout hit. In 2020, she's finding her own voice.

Twenty years ago Christina Aguilera’s “What A Girl Wants” became the first No. 1 song of the 21st century. It remains a thriving and culturally resonant girl-power anthem, a film and TV go-to and a staple at karaoke bars.

This first No. 1 of the millennium was a milestone for me as well because I wrote it (with Guy Roche) and it was my first chart-topper too. A couple of years before Christina Aguilera brought it to life, I co-wrote the song “Bitch,” (with Meredith Brooks) which reached No. 2. Suffice it to say, I was busy.

My career as a professional songwriter has been a long and winding journey of ups and downs, hits and misses but mostly a ride I’m grateful for.

It was never easy to make a living as a songwriter. I’ve often compared it to a game of musical chairs, where each represented opportunity but there were five times as many people circling the seats. That said, it was easier than it is today. Physical CDs were selling. If your song was on one, every copy sold put a few cents in your pocket regardless of whether it was a radio hit or an “album cut.” Those pennies added up. If you landed on a couple of gold records every year — you were rockin.’ A&Rs were constantly soliciting material. The phone was ringing. I wasn’t flying business but I had a 2-bedroom apartment in Manhattan and a Mazda Miata parked in a garage around the corner. All was good.

For a couple of decades I enjoyed writing songs for and collaborating with signed artists. My job description included helping them define themselves and offering a safe space to explore their feelings. I was muse, therapist, fun hang. I loved every minute of it. All the while thinking maybe someday I’d even make an album of my own.

But looking back, so much has changed. When I started out I was a wide-eyed 20 something and just about everyone I worked with was a wide-eyed 20 something too. Now I’m the same age as many of the mothers who drop their kids off to write with me and I often find myself having to explain a hot flash. The digital economy has hijacked songwriters’ income. And because more artists are eager to write their own material labels aren’t looking for songs from outside sources.

So what’s a songwriter to do? Creative people just don’t grow up and stop being creative.

A few years ago, I began writing about this dilemma. Before I knew it, my collection of musings and laments, anecdotes about collaborating, the creative process and digital economics was published as a memoir. “Confessions of a Serial Songwriter” was nominated for a Best Spoken Word Grammy Award which affirmed the notion that we should follow our truth no matter what.

But what was next? I wasn’t good at being idle and I couldn’t ignore that little voice in my head that kept asking: what about the album you never made?

The songwriting community has lost some beloved friends recently. I take nothing for granted. Life gets one day shorter every day. How will I feel if I get to the end of mine and never really put myself out there?

The timing felt right. I didn’t need a label any more. I could sign myself. And 2020 lines up perfectly with that 20th anniversary of my first century-kick-off No. 1. Why not celebrate?

So I called a couple of friends who produce — Eve Nelson, Phil Thrornalley, Wally Gagel. (I’ve learned to go where the love is.) In the studio, I didn’t feel like the veteran that I am — but more like any inspired singer-songwriter burning to perform her own songs. The material would include reimaginings of my ‘handful of hits’: “Bitch,” “Almost Doesn’t Count,” The Pretenders’ “Human,” Jessie J’s “Who You Are” and yes, “What A Girl Wants.” And while I was at it, I’d throw in a few songs that no one’s ever heard before.

Of course I don’t see myself as the emerging new it-girl but as a voice for those of us who aren’t quite ready for the early bird special. Besides, why does anyone want to make art? Because they have a desire to express themselves. A need to connect, for catharsis, closure. Must my reasons be any different because I’ve been around the block? I hope not.

I owe endless gratitude to Xtina for recording “What A Girl Wants,” to Ron Fair for hearing the potential, and to every artist who’s chosen to sing a song I wrote. But now, I have to ask myself what does this girl want? I think you know the answer.

In the spirit of the independent artist, I’d like to invite you to follow me on your favorite platform and click here to give my version of “What A Girl Wants” a spin on Spotify or Apple Music. Let me know what you think!

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