Diane Warren On 'Til It Happens To You,' A Modern Anthem For A Hard Truth

Feb 12, 2016
Originally published on February 12, 2016 8:01 pm

Chances are you've heard at least one song written by Diane Warren: "Rhythm of the Night," "Don't Turn Around," "Unbreak My Heart" and "If I Could Turn Back Time" are just a handful of her 70 or so Top 10 hits. Warren has penned hundreds of heartbreaking songs about intimacy and romance for Whitney Houston, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Gloria Estefan and many, many more. But she's long sworn that she does not do romance in real life.

When I met her at her LA offices and wondered about what it's like to write about things she doesn't experience herself, Warren immediately jumped in.

"Like love?" she asked. "You know, I haven't been in love the way most people have been in love. But I know what love feels like. I love my cat."

She's serious, and she should be. To explain her engagement with these intense emotions, Warren points to a song she wrote for Aerosmith -- which happens to be the band's first ever No. 1 hit.

"You know, when I wrote 'I Don't Want To Miss a Thing' — I'm probably not going to 'stay awake just to hear you breathing.' I don't want you in my bed, because I like sleeping by myself," she says. "But I have a good imagination and I really believe it when I'm writing it."

Warren didn't need to use her imagination for a recent song she wrote with Lady Gaga. "Til It Happens to You," which is nominated for a Grammy and an Oscar for Best Song, appears on the soundtrack of a documentary about rape on college campuses called The Hunting Ground. Warren is candid about how the topic intersects with her own life.

"Look, I was molested," she says. "I never told my mom — well, I told her later in life. My mom goes, 'Why didn't you tell your dad?' I don't know. I felt weird. Maybe you feel it's a little bit your fault or something ... I was, like, 12 years old. What did I know?"

Warren's experience puts her among the approximately one in five American women who have survived some form of sexual assault. She approached Gaga partly because she knew the singer had also been sexually assaulted — as a teenager, by a music producer.

As a songwriter, Warren says she hasn't had to withstand the level of objectification and harassment faced by female performers — but that rape culture stretches through American life, from college campuses to the music industry. She told me a story I couldn't put on the air about going to a meeting as a young songwriter, trying to get a foothold in the business, where an engineer openly masturbated in front of her.

"It was really weird," she says. "I never told that to anyone." She's understated, dry, wry, and still quietly angry.

The Hunting Ground has drawn some criticism for its reliance on questionable data and a lack of even-handedness. "Til It Happens to You," however, has taken on a life of its own — partly because the music video, directed by Catherine Hardwicke of Twilight, doubles as a public service announcement. The song became a Top 10 hit, and club remixes took it to No. 1 on Billboard's Dance chart. It works because it's scary, says Robin James, a philosophy professor who blogs about music at It's Her Factory.

"Til it happens to you' — that's sort of chilling," James says. "You feel it in the pit of your stomach."

Perhaps it takes the chops of a Diane Warren to write a mainstream pop anthem about rape. She says the assault she endured affects her to this day: "It's maybe why I don't get close to people," she says quietly. "It's maybe why I don't have relationships."

But writing and talking about this song, Warren says, has been unexpectedly healing.

"I'm good," she says. "Everything, even the bad stuff, makes you who you are."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Whether or not you know the name Diane Warren, chances are you know her work.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF I COULD TURN BACK TIME")

CHER: (Singing) If I could turn back time...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T TURN AROUND")

ACE OF BASE: (Singing) Don't turn around 'cause you're going to see my heart breaking.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RHYTHM OF THE NIGHT")

DEBARGE: (Singing) Oh, to the beat of the rhythm of the night.

SHAPIRO: Diane Warren has written more than a hundred pop hits. And this year, she was nominated for a Grammy and Oscar for the song "Til It Happens To You." And as NPR's Neda Ulaby tells us, the story behind this song is a drastic departure from what Warren has written before.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Diane Warren's office takes up most of the eighth floor in a building in the heart of Hollywood. The halls are laden with gold and platinum records. The artist she's worked with here include Whitney Houston, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Gloria Estefan. But the singers at her studio today are a little more obscure.

DIANE WARREN: That's Buttwings, my bird. Do you want to see my cat? Oh, my God. Get him on the radio, look (laughter).

ULABY: Diane Warren loves animals. People are another matter. Even though Warren's written dozens of heartbreaking songs about intimate relationships - including this one - she says she does not do romance in real life ever.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNBREAK MY HEART")

TONI BRAXTON: (Singing) Unbreak my heart. Say you love me again.

ULABY: You, you know - you've talked so much over the course of your career about writing about things you don't experience.

WARREN: Like love? But, you know - I haven't been in love like most people have been in love, but I know what love feels like. I love my cat (laughter).

ULABY: To explain her engagement with these intense emotions, Warren points to a song she wrote for the band Aerosmith that happens to be its first-ever number one hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I DON'T WANNA MISS A THING")

AEROSMITH: (Singing) I could stay awake just to hear you breathing...

WARREN: You know, like, when I wrote "I Don't Wanna Miss A Thing," I could stay awake just to hear you breathing. No, I'm probably not going to stay awake and hear you breathe, no. And I don't want you in my bed because I like sleeping by myself. I want my cat in my bed, you know, so - but I have a good imagination, and I really believe it when I'm writing it.

ULABY: Warren did not need to use her imagination for the song she wrote with Lady Gaga that's been nominated for a Grammy and an Oscar. These two music industry giants composed a song for a tiny documentary about rapes on college campuses.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIL IT HAPPENS TO YOU")

LADY GAGA: (Singing) You tell me it gets better. It gets better in time. You say I'll pull myself together. Pull it together. You'll be fine.

WARREN: Look, I was molested. I never told my mom - well, I told my mom, you know, later in life. My mom goes, why didn't you tell your dad? I was like, I don't know. I felt weird. Like, you know - maybe you feel it's a little bit your fault or something, and it's not because I was like 12 years old. What did I know?

ULABY: When Warren approached Lady Gaga, it was partly because she knew the singer had also been sexually assaulted as a teenager by a music producer. Warren says rape culture is pervasive in this country on college campuses and in the music industry.

WARREN: I remember I had a couple of weird things when I was trying to get my songs out at the beginning, though, you know?

ULABY: As a songwriter, Warren was mostly free from the kind of objectification and harassment faced by female performers. But she told a story we could not put on the air about an engineer going way beyond the limits of what's appropriate in a meeting.

WARREN: It was really weird, and I never told that to anybody.

ULABY: When Warren wrote "Til It Happens To You," she says she was channeling the voices of the young rape survivors in the movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE HUNTING GROUND")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I had nightmares that were so vivid that I would wake up, and my neck was bleeding of how much I was scratching off that invisible rapist on my neck again.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIL IT HAPPENS TO YOU")

LADY GAGA: (Singing) Til it happens to you, you won't know how it feels.

ULABY: The movie "The Hunting Ground" has drawn criticism for using questionable data and for its lack of evenhandedness, but the song has become a consciousness-raising tool. The video's intended to double as a public service announcement. And "Til It Happens To You" was both a top 10 hit and number one on the dance charts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIL IT HAPPENS TO YOU - DJ RAY RHODES REMIX")

LADY GAGA: (Singing) Til it happens to you, you don't know how I feel.

ULABY: Maybe it takes the chops of a Diane Warren to write a mainstream pop anthem about rape. Robin James is a professor who writes about popular music. She says the song works because it's scary.

ROBIN JAMES: Til it happens to you, right? Like, that's sort of chilling. You feel it in the pit of your stomach.

ULABY: Pop hit or not, James says it's her reminder that nearly one in five American women have either been raped or someone's tried to rape them. Diane Warren said she's still screwed up by what she survived.

WARREN: Yeah, to this day. You know, it's maybe why I don't get close to people, maybe why I don't have relationships.

ULABY: But writing this song, Warren says, and talking about it has been unexpectedly healing.

WARREN: I'm good. I'm good. You know, everything, even the bad stuff, kind of makes you who you are, so you can't really change stuff because you never know what would change.

ULABY: What might change later this month is Warren's status from eight-time Oscar nominee to Oscar winner. She's got a superstition involving a lucky pair of socks and the charms jingling on her necklace.

WARREN: Well, one is the serenity prayer, and one is, like, believe in your power, believe in your passion, believe in being stubborn.

ULABY: And finding out that after more than 30 years in the business, there are stories you did not know you could tell. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.