Opinion: ‘SongSex’ with Shelly Peiken—run to the studio, get to it from all angles

Shelly Peiken, What a Girl Wants, 2.0 etc

Shelly Peiken, Courtesy: Dia Morgan.

Editor’s note: Shelly Peiken may be best-known for writing female-empowerment anthems like Christina Aguilera’s No. 1 hit, “What a Girl Wants” and Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch,” but she’s been busy behind the scenes in the music industry for two decades. She’s written for many of your favorite TV shows, a critically lauded memoir, has written or cowritten with the likes of Mandy Moore, Brandy, Bebe Rexha, Idina Menzel …. (deep breath) … Zendaya, Demi Lovato, Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, Reba, Natasha Bedingfield, N’Sync, INXS, Celine Dion, Keith Urban, Cher, Smash Mouth and …. forget it, this list is too long. We haven’t even mentioned Aaliyah or The Pretenders yet.

She co-founded the Songwriters of North America, a creators’ rights advocacy organization.

And now, she’s getting around to releasing her own debut album. The aptly titled 2.0 etc. will include reinterpretations of some of her hits as well as a number of the other hits she’s written over the years and some others that will be seeing the light of day for the first time, such as “Notebook,” a song written for her daughter, and “George & John,” a love letter to the Beatles. “What A Girl Wants 2.0” will be released in time for the 20th birthday of the first No. 1 song of the millennium. “Human,” which was co-written with Mark McEntee from Divinyls and was released by both that band and the Pretenders, includes backing vocals by Chrissie Hynde.

I’ve often used the term SongSex to describe the act of co-writing. I know it sounds funny, and perhaps it is. But actually, it’s a pretty accurate description for the dance songwriters engage in when they “merge.”

Here’s how I see it…

You meet another writer at an industry party or you’re set up on a songwriting blind date by your publisher or a friend, or you find a potential mate on a Songwriting App.

You court. You inquire: “What are you working on?” “Do you produce or topline?” Or that dreaded question followed by unbearable silence should there be no answer: “Have you written anything I’d know?” You know the drill. You’re assessing your compatibility.

You set a date.

Ideally, (IMO at least, and I may be totally old-school here), there’s some foreplay involved before you dive in. A walk, a coffee, a conversation that loosens the creative juices. Hopefully in this exchange someone says something that sets your heart (and ears) a-flutter and makes you want to…

Jump into bed. You run back to the studio and get to it. From all angles. It’s a frenzy. There are aphrodisiacs in play: a tasty chord progression you might not have stumbled upon if you were going at it yourself, the aesthetic of your collaborator’s singing voice or a first line that opens the floodgates. You know how rousing those first lines can be.

This is the point where things can go either way… all uphill or down. When it goes south, it’s bad. You sorta want to make an exit ASAP. You forgot you had another meeting. Your stomach hurts. But you know you need to at least finish what you started. Do the deed. It’s only right. And then you can leave. The next day you don’t want to return texts. It’s too painful. You go MIA.

By no means do you want to hurt her feelings (but you will) or make him feel like he wasted your time (but he did). Don’t worry. You don’t have to lift a finger because your inevitable ghosting will say it all—you’re just not that into them.

Two weeks later you see them at a party. It will be very … uncomfortable.

Why is it so hard for us to say “I don’t think we’re a good fit?” Or, “I just wasn’t feeling it.” We need to work on that. No one can blame us for how we feel. I wonder if in the backs of our mind we’re paranoid that we were the weak link. That maybe we weren’t on our game. The truth might hurt more than we know.

But let’s not harp too much on the negative. See, there’s always a good possibility that the SongSex will be fabulous. So, let’s rewind and return to the point where things went south, but instead, look at what happens when things go north.

Your creative concept continues to unfold, and you don’t have to ask yourself if it’s good, because you know it is. So does your partner. You’re moving in sync. You lock into each other’s rhythm; you take their cues and they yours. You might hold a thought back until you feel them shift, but when they shift you just know what to say. It’s flowing! You’re not even trying. It’s all a beautiful blur.

When you’re finished you’re delirious and feeling a mutual SongHigh. You just want to listen to your creation over and over again. You drive home with the “rough” on repeat. You can’t get over what a homerun that session was. You’ll call your publisher to let them know or give that Find-A-Collaborator-App a 5-star-rating.

Your song is the first thing you think about when you wake up the next morning. You’re still basking in the glow over coffee. Can’t get it out of your head. Wow. You needed that. It’s like an itch has been scratched… like you don’t have to write another one for a few days. You’ve been sated.

But soon enough you’ll want a repeat performance. Because being in that zone with another human being whose adept sensibilities accommodate yours is an out-of-body euphoria—obsessive, addictive, delicious, cathartic. You are lovers, at least for the time it takes to write that song.

The only thing you want is more.

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