Makin' Tracks: Luke Bryan Plays the Willing Prey in 'What She Wants Tonight'

John Shearer
Luke Bryan

If a teacher asked for a short summary about the plot in Luke Bryan’s new single, a student could boil down “What She Wants Tonight” into two words: “red dot.”

That phrase, slipped into the final line before the first chorus, comes straight from Bryan’s passion for hunting, but it applies in this instance to a script-flipping dance club scene, when an assertive woman locks eyes with an unsuspecting young man.

“Everybody gets that vision,” suggests Bryan. “It’s almost like she’s sniping the singer.”

That makes “What She Wants Tonight” an unusual -- though not unprecedented -- title in the genre, turning the stereotypical male hunter into an easy target. A few other short phrases -- a “velvet rope” and “sequins bouncing off flashing lights” -- present an image of a woman who knows how to work a club.

It’s a scenario that country music has visited on occasion: Janie Fricke’s 1985 hit “She’s Single Again” portrayed a rebounding vixen as a man-stealing predator, while Reba McEntire’s 1995 chart-topper “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” employed a similar character “driven by a desperate hunger.” But the 2019 version of the confident female is presented less as a threat than as an unexpected reward.

“Being out in the bar life and being a 20-year-old or 25-year-old, when you have a girl that’s initiating the rhetoric of the moment, I mean, that’s a powerful thing,” says Bryan. “It’s pretty intriguing to have the girl really pushing the narrative of what might potentially happen with these two people.”

“What She Wants Tonight” is what came of the potential Bryan envisioned in assembling three of Nashville’s current A-list writers: Hillary Lindsey (“It All Comes Out in the Wash,” “Knockin’ Boots”), Jon Nite (“Strip It Down,” “Break Up in the End”) and Ross Copperman (“Tip of My Tongue,” “I Lived It”). It was one of three songs they cranked out on a summer day at Bryan’s farm outside of Nashville, inspired by a short musical track Nite and Copperman had built around dark minor chords and an airy guitar riff. The words they were using were merely placeholders, though one phrase unlocked the plotline.

“I had mumbled something like, ‘She gets what she wants,’” recalls Nite, “and Luke kind of finished out the whole hook: ‘I get to be what she wants tonight.’ It was organic and just unfolded really fast.”

They launched into the chorus first, highlighting a woman who “don’t take ‘no’ ” for an answer as she coaxes the guy’s hands toward her intoxicated body. “Luke was so fired up writing it,” recalls Copperman. “He was throwing out all these lines — like, ‘Cut the tire,’ ‘Red dot locked on you.’ I just remember those lines vividly, and him being so fired up. All of us had like a 12-year-old’s energy writing this.”

They developed her character more in the first verse, introducing her as a woman on the rebound who commands drink service with a simple snap of the fingers. Lindsey had a huge impact on her portrait, walking the fine line between forceful and threatening. “That was just a real critical aspect to it, having Hillary going, ‘Yeah, you know, that’s what a girl wants to hear,’” says Bryan. “It took the dynamic out of a bunch of dudes potentially saying the wrong thing.”

She also guided the rhythmic flow, ensuring that the end result felt natural and singable. “All the syllables and the phrases fall in the right places, like in a kind of Swedish pop style in my mind,” says Copperman. “All the syllables of the words kind of just feel like they’re meant to be in those places.”

Nite and Copperman finished the demo later, and Nite handled what proved to be a challenging vocal part. “There’s about three places you can breathe in the chorus,” he says. “If you miss one, you’re in trouble. I figured it out before we sang the demo on it, and it wasn’t impossible, but definitely tricky.”

Producers Jeff and Jody Stevens latched onto the hard-rock and EDM elements in the basic demo. They enhanced those with swirling electronic programming and a crunchy cadence in the intro that Jody created by playing unison electric and acoustic guitars mashed up with an electronic-keyboard bass. “It’s a cool pattern,” says Jody. “It’s kind of a nontraditional rhythm, which I think also helps build the excitement leading into the chorus.”

Rob McNelley retooled the signature guitar riff during a session at the Tracking Room, while Adam Shoenfeld toughened up the guitar parts beginning in the chorus and drummer Evan Hutchings brought a fat, arena-rock mentality to the kit. The hardest part, though, fell to Bryan, who spent a solid three-and-a-half hours on that challenging lead vocal. He introduced a shuddered sort of walk down in the first verse — a new wrinkle in his vocal sound — and he slid into a rare falsetto moment in the final vamp.

“When I walked out of the studio, I literally had a headache,” he recalls. “I had to take an Advil ’cause I felt like I was getting a migraine.”

“He worked on this harder than any song he’s ever sung,” adds Jeff. “This is truly a case where he was not going to be denied.”

Their initial mix had a bit of an arc to it, but Bryan persuaded his producers to make the first verse and chorus more gutsy. (“We basically turned everything up,” Jody recalls.) The bridge thus provides one brief bit of respite, with semistatic electronic buzzing underneath as Bryan confesses his shock: “I don’t know how I got to be the only thing she needs right now.” It’s the most vulnerable piece of the song.

“Especially when it’s a beautiful girl, most guys feel like they’re not worthy,” says Jeff. “They’re inferior, they’re never going to get a chance with this girl. And that’s the part of it, I think, that Luke brings off so much. It’s one of the ingredients to this song that makes it special.”

Bryan sang “What She Wants Tonight” live for the first time during a Farm Tour stop in Richland, Mich., on Oct. 24, the same day that Capitol Nashville released it to radio via PlayMPE. Already positioned at No. 16 in its sixth week on Country Airplay, it’s the second single from an album he’s likely to finish recording in December.

“‘Knockin’ Boots’ was very fun, very lighthearted, not overly serious,” says Bryan of the previous release. “And this felt like it had a little more teeth, a little more something to dig into.”

That comes primarily from the dangerous sound of “What She Wants Tonight,” and its role-reversing story in which the hunter becomes the hunted. “Back 20-30 years ago, that was a little more taboo for the woman to be controlling the narrative,” he says. “But I feel like society has opened up a lot more. I think it’s more natural for a woman to go, ‘Hey, I like you. I’m focused in on you, and let’s see where the night takes us.’”

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