The songwriter talked to Billboard about how the world-beating chorus came together, and about the value of using boy bands to "do the exact opposite" of whatever sounds are currently besting contemporary radio.
Was the chorus the first part of the song that came together?
For me, yeah, I like to [start with] the chorus. 'Coz I feel like if you don't have the chorus, you've got nothing. I've been around long enough to know that when it's one of those, 'Yeah, it's amazing, we've got a great verse and a pre-chorus!' It's like, that's... okay? That's not enough. I feel like if all you have is a great chorus, you're in really great shape.
You know, sometimes you write songs and you remember every detail of those songs and how they came about... I've said it before, and it's sort of One Direction folklore at this point, but I wrote "What Makes You Beautiful" for my wife. So I had the title, and me, Rami and Carl got together in the studio, and I got the idea that morning. But we were jamming and we couldn't really get anything. And so I started going through my phone -- because I'll constantly be recording bits of melodies -- and one of the things in my phone, it was [sings melody of "What Makes You Beautiful"] "dah-da-da-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duhhhhhhhh-duh...." It was kind of basically that.
And I wanted to use the "what makes you beautiful" concept. And then at the end, it was just [sings] "You don't know-oh-ohhhh! You don't know you're beautiful!" I said, "What do you guys think of that?" "Yep, sounds good, let's go!" We had no idea what it was going to become or anything like that.
Did you know that it was definitely going to work when you dip back in at the end of the chorus -- "You don't know you're beautiful.... that's what makes you beautiful?"
Yeah, I was trying to get that line in there. And the lyrics for [the chorus] were tweaked throughout the next month or so. I remember being in a New York hotel, and they were gonna go record the song.... Harry [Styles] and the boys were going to go to the studio in Stockholm to record what we had -- no one had heard it yet -- and I was gonna be a day late. So I did the thing that I normally do before I know that an artist is coming in: I challenge everything, and make sure all the melodies are tight, and also that the lyrics are really tight.
So the original demo of "What Makes You Beautiful," there's a different line in the chorus -- "The way that you flip your hair makes me overwhelmed," that line was "You got me feeling things that I've never felt," or something like that. That's what the demo has with me singing, sounding like a dying cat. And I was in a hotel room, my wife was sleeping, and I was like "...It doesn't feel juicy enough." And I was writing for my wife, so I remembered, when I first met her, she walked into this bar in Stockholm, and she flipped her hair, and that's when I saw her face. So I just put that in.
Did you notice after that song became a hit, there was a definite uptick in songs along that lyrical theme of "What makes you beautiful is that you don't know how beautiful you are"?
Yeah, because obviously, they're all gonna go, "We need a song like THAT!," so everyone starts writing songs with that same concept. But I think every time -- even with kind of cheesy pop songs -- if there's an honesty to it, it just connects.
And there were people nervous about it. At the label, they'd asked me to change the lyrics a couple times. "Isn't it too cliched to say that?," and all that. And I was like, "No, I think that's what's going to be great about it, is that it's so relatable." And they tried two or three times, like, "Are you sure you don't want to change it?" And I was like, "No, trust me, trust me, trust me..." And they picked it as the first single, so clearly they got it [eventually].
I have to hand it to the label for seeing what it was going to be once it was all mixed. I was at a party with [label execs] Steve Barnett and Rob Stringer to view the first American X Factor episode, and Simon [Cowell] was there... and they came up to me, and they said, "That One Direction song's gonna work here." And I was like "What? What One Direction song?" "'What Makes You Beautiful.'" And I was like, "No, no... that's not... are you sure?" They were like "Yeah, that's gonna be a big hit." I just didn't see it [like that].
When you had the melody for the chorus in your head, did you have the vision already for how it was going to sound -- this power-poppy, rock-based sound?
Well, my vision for the guys in those early days was always guitar-pop. Everyone was doing Rihanna dance-pop. My sort of rule with boy bands and groups, is you do, like... counter-programming, I guess? You do the exact opposite of what's going on. Because to me, I feel like teenage girls need to feel it's their own thing. If you're just trying to be Usher, they'll just buy Usher... so that was sort of my theory. So we always knew it was gonna be guitar, high-energy, but Carl and Rami just got [the production] right.
Do you think this is the best chorus you've ever been a part of?
That's hard to say. It's definitely up there. I mean, as far as just pure pop bliss, totally. But it's hard to say, because now it's kind of like an older song for me, and you always love your new babies. I wouldn't mind putting [Jessie J, Nicki Minaj & Ariana Grande's] "Bang Bang" in there, or [Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj's] "Side to Side" or [The Weeknd's] "Can't Feel My Face" or something like that. But definitely, as far as one of the things I'm most proud of -- not just because of the song, but because I wrote this thing for my wife that became this sort of pop culture thing...
I look at boy bands as ways to get teenage girls through that awkward time in their life, you know? It's the thing that the cheerleader and the hipster [have in common] -- like, Halsey was a One Direction fan growing up, the cool girl like that, and the nerdy girl... that's something that they all then have in common, is that group. My older sister was really shy, and then New Kids on the Block happened, and all of a sudden she started having friends, because it gave her something in common with the rest of the girls. So that always stuck with me. So to me, it's probably the song, or the moment in time in my career I'm most proud of, because I feel like ["Beautiful"] became that [catalyst] for millions of other girls.
What song would you choose for our list as the most undeniable chorus of the 21st century?
Well, certain things come to mind right away, like [Leona Lewis'] "Bleeding Love," or [Katy Perry's] "Teenage Dream." I know when I hang up the phone I'm gonna think of ten other things. But for me, "Teenage Dream" is an ultimate pop chorus.
More Chorus Week Interviews: Carly Rae Jepsen on 'Call Me Maybe' | O-Town on 'All or Nothing' | Alicia Keys on 'Empire State of Mind' | Sisqo on 'The Thong Song' | Lifehouse on "Hanging By a Moment" | Petey Pablo on 'Raise Up' | Michelle Branch on 'Everywhere'