In January 2000, Christina Aguilera’s “What a Girl Wants,” co-written by Shelly Peiken, dethroned Santana and Rob Thomas’ “Smooth” to become the first new Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 of the millennium. It was also the first No. 1 for Peiken, who had previously gotten close as a co-writer of Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch,” which hit No. 2 in 1997 and has logged 56.7 million on-demand U.S. streams to date, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data. She also co-wrote Aguilera’s next hit, “Come On Over Baby (All I Want Is You),” which reigned at No. 1 on the Hot 100 for four weeks later that year.
Since then, she has written songs for Bebe Rexha, Céline Dion, Mandy Moore, Miley Cyrus, Brandy, Demi Lovato, Jennifer Lopez, Backstreet Boys, Ashlee Simpson, Swirl 360, and Michelle Branch, and she’s also a founding member of the advocacy organization Songwriters of North America. She has earned two Grammy nominations to date: best rock song (“Bitch”) and best spoken word album, for her 2015 memoir, Confessions of a Serial Songwriter.
“I’ve always been a massive fan of Shelly’s writing and have tried to have our artists cut as many of her songs as possible,” says Pete Ganbarg, president of A&R, Atlantic Records; president, ATCO Records. “So when I saw that it was ‘What A Girl’ that was going to be the one to replace ‘Smooth’ at No. 1, I was thrilled to be able to call her and give her the news.”
Below, Peiken reflects on the song’s 20th anniversary: “‘Bitch’ changed things for me, but ‘What a Girl Wants’ established that I wasn’t a fluke. If this was happening again, it wasn’t an accident.”
My daughter was 2 at the time, so I wasn’t obsessing about the charts every second, which was a good thing. We were reading Winnie the Pooh when I got a call from [Atlantic Records’] Pete Ganbarg, who said “What a Girl Wants” was going to knock out “Smooth” next week. He had A&R’d Santana and that record, so he knew when he said, “You’re going to have your first No. 1.” I was so ready after “Bitch” had come so close. Both songs were inspired by the same relationship: my current husband. They’ve got a common thread because they’re from the same soul.
Every label wants a second hit after the first, anybody would know that. But they didn’t really share with the writers exactly what the strategy was. I’m so removed from the corporate side of the business. But they probably felt that artistically it was natural for “What a Girl Wants” to come after “Genie in a Bottle” and I have to say, we probably got some momentum from being on the coattails of another No. 1. That surely didn’t hurt.
There’s so many times that I’ve been asked to write another “Bitch” or another “What A Girl Wants” and I fail miserably. I admire songwriters who can take a brief and zone in on exactly what they were asked for. Like if they’re told to write a song for Ariana Grande, they know her high note and the vowel sounds she likes to enter lines on, and they can build a song that way. I just could never do that.
My pockets and my purses are always filled with receipts and napkins of scribbled down ideas. That day [co-writer] Guy Roche and I gave it “the morning after test.” When you think you’ve written a hit, you have to sleep on it, because sometimes in the morning you listen back and go “what was I thinking, this is trash,” you know? But if you still think it’s special, then you’re probably right. And that’s what we did. I woke up the next day and couldn’t get the hook out of my head.
After that, the phone definitely started ringing more. I could get in better rooms. This was at a time when you didn’t really have to write songs with the artist who was recording it in order to get on the record. You could write songs with another songwriter and pitch, because A&Rs were soliciting songs for albums they were making, so it was like a gold rush back then. Plus I just loved the act of songwriting. It’s like working out for me. It’s a process that is part of my daily life.
I’ve got my platinum records and a copy of my Billboard Hot 100 chart with the song in first place, highlighted in yellow, and framed on my wall. Growing up, I didn’t know songwriting could be a profession. But when I decided that this was what I wanted to do with my life, I read Billboard and the charts constantly: “Diane Warren, Diane Warren, Diane Warren.” Like, “Who is this chick?!” (Laughs.) I imagined that one day my name would be in the little parentheses that said “writer.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the Feb. 29, 2020 issue of Billboard.