Bonnie McKee became the pop songwriter du jour after the enormous success of her co-writes on Katy Perry’s 2010 Teenage Dream album; in fact, since the release of “California Gurls,” the pair have seen five of their writing collaborations take the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100.
With that hit-making streak, it’s no surprise that McKee was brought in to work with big names like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Kesha and Adam Lambert. It’s also no shock that two of her biggest hits, Perry’s “Teenage Dream” and Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite,” were among our 100 Best Choruses of The 21st Century list, at No. 7 and No. 82, respectively.
To celebrate, we talked to McKee about how the two “really polar opposite” songs came together, and how the chorus to one of Lorde’s biggest hits left her smarting.
For “Teenage Dream,” was the chorus the first part of the song to come together?
“Teenage Dream” was the most difficult song I’ve ever been a part of. We wrote five different versions of it. We couldn’t get the lyrics right. Max Martin and Dr. Luke wrote most of the melody, and then Katy Perry and I were responsible for getting the lyrics right. We started with a hook — I usually start with a hook — but there were several different versions of the hook before “Teenage Dream” came together.
Do you remember which part of the chorus came first?
We had some kind of filler shit that no one was feeling good about or satisfied with. Then I went off and had a good think with myself — looked at myself long and hard in the mirror and was like, “this is your Eminem 8 Mile moment — don’t fuck it up.” And then “teenage dream” came to me. So once we had the words “teenage dream,” the rest of it really fell into its place.
So you didn’t go into this song knowing its theme?
No. I knew we wanted to do something kind of nostalgic and romantic like “new love, young love,” but we just didn’t have the right words for it. I think there were parts that were [already] there, like [sings] “don’t ever look back, don’t ever look back,” but it was kind of generic other than that. Once we had “teenage dream,” it all came together.
With “Dynamite,” did you start with the hook as well?
Yes. I wrote the lyrics on the hook. Originally it was supposed to be for Flo Rida. It was just a hook, and then we sent it to him to do his raps and verses. Taio Cruz was up-and-coming, and Dr. Luke felt he wanted to give him a shot at that. And so Taio wrote the verses. The hook was the first thing to come together on that one.
People ask me all the time, ‘Why is it, “I throw my hands up in the air sometimes?’ Why is it only ‘sometimes’?” It wasn’t meant to be a straight-up party song. It was meant to be a surrender song. “I throw my hand up in the air sometimes” is when you don’t get your way — when you give up and you’re handing it over. So it’s really a song about surrender that I wrote when I was starting to get sober. It’s funny that it just turned into a straight-up club banger. There was really a lot of heart and ton of spirituality underneath it.
Were you surprised to see that it become the massive hit that it became?
Absolutely. I remember — I’ll never let him live it down — [Warner Music Group exec] Mike Caren, who I adore and has been very good to me, coming in and hearing the hook of “Dynamite,” and being like, “They’ll never play that on the radio.” He was concerned it sounded like it was about terrorism — with dynamite exploding, explosives…
And now it’s going to be played at every wedding until the end of time.
It’s so random. I was really shocked, because it happened really fast, unlike “Teenage Dream.” Those are really polar opposite songs. “Teenage Dream” took us months to write and get the hook right. For “Dynamite,” Max and Luke went to dinner and left me with a melody, and then I put it together.
In Lorde’s song “Team” from 2013, she sings, “I’m kind of over being told to throw my hands up in the air, so there.” Did you take that personally?
[Laughs.] Yeah, absolutely I did. That’s so funny — you’re the only person that’s ever asked me that. I remember when that came out I was like, “All right, all right bitch, I hear you.” Which is funny, because when “Dynamite” came out — I mean, look, I didn’t start the saying “throw your hands up in the air.” But it was a massive hit, and then all of a sudden you start hearing every song talk about putting hands up in the air. I was also like, “But Lorde, you don’t understand where I was coming from! [Laughs.] You don’t understand that that’s a really deep song to me.”
I was insulted by that, definitely. Clever, though. Even though she stole my Grammy [for song of the year in 2014, when McKee was nominated for Perry’s “Roar”], I still love her.
What’s your favorite chorus of the 21st century?
It’s hard to choose. The first one that comes to mind for me is [Kelly Clarkson’s] “Since U Been Gone.” It was the first collaboration between Dr. Luke and Max Martin — who are clearly a dynamite duo. It was kind of Max’s comeback after going away, after the saturation of Britney Spears and boy band stuff for a minute. It still stands the test of time. The song has a roadmap hook that I refer to all the time. If I’m stuck [writing songs], I’m like, “Well, what does ‘Since U Been Gone’ do?” It has a nice pickup and it progresses beautifully. It’s just a powerhouse the way that it comes in. Anytime it comes on, everybody is singing along. I feel like that is a perfect hook.
Some of my other favorites are [Lady Gaga‘s] “Poker Face” — brilliant! I love that she got a high-concept lyric in such a beautiful, simple melody. [Carly Rae Jepsen‘s] “Call Me Maybe” is up there too.
What about “Call Me Maybe,” Billboard’s pick for No. 1, does it for you?
“Call Me Maybe” is so fascinating, because first of all it just completely fucking came out of left field. These two basically unknown writers write this fucking song of the century. It was interesting, because the melody is so simple and the concept is so simple, but it’s very original. It was not derivative of anything you heard before. When I think about “Since U Been Gone,” I think the first thing that comes to mind is “Livin’ On A Prayer” — they’re kind of like sisters, a little bit. And “Call Me Maybe” was so wildly original, and so quirky, and so satisfying. It’s kind of a tie between “Call Me Maybe” and “Since U Been Gone.”