How I wrote Christina Aguilera’s ‘What A Girl Wants’ by Shelly Peiken

Shelly Peiken
Shelly Peiken

Shelly Peiken on writing What A Girl Wants: “One day I wrote something down about it on a receipt. Songwriters love receipts…”

The multi-platinum songwriter recalls how she wrote Aguilera’s second No 1 single and one of the biggest hits of 2000

Multi-platinum songwriter Shelly Peiken has penned tracks for stars including Brandy, Britney Spears, The Pretenders and Keith Urban. One of her biggest hits came in 1998 when she co-wrote the Meredith Brooks anthem Bitch. Her book Confessions Of A Serial Songwriter, part memoir and part writing aid, is a must-read for anyone interested in the process of crafting songs.

Alongside Bitch, one of Shelly’s main successes was with the Christina Aguilera song What A Girl Wants, which she co-wrote with producer Guy Roche. Such was the track’s popularity that it knocked Santana’s Smooth off the No. 1 spot to become the first new chart-topper of the 21st century in the US. Peiken takes us through the song’s journey, from scribbled receipt to mainstream smash…

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Christina Aguilera 'What A Girl Wants' cover

Released: 28 November 1999
Artist: Christina Aguilera
Label: RCA
Songwriter: Shelly Peiken and Guy Roche
Producer: Guy Roche
UK chart position: 3
US chart position: 1

“I had been living in New York and dating a guy who lived in Los Angeles. We did three years of long distance until I moved to LA to be with him. I was pregnant with our child and I was thinking about how patient he was and how much space he gave me. One day I wrote something down about it on a receipt. Songwriters love receipts because it’s just easier to pick up a pen and write something down than it is to look in your coat, find your voice memo, press record and save something.

“I used to get together with my friend Guy Roche. We’d go into a studio and he’d sometimes have a beat up and would be preparing demos. He started playing something and I remembered those thoughts I’d had and that receipt at the bottom of my purse that I had scribbled them down on. I went scavenging for it and I sung the lines along with what he was playing. The funny thing was that it started ‘what a girl needs / what a girl wants’ and so we were calling it What A Girl Needs. I thought it was kind of hooky, we didn’t have the whole thing but we probably had a lot of it except the bridge. I went home and I remember my husband was reading a book and I said ‘I need you to hear this little snippet and tell me what you think.’ He’s not really a pop junkie, he’s a composer, but he listened to it and said ‘that’s really hooky honey, good luck,’ and shooed me away. I thought ‘if he’s going to use one word then “hooky” is a good one.’

“We went and finished it and then must have sent it out to 25 A&R’s for pitching. Finally, it went to Ron Fair who had been working with Christina. I don’t think she was signed yet, he liked it but said ‘I like the idea of what a girl wants better than I like the idea of what a girl needs.’ I think that’s because ‘wants’ has more yearning whereas ‘needs’ is more needy. He said ‘would you consider changing those around?’ I’d have to change the whole rhyme scheme if I switched the concept but it wasn’t unreasonable. Ron’s a really smart guy and he knows songs. It wasn’t some 20-year-old A&R guy saying something of the top of his head because he wanted 10% of the song. I found a way to rework it so everything rhymed and it did feel stronger.

“Christina recorded it and it was following the footsteps of Genie In A Bottle. I think a whole combination of stars collided which would be; she had the pipes, she had a great A&R guy, it was on a label that was giving her a push, she had the momentum of following another No 1 song and I’d like to think that the song itself catapulted it. It was a No 1 record and it was on the pop charts for over 20 weeks. I was ecstatic when I heard Christina’s version. I’m not always pleased when I hear a record that was made after I loved the demo but in this case, I was because they sprinkled fairy dust on it. The demo was very slow and lethargic and I was just happy that Ron saw the potential in it, because he might not have.

“It’s sing-songable, the melody repeats itself and so do some of the words and the title and I have to say my song Bitch does that same thing. I don’t know if that’s something I do unconsciously, it’s not like I’m trying to do that but sometimes I look at them and go, ‘What do these have in common?’ and it’s certainly that laundry list repetition of what you are or what I am or some kind of call to action.”

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