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Divas, raise your mics — Diane Warren is finally getting her Oscar! After nearly 40 years of churning out monster pop hits (and receiving 13 Oscar noms, but no wins) the Academy will be honoring the songwriter at the Governors Awards in November.
Though her name may not be instantly recognizable to some, if you've ever attended a wedding, prom, or karaoke night, you definitely know her songs, which have been belted out by a bevy of singularly named superstars from Cher to Beyoncé, Mariah to Celine, and Tina to Whitney.
But there's more to Warren than weepers — her catalog overflows with rock anthems, lush R&B dreams, and pop surprises. And you could argue (and we will) that late '90s blockbusters Con Air and Armageddon simply wouldn't have worked without Warren's sweeping ballads to enhance the emotional moments.
And while some might grumble that her work is formulaic, following a simple pattern that goes down easy as an In-N-Out burger (verse/chorus/verse/bridge) Warren's success is undeniable, as is her work ethic. Like a one-woman Brill Building, Warren treats songwriting like a 9-to-5, sitting at the piano (preferably alone) in her L.A. studio (a.k.a. the Cave, her debut album's namesake) churning out songs at a rate of one per week. Clearly, her workaday approach gets results — Warren has had nine No. 1 songs and 32 top 10s on the Billboard Hot 100.
So let's turn down the lights, crank up the wind machine (or hair dryer), and sing along with our list of Diane Warren's 20 best songs.
"Rhythm of the Night" (1985), DeBarge
One of Warren's first major hits, written for the Berry Gordy martial-arts cult classic The Last Dragon, "Rhythm of the Night" is a tropical-flavored happiness-booster. Performed by DeBarge and produced by the king of disco Giorgio Moroder, the song features steel drums, synths for days, and a candy-sweet "la, la, la, la" chorus that was inescapable on FM radio in the '80s. The song reached number one on Billboard's R&B chart (and in our hearts).
"Don't Turn Around" – Tina Turner (1986) / Ace of Base (1994)
Tina Turner sang the original version of this song — another Warren/Albert Hammond creation — and it's a revelation. In Tina's hands, it becomes dramatic and high-stakes, a fist-pumping slow rocker for the ages, filled with real emotion and energy. When she sings "don't turn around," with each word punctuated by a bombastic drum beat, you feel it. In 1994, Swedish pop group Ace of Base took a shot at the recipe with a cooler approach, adding their own flavors — more sugar, a touch of reggae, and most crucially, a bouncing synth flute. If the chorus keeps you up at night, blame Warren.
"I Get Weak" (1987), Belinda Carlisle
"I Get Weak" was the second single from Heaven On Earth, Belinda Carlisle's second, post Go Go's, solo album. Here, a red-headed Carlisle finds a perfect match in Warren's jukebox love song, which, like a lot of '80s pop, strongly echoes '50s music. Was it because the people writing and producing the songs came of age in the Happy Days era, or was it simply a case of aesthetics? Whatever the reason, "I Get Weak" fits the bill, evoking the candy heart yearning at the center of so many classic girl groups. Sporting some amazing '80s fashion (trench coat and boots) in a cool Diane Keaton-directed black-and-white video, Carlisle's punk princess pipes — still distinctive, still bright, still unlike any other — really shine here.
"Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" (1987), Starship
As the theme for Mannequin, the Andrew McCarthy/Kim Cattrall movie about a man who falls in love with a…mannequin (begging the question, WTF was wrong with people in the '80s) this song rises above its source material. Another Warren/Hammond collab, this big-and-bright anthem with shout-it-to-the-back vocals by Grace Slick is the kind of song that sounds too innocent, too up-with-people, too positive to be made today. That's exactly why it's such a mood booster — an idea put to perfect use in this scene from The Skeleton Twins.
"I Don't Wanna Live Without Your Love" (1988), Chicago
If it's true that there's a song for everything, Chicago's "I Don't Wanna Live Without Your Love" is the song for running across a field of wildflowers toward a long-lost love. Subtle as a freight train, this track is a prime example of the muscular, man-in-love genre, with its shouted chorus, fat guitar chords, and triple-echo drums. Not as big a hit as "Look Away" (yet another Chicago/Warren collab), "I Don't Wanna Live" is actually a better song, distinctive for being the first single sung completely by Bill Champlin (and the famed horns make an all-too-brief appearance as well).
"If I Could Turn Back Time" (1989), Cher
That ship! Those sailors! That…thong! This song, and its legendary music video, reminded the world that — even at age 43 — Cher's confidence, swagger, and pipes were still in full effect. Her rebellious spirit shines through in the video, which had the special distinction of being banned on MTV (it later appeared, but only at night). "If I Could Turn Back Time," arguably the key to Cher's comeback, reached number three on the Billboard Hot 100.
"Love Will Lead You Back" (1989), Taylor Dayne
With so much attention given to Warren's flair for the dramatic, her ability to edit sometimes goes unnoticed. But her talent for summing up a big, messy feeling in just a few words is one of the keys to her success. Here, she takes an idea we've heard Sting opine upon — loving someone, setting them free — and gives it a feminine spin. Warren's gutsy relationship take: "I won't try / To stop you now from leaving / 'Cause in my heart I know / Love will lead you back" found an ideal messenger in Taylor Dayne (the original Taylor), a tough cookie with a big voice.
"If You Asked Me To" (1989), Patti Labelle
Recorded for the Bond film Licence to Kill, Patti LaBelle brings her one-of-a-kind delivery to Warren's lyrics, lending a bouncy, almost scat-like spoken phrasing to the beginning and a lush, soaring conclusion. Celine Dion would later cover it in 1992 and also find success. This live performance with Warren on piano demonstrates LaBelle's almost superhuman ability to hold a note, plus Warren's clear connection and admiration for LaBelle (bonus: the songwriter's extreme '80s mullet is fire).
"When I See You Smile" (1989), Bad English
No matter who you are, when you hear this 100% piece of pure cheese, you will stop what you're doing, raise an arm, and belt out the chorus of what might be one of the sweetest hard-rock anthems of all time. The song is so undeniable it actually makes us a little scared of Diane Warren's powers.
Because let's face it: this corny, Midwest summer concert series-style power ballad shouldn't work. The band, Bad English, was actually a glam rock supergroup made up of ex-Journey members and British singer John Waite ("Missing You"). Still, it does work. How? Maybe it's magic, or maybe it's just…Warren.
"Missing You Now" (1991), Michael Bolton
When Kenny G appears on a Michael Bolton track, it begs the question: "how '80s can you get?" "Missing You Now" sounds like Warren plugged all of the most overused love song words into an '80s computer and this softball of a song popped out.
Of course, it's easy to be snarky about something that wears its heart so plainly on its sleeve. And really, all Bolton is trying to do is tell us how much he misses his love, plain and simple. And what, dear reader, is so wrong with that? Judging from the thousands of positive (gushing, sincere, sweet) comments for this song's music video on YouTube — nothing at all. It's not you, Michael, it's us.
"Unbreak My Heart" (1996), Toni Braxton
Perhaps the most critically-acclaimed Warren song, even the crustiest rock critics and grumpiest ballad haters had to bow down, we're-not-worthy-style, when faced with the majesty of "Unbreak My Heart." The key to this song's brilliance — besides Toni Braxton's bravura performance and unreal vocal range — is Warren's unexpected B minor to D minor change. And, ok, perhaps the video hasn't aged so well.
Her man's (Tyson Beckford) dramatic death followed by a series of Hallmark moments illustrating the couple's happy times (like playing Twister) is…cringey? It's better to watch Braxton sing it live and unadorned. Unsurprisingly, the song remained at number one for eleven weeks. Surprisingly, it found a second life when Weezer covered it, a move Warren voiced approval for.
"Because You Loved Me" (1996), Celine Dion
According to Queen Celine herself, this tear-jerker is one of Oprah's favorites. Popular at both weddings and funerals (no easy feat), "Because You Love Me" was actually written as a tribute to Warren's father. Also the theme for the Robert Redford-Michelle Pfeiffer film Up Close And Personal, this song is a good example of how Warren manages to write lyrics so universal that every listener can apply it to their own lives. A number one hit in the US, Canada, and Australia, the song will remain a staple on Celine Dion's setlist (and karaoke bars) forever.
"How Do I Live" (1997), LeAnn Rimes / Trisha Yearwood
With a backstory more dramatic than the song itself, the strange saga around "How Do I Live" is almost as improbable as the plot of Con Air starring Nicholas Cage, the film Warren wrote it for. Warren first passed the song to LeAnn Rimes, because who better to sing lyrics that sound ripped from the pages of a tear-stained middle school diary ("how do I breathe without you?") than an actual 14-year-old? So far, so good, until Hollywood hired Trisha Yearwood to record another version.
Buckle up, it's about to get weirder, because both versions were nominated for a Grammy that year — the only time in the award show's history it's ever happened. After a (retrospectively) cruel live Grammy performance from Rimes, backstage tears, a win for Yearwood, and (later) a chart victory for Rimes, was the song worth the drama? Um, yeah. Setting those scribbled heartbreak lyrics to that majestic swell of music grabbed fans by the ears and never let go.
"Have You Ever" (1998), Brandy
Warren's R&B pop chops are all over this lush, sparkly, candle-lit song, notable for the acapella intro and the fact that Brandy sang both lead and backing vocals. Also known for her acting roles (Moesha, Cinderella) the then-19-year-old Brandy was ready to show the world she wasn't a kid anymore, with the silky chorus, warm tones, and slow groove all working toward that goal. Perhaps not the most thrilling of the Warren songs, "Have You Ever" is shellac-smooth and professional, demonstrating Brandy's move away from teeny-bopper territory into maturity.
"I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" (1998), Aerosmith
Warren's bold, dramatic style (and penchant for grand arrangements) make her songs an ideal choice for film, and this one is no exception. As the theme for Armageddon (starring singer Steven Tyler's daughter Liv, along with Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck) this soaring power ballad/slow dance fave is the perfect match for the film's intensely emotional ending. Like the NASA shuttle itself, the song skyrocketed and — here's a fun fact — it was Aerosmith's only number one hit in their decades-long career. Another testament to the powers of Warren.
"Can't Take That Away (Mariah's Theme)" (1999), Mariah Carey
1999 was a stormy year for Mariah Carey, but the result was a beautiful Rainbow. Recorded after divorcing her husband (and head of her label) Tommy Mottola, the album reflected her quest for artistic rebirth and freedom. "Can't Take That Away (Mariah's Theme)," the song she wrote with Warren, was the perfect representation of that spirit. Like most of Mariah's repertoire, the song is filled with uplifting lyrics about staying strong, believing in yourself, and never giving up.
Carey wanted this song released as a single but the label disagreed, leading to a public battle that eventually led to its release in a low-budget and limited fashion. No matter — "Mariah's Theme" is the Song That Lived, remaining a fan (and live) favorite as a personal message of perseverance, delivered as only the Songbird Supreme can.
"I Was Here" (2011), Beyoncé
No surprise here: combining Warren's lyrical powers with Beyoncé's vocal ones creates a combustible mega-power-ballad that puts all others to shame. But it's not just a gorgeous song — it's got a profound message, too. "I was here, I lived, I loved, I was here," is a stellar example of what Warren does so well, penning something that's incredibly simple and yet overwhelmingly emotional at the same time.
And if you're able to watch Beyoncé's performance of this song at the United Nations World Humanitarian Day, surrounded by an IMAX-size screen showing images of dramatic rescues, without bursting into tears…you better check your pulse.
"Til It Happens to You" (2016), Lady Gaga
Warren's second work for Lady Gaga (the first: the so-bad-its-good A Star Is Born pop number) "Til It Happens to You" was written for The Hunting Ground, a documentary about sexual assault on college campuses. Warren, who gifted the soaring, anguished song to the filmmakers, has said she felt compelled to contribute.
Gaga's powerful 2016 Oscar performance, sitting at her piano, surrounded by survivors, garnered a standing ovation from the audience (and tears). But alas, "Til It Happens to You" did not win Best Song, losing to Sam Smith for the theme from Spectre.
"This Is for My Girls" (2016), Kelly Clarkson, Chloe x Halle, Missy Elliott, Jadagrace, Lea Michele, Janelle Monáe, Kelly Rowland, Zendaya
Looking at the insane lineup for this song, it might occur to you that only someone truly next-level could've pulled off something so spectacular. And you would be correct — First Lady Michelle Obama spearheaded this bop, recorded to raise awareness for her Let Girls Learn initiative.
This powerhouse track truly showcases Warren's range; high-energy hip-hop pop is about as far from a ballad as you can get. Put it on the playlist for marathon running, mountain climbing, or just getting yourself out of bed in the morning. And if you ever need an extra shot of happiness, check out Obama (and Missy!) promoting the song on Carpool Karaoke.
"I'll Fight" (2018), Jennifer Hudson
Written for the Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary RBG, this uplifting song encompasses the late Supreme Court justice's lifelong fight for equality, women's rights, and more. Masterfully belted with major feels by Jennifer Hudson, it swoops and soars like all the best anthems do.
The music video is a powerful document as well, interspersed with archival footage of Ginsburg being sworn in, Gloria Steinem, Anita Hill, the civil rights movement, and the women's rights movement. And if you look closely, Warren pops up near the end, dancing with Hudson in matching RBG shirts.
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