For 12 whole months, radio stations across the country played Natasha Bedingfield’s "Unwritten" more than almost any other song. If you got into your beige Camry and switched on the radio in 2006, there was a pretty good chance you were arriving midway into the track just in time to (beat) FEEL THE RAIN ON YOUR SKIN. "Unwritten" was on the radio more than Justin Timberlake’s "Sexy Back," more than Nelly Furtado’s "Promiscuous Girl," more than that Snow Patrol song which seemed to be playing on every station, all the time. And yet, it still wasn't getting as much airtime as "Unwritten."
2006 was a vastly different time when it came to accessing music. Most everyone had a cell phone, but 13 years ago, cell phones were just Snickers bars with buttons. Streaming on Spotify? What’s that? George W. Bush? Still president. You had to be really committed to music, like, as a hobby, to be able to pick and choose what you were into. It took time and money. If you were just ambivalent about tunes, Top 40 stations chose your favorite songs for you. And they chose "Unwritten" all year long. So did MTV, when they picked the song as the theme for The Hills, a reality show spinning off from its predecessor, the two-season series Laguna Beach, which put the drama of pretty blonde beach babes and their skater boyfriends on the national screen. (True Laguna-heads know we do not recognize the show’s third season, which featured an entirely new cast.)
The song was first released in 2004, and by the time MTV announced The Hills would carry on Laguna Beach’s legacy with a focus on main character Lauren Conrad’s move to Los Angeles to start her "real life," it was a massive pop hit, one that carried viewers into each episode, week after week. Now, nine years after audiences said goodbye to the show, The Hills: New Beginnings is set to premiere next week, with "Unwritten" as its theme song again, ready to become an earworm for a whole new generation (albeit as an-EDM influenced remix, produced by Linda Perry).
Much like the beloved characters we know so well, Bedingfield’s life has changed a lot since the last time the show was on. This year, she celebrated ten years marriage to her husband, businessman Matt Robinson, who she met when he randomly swung by to see her perform in Nashville some years before at the suggestion of a mutual friend. In December 2017, the couple gave birth to their son Solomon Dylan, now 18 months. Bedingfield left her corporate record label four years ago and just recently decided to join an independent label, a decision she says she didn’t take lightly but was ultimately the right move.
I met up with Bedingfield in New York City a few weeks ago to talk about the comeback of The Hills, reality television, and how she feels about her 15-year-old hit song finding its way back into pop culture. In person, as in her music, Bedingfield is warm and inviting. Dressed in an array of shades of red and pink, she motions for me to choose a seat in the room, before choosing the seat right next to me for herself.
Before we dive in deep, I need to know ASAP—did she watch The Hills? An episode here and there, she says, but largely no. She’s not a big television person.
"I remember, way before The Hills, there was a show called, maybe, Lauren of The Hills?" Bedingfield guesses.
"Laguna Beach," I supply.
"Right! Anyway, I remember during that, Lauren [Conrad] coming to visit me at a studio in Topanga. A year later MTV wanted to use [my song] for her spin-off show." Conrad, according to a 2006 memo in Women’s Wear Daily, was interviewing Bedingfield as part of her internship duties at Teen Vogue, a "job" that many still believe wasn’t legitimate but rather a plotline partnership between the television network and the magazine.
Either way, Bedingfield was open to letting MTV use the song. While she knows it's not the dream of every musician, Bedingfield says she loves when her music gets used commercially. She feels it's proof that her songs are connecting with themes and people across the spectrum; that they're relatable. Proof that she is, quite literally, striking a chord, repeatedly penning the kind of catchy, upbeat songs people want to sing along to.
Originally, "Unwritten" was inspired by and written for Bedingfield's younger brother, Joshua, who at the time was just 14 years old and was already being asked who and what he wanted to be when he grew up, Bedingfield explains. Turns out the lyrics were also a perfect fit for Laguna Beach good girl L.C. who too did some soul-searching when she ventured outside her small California beach town to discover the meaning of life in a, uh, slightly bigger California beach town. When The Hills premiered in May of 2006, the song—produced by Danielle Brisebois and Wayne Rodrigues—was soon stripped of any original connotation to Joshua Bedingfield and fast became known as, well, The Hills song. Bedingfield likens it to the Friends theme or the Paula Cole song that opened Dawson’s Creek—"I don’t wanna wait!" Bedingfield breaks into the chorus, remembering.
While The Hills hasn’t been on television for years, "Unwritten" is already experiencing a bit of a resurgence, Bedingfield told me. "There was a YouTube video of a kid stopped at a light. And he starts belting out, 'staring at the blank page before you…' and he's singing it out of tune before the car drives away." The video she's describing has become a meme, wracking up nearly a million views and inspiring other creative interpretations.
Like the '90s theme song hits that came before it, "Unwritten" fell into a specific category of upbeat romance tunes with commercial success. Just last year The Guardian likened it to Vanessa Carlton’s "A Thousand Miles" as a "basic bitch staple," showing up in movies and television shows and fitness class playlists. "Unwritten" was used as the soundtrack to multiple film montages; Ice Princess, Because I Said So, and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants all featured the song between 2005 and 2007. Another one of her hits, "Pocketful of Sunshine," was just as ubiquitous, appearing in movies and television shows like The Ugly Truth, Degrassi, and even a version of The Sims. In Emma Stone’s breakout role as Olive Pendhergast in the 2010 film Easy A, "Pocketful of Sunshine" was used as a sort of punchline—Olive opens one of those musical greeting cards from her grandmother and the chorus booms out. She then spends the rest of the weekend with the song stuck in her head.
"I love when Emma Stone said it was the most annoying song in the world, and I agree!" Bedingfield confesses, laughing. "When I wrote that song my older brother said to me, 'You know that verse is quite annoying right? You should probably write a less annoying verse.'"
Hearing her music blanket itself across an array of entertainment was new and exciting for Bedingfield, since her familiarity with pop culture has always been vague. She was homeschooled and her parents didn’t introduce her and her siblings (said other brother is musical artist Daniel Bedingfield, who had a bunch of hits in the early-aughts) to television shows or music videos. You may think it’s strange that a family of such talent was effectively cut off from pop culture during their most impressionable childhood years. But she credits this as the reason she never felt like she had to tune in to watch that much television as an adult (though she says she loves Kim Kardashian).
Bedingfield’s success happened right as the music industry was poised to enter a new era. Mere months separated her more traditional road to fame and Justin Bieber being discovered singing covers of Usher songs on YouTube. The labels had all of the power back then, Bedingfield recalls. If you wanted to get your songs on the radio, you played their game. Getting your song picked to theme a hit reality show was a fantastic way for artists to reach new fans who would hopefully go to the mall and buy your CD.
"[In the mid-2000s] I had to approve every image of myself with my label and then the label would talk to your stylist and say, 'Oh, she’s not allowed to wear hats!'" She touches the hat currently on her head, almost as if to remind herself it’s still there. "But I love hats!" Now, Bedingfield says there’s a lot of freedom in making music. Artists are less reliant on the label to make sure people hear their songs. She can use Instagram to portray the image of herself she wants her fans to see—and these days it’s one of a working mom, a little older and wiser, enjoying this time in her life.
It’s something she has in common with Hills stars of the past and of the upcoming reboot. Lauren Conrad, Whitney Port, Audrina Patridge, Heidi Montag Pratt, and Kristen Cavalleri are all 30-something moms working to shed the image of mid-aughts teenagers that captivated the country while knowing those roles are what made them relevant in the first place. While Cavalleri isn’t coming back to the show, she is finding more reality staying power in her E! reality show. (As a reality TV purist, I'm not particularly interested in checking out Very Cavalleri; I think the genre was way better before producers got too good at their jobs. Bedingfield agrees with me; we briefly bonded over the beauty of Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica.) Conrad isn’t coming back either, but 6.1 million people already stay in touch with her, her fashion line and her growing family via Instagram.
As for Bedingfield, the singer/songwriter is still living her dream, though, unlike some of the characters her famous song soundtracked, she's looking forward, even if her life looks a little different than it did over a decade ago. "Look at Serena Williams!" she exclaims, who she hangs out with (nbd!) and whose career inspires her. "She has a baby and she goes right back on the court. We’re in the era of the bounce back." (Fun fact: Bedingfield attends Williams’ friends and family invitational at her house each year where the tennis star has guests compete in various sports. On the court, Williams will play left-handed to make it fair, though she still wins.) At 37, Bedingfield spends her time in the studio working on new music with Solomon by her side. It’s a lot more relaxed, she confesses. She likes being on her own timeline.
She was performing live right up until her ninth month of pregnancy with her last concert at Madison Square Garden. Before that, she spent much of the year opening for Train on their tour. Now she’s preparing to release new music this summer and she’s pumped. Fans can expect a lot of what makes them fans of Bedingfield in the first place—life lessons, love, heartbreak, independence, feminism, freedom—and it’s timed pretty seamlessly as "Unwritten" comes back to television.
"This chapter has been amazing," she confesses. "I signed a record deal when I was pregnant. I was touring when I was pregnant. When he was born I was writing. He’s been in the studio his whole life." Her family just bought a boat and they go sailing. She does (or at least she tries to do) yoga as much as she can. She listens to relaxing, ambient artists like Bon Iver and Icelandic artist Ásgeir, when she’s not listening to the soulful songs of Elmo and Cookie Monster. "Baby Shark" hasn’t made its way into her son’s rotation yet; Bedingfield and her husband heard it once and they were like, "Oh, hell no," she says, laughing.
Will Bedingfield tune in for the reboot of The Hills? She gives a mysterious shrug. The rest is still unwritten.
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