The name Bonnie McKee might not ring a bell, but these songs will have you humming: "California Gurls," "Last Friday Night" and "Teenage Dream" for Katy Perry and "Hold It Against Me" for Britney Spears.
She might not be the voice for the songs, but the songs wouldn't exist if she had not written them for some of pop's current leading ladies. It doesn't quite surprise me that McKee wanted to be a pop star herself--her 2004 debut album tanked. As she says in this Hollywood Reporter interview, "My experience in the industry was that you put all this heart and soul into shit and then it never happens." But as they say, lemons to lemonade. She knew music, she could write, and write she did.
Her turning point was "California Gurls," which I vaguely remember was said to be written as a response to Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind." Katy Perry wanted a West Coast equivalent that was fun and bubbly--and probably something to prove that "I Kissed A Girl" wasn't just a fluke. McKee describes the semi-unreal feeling of hearing the song you wrote on the radio:
"Well, maybe this will work; maybe it won’t." And then when it came on the radio I was, like, "Wow I did that a couple months ago and I can’t believe it’s actually on the radio and it actually worked!" When that started playing a lot I was just in shock. I couldn’t believe it … I think ‘California Gurls’ is the first one that really showed me that.
It really surprised me that she wrote some of Katy Perry's biggest hits. I had been under the impression that Katy Perry wrote most of her songs. But "Teenage Dream?" Man, that is major:
That’s a title I’d had bouncing around in my head for years that I had been holding onto for myself … So that was tough one to give up. There’s a lot of little Bonnie-isms in "Teenage Dream" that I was hoping to keep for myself. But at that moment I didn’t have hot water, I didn’t have a cell phone, I didn’t have a car. So it was now or never. I’m glad that I did it.
McKee says "Teenage Dream" is the song she is most proud of having written. And I have to agree. It's the right mix of vulnerability and braveness and oh, youth! That she was hoping to sing it herself, but there were bills to pay. She wouldn't have written it if she weren't poor and desperate. Literally, this is a money for food moment. All we hear is Katy Perry's name and voice and pop sugar outfits, but where would she be if it weren't for the songs, yeah?
I'm also glad that she has not completely given up on her own pop dreams. She is working on her next album. My bet is that she got tons of goodwill from the work she did for others, and now she has another shot at it. She describes her work as something like "what Blondie would sound like in 2013." I would be looking forward to that.