This story about Diane Warren first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
When she got a phone call in June from Academy president David Rubin, Diane Warren was in the studio with singer Sofia Carson, working on a song called “Applause.” The song, written for the movie “Tell It Like a Woman,” urges women to appreciate themselves: “Give yourself some applause, you deserve it.” And when Rubin greeted Warren, the song suddenly took on a whole new meaning.
“He was like, ‘I’m so happy to be able to do this. Congratulations!’” said Warren, thinking back on the moment four months later. “I go, ‘What?’ He said, ‘You’re getting an Oscar!’ And I was like, ‘No. This has to be a joke.’”
It wasn’t a joke. At the Governors Awards on Nov. 19, Diane Warren will become the first songwriter to ever be voted an Honorary Academy Award by the Academy’s Board of Governors. After almost 40 years in the music business, 32 Top 10 hits on the charts, three consecutive Songwriter of the Year awards at the Billboard Music Awards, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a spot in the Songwriters Hall of Fame and 13 Academy Award nominations but no wins, she will take home the little gold man she has famously and openly coveted for decades.
And when she does, it’ll most likely become the instant highlight in a career that has already included an array of hit songs that include “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” (Starship), “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” (Aerosmith), “Rhythm of the Night” (DeBarge), “If I Could Turn Back Time” (Cher), “Because You Loved Me” (Celine Dion), “How Do I Live” (LeAnn Rimes) and “’Til It Happens to You” (Lady Gaga).
Bring up the Honorary Oscar, and the normally outspoken Warren is almost at a loss for words. “How cool is that?” she said, sitting at a control board in a studio at Realsongs, the Hollywood building that houses her studio and office. “Like, I can’t…” She stopped, then started again. “I mean, you know, it hasn’t even hit me yet.”
Another pause, and then her smile faded a bit. “It’s weird. Today’s 20 years since my mom passed away. My mom saw some of my success, but, like…” She shook her head. “I’ll get emotional if I say much, but I have a feeling my mom and dad are gonna be there that day, you know? I mean, I’m getting an Oscar. It hasn’t even hit me.”
Warren’s parents come up a lot when she talks about her songwriting career, because her dad was her biggest booster, her mom a relentless skeptic. It started, she said, when she was eight or nine years old, looking at the label on one of her sister’s 45 rpm singles. It had the name of the artist, the Drifters, and the song, “Up on the Roof.” And beneath the song title, in parentheses, it said “Goffin-King,” for songwriters Gerry Goffin and Carole King.
“I felt like, I want to be in the parentheses,” she said. “I didn’t want to be the singer, I wanted to be the songwriter.” She shrugged. “Is that weird, to want to be in the parentheses? I don’t know. I just had a premonition, maybe.”
Her father bought her an inexpensive guitar and took her to lessons, but the instructor told her not to come back because she didn’t want to learn scales. (She was never much of a student in any kind of school.) By the time she was a teenager, she was obsessed with writing songs, inspired by Southern California radio stations that played a steady diet of the Beatles, Motown and everything else. Her father would drive her to see publishers “when I was 15 and an arrogant little shit,” while her mother was less optimistic. “I’d play her a song and she’d say, ‘It’s a beautiful song, but go to Ralph’s and see if they’ll give you groceries for it.’”
Together, her parents gave the rebellious teen the drive to keep at it. “I had my dad believing in me, and that was great,” she said. “But I had to prove it to my mom, and that’s almost more powerful. Especially when every door is being slammed in your face, there’s something about thinking, ‘I’m gonna show you. I’m gonna be able to go to Ralph’s and buy lots of groceries.’”
But it took her years to get to that point. “It was the overnight success that took forever,” she said. “I had my first hit when I was 29, and I’d been doing it obsessively since I was 14.” But once she hit, she kept going, scoring Oscar nominations for four years in a row between 1996 and 1999 and then hitting a crazy streak of seven nominations in eight years beginning in 2014.
The pandemic didn’t slow her down: Warren continued to go to a Sunset Blvd. office every morning to write, and to the larger Realsongs building around the corner in the afternoons. In fact, she loved the fact that there were no other people around, that she could skip the socializing and get straight to the songwriting.
In this era of collaboration, she prefers to write solo: “I think my best songs are the ones I write on my own,” she said. “I have my own way of doing it, and I’d rather do that than be in a room with somebody trying to write lyrics and sounding like an idiot.” (Her preference for writing by herself, and an outspoken and cynical nature that isn’t always apparent in her songs, stirred up a minor social-media storm in August when she publicly wondered why Beyoncé had two dozen credited songwriters on one song.)
The industry has changed dramatically since Warren got into it, and she knows it. “I still do well, and thank God for that, but I feel so bad for people coming up now,” she said. “I was recently with a great artist whose manager is an executive at a big record company, and I said, ‘Why isn’t your manager signing you to the label?’ And they said, ‘My TikTok numbers aren’t high enough.’ It’s terrible that they’re just looking at algorithms or TikTok data. When I was coming up, the only data that meant something was, ‘Did that song make you feel something?’ These poor artists coming up now don’t get a chance.”
By the way, remember that song called “Applause” we told you about at the beginning of this story? The song about female empowerment that Warren was recording when she got a call telling her about the Honorary Oscar?
Well, “Applause” is eligible for an Oscar this year in the Best Original Song category. Diane would like people to vote for it. She might be winning an Honorary Oscar this year, but don’t expect that to lessen her desire to hear her name on Oscar night when the envelope is opened.
“Oh, no,” she said when the subject is raised. “I still want to win one. My Oscar will be lonely. He wants an Oscar friend to hang out with.”
A shrug. “I’m gonna try this year. I’m gonna try next year. I love this time of year, I love the whole process. It’s fun.”