I don’t quite remember the first time I heard Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten.” It had to be at some point in 2006, when the record was in the midst of a meteoric 42-week rise through the Billboard Hot 100 charts, but the pop ballad with a catchy beat and tantalizing first line (“I am unwritten, can’t read my mind, I’m undefined”) could have wiggled its way into my hippocampus even earlier and I wouldn’t have realized it. “Unwritten” was arguably the song of the 2000s; the record was inescapable, and even as background music, I’d start to hum along subconsciously, stimulating the cerebellum before I caught myself right before the chorus kicked in 47 seconds into the track:
Feel the rain on your skin
No one else can feel it for you
Only you can let it in
I spent many days alternating between screaming this chorus as loudly as possible during car rides or in my bedroom, and then quietly mouthing the words during walks through the streets of New York City, reorienting myself to the hometown that I moved back to after four years of college in Philadelphia. According to Wikipedia, “Unwritten” was the most played song in the United States that year, and while I have no clue if that is true, it seems right. What I loved about the song at the time, and every subsequent time I’ve listened to the track, was how it hints at both the past and the future, making you feel completely at ease with whichever emotion you feel at that moment. To hear “staring at the blank page before you, open up the dirty window” is such a refreshing admission that your best self lies just ahead, which, as a college graduate with a history degree balancing temp jobs as a high-rise doorman at night and a records clerk at the Eastern District of New York during the day, was wildly refreshing. I loved the endorphin rush that occurred each time I heard those vocals.
Before Bedingfield made her debut in the United States, executives at Epic were concerned whether the singer would translate to American radio airplay. But by the time MTV’s “The Hills,” a reality show following the personal and professional lives of affluent, white women in their early twenties debuted in late May 2006, “Unwritten” was a bonafide smash, convincing Epic to reissue the album. I met my then girlfriend around that time, and during our weekends spent together in the city, we’d binge “The Hills” on DVR, never skipping the opening credits so we could listen to “Unwritten.” Lauren Conrad driving towards the “blank page” on a California highway; LC and Heidi Montag “reaching for something in the distance” while exploring their new apartment; Audrina Patridge enjoying the nightlife of Los Angeles “with arms wide open”; all three sharing a meal while each contemplating how “the rest is still unwritten.”
Even after what had to be the hundredth or so listen on the radio, the track was still irresistible. It’s a record that sounds better each time you sing it — even if it’s from the comfort of your couch and the top of your lungs, belting out lyrics about self-determination and writing your own destiny.
“It’s not a particularly clever song,” Bedingfield told CNN in 2008. “But lyrically it really came from my heart.” When MTV announced that “The Hills” would return in 2019—as The Hills: New Beginnings—nearly a decade since Brody Jenner said goodbye to Kristin Cavallari (a scene, of course, accompanied by an acoustic version of “Unwritten”) and the backdrop was removed to reveal a studio lot, I thought about how the song had been ingrained in my life for a third of my life. I proposed to my then-girlfriend just weeks after the show’s finale, and “The Hills” and “Unwritten” were very much a part of our dating (just as the reboot will be a part of our marriage).
When Danielle Brisebois first met Bedingfield, the songwriter had never heard of the singer. Brisebois’s CV defies summarization, but I’ll try: A child actor, Brisebois became a musician as a teenager, releasing her first album when she was 25 years old before she partnered with Gregg Alexander to form New Radicals. She then began working as a songwriter, contributing lyrics for artists like Kelly Clarkson and Kylie Minogue, and even earned an Oscar nomination for the 2014 track, “Lost Stars,” from Begin Again. Brisebois knows the ins and outs of crafting a timeless record — “You Get What You Give” is not just the only hit the New Radicals released, but the song is often cited as a perfect pop song — and Epic had hoped Brisebois and Wayne Rodrigues, her writing partner, might inspire Bedingfield. “When we were making that first record she was living at our house more than her hotel most of the time,” Brisebois told me recently.
“I had an immediate connection to Natasha,” Brisebois said. “I felt a sizzle, and I instantly knew I had met someone important to my life.” Brisebois’s writing process, like most songwriters I imagine, is unique to her. She often would call her answering machine and sing into the receiver, relying on the machine’s cassette tape for play back. Now, she uses her iPhone. “Whenever I write with an artist, I do what I do,” she said. “I can’t help that, but I try to bring out the beauty I see in the person I’m writing with. What I find beautiful about that person.” During those sessions, she asked Bedingfield, “What do you write?” According to Brisebois, Bedingfield opened a file titled “Unwritten” on her computer. It was a letter to her one of her brothers, and Brisebois was struck by the letter’s honesty. “When you love someone that much,” Bedingfield has said, “you have to be really honest.”
It took two days to write “Unwritten,” a session that was joined by Brisebois’s husband, Nick Lashley, whose random strumming of a vintage Gibson guitar became the track’s riff, as well as Bedingfield’s sister and her friend providing vocals for the gospel interlude that ushers the song into anthem territory. But “Unwritten” was never meant to be an anthem. “I was writing what I needed to hear for myself,” says Brisebois. “I was inspired by my own struggles. You write what you need to learn.”
“Feel the rain on your skin” was a line that Brisebois wrote out of experience. When she lived in NYC as an aspiring singer, Brisebois was often broke, and when it rained and she didn’t have money for the train or the bus (forget a taxi), she would walk home through the downpours. “To get through the hard times, my mantra was, ‘You’re lucky because you’re experiencing the rain,’” said Brisebois. “It would get me home as I was soaking wet, and those experiences came to mind as I was writing the chorus.”
It’s the song’s most iconic line, the one perfectly suited to be sung at whatever volume you wish. “There is a hopefulness to the song, the willingness to work through pain to keep going,” Brisebois explained. That emotional connection also appealed to Liz Gately, the creator of “The Hill’s” predecessor, “Laguna Beach,” who was planning to spin off the wildly successful reality show. The theme for “Laguna Beach’s” opening credits was Hilary Duff’s “Come Clean,” which is a perfectly fine pop song. Similar to “Unwritten”, the chorus — “let the rain fall down, and wake my dreams, let it wash away my sanity” — is an eminently beltable tune. Something about cleansing one’s skin speaks to the base theme of “The Hills”, a show that at its core is all about accumulating moments, and the initial thought was to use Clarkson’s “Breakaway” (another pop banger) for the show’s opening. But, according to Adam DiVello, the show’s creator, “they decided to give [“Unwritten”] a shot and it just stuck.” (DiVello also mentions “Unwritten” had “just [come] out,” which is a bit odd, as the song debuted in 2004, and Clarkson’s single had been reissued weeks before “The Hills” premiere. There is also the question of corporate synergy: Bedingfield was signed to Epic, a subsidiary of Sony BMG, which maintained a partnership with MTV, releasing “The Hills: Original Soundtrack” a year after the show’s debut. At that time, Clarkson was signed to RCA.)
As much as I love “Breakaway,” I can’t imagine listening to the tune through the prism of Heidi and Spencer Pratt meeting for the first time. “Breakaway” may have a “moving to a big city theme,” as DiVello explained, but the throughline of experiencing the ebbs and flows of life is cemented in the collaboration between Bedingfield and Brisebois. “If you try to sell someone a cheap suit, the seams will show through,” Brisebois said.
Brisebois wasn’t aware of “Laguna Beach” or “The Hills”; when she was told that MTV was going to license the song, “I was just happy someone liked it.” Even after a decade-plus, Brisebois has never watched an episode. With the reboot airing at the end of June, “It’s great to be associated with something that people connect to.”
She added, “‘Unwritten’ is now a character on the show.”
Whenever I hear “Unwritten,” I immediately think of sitting on a red velvet couch, or laying in a double bed, and watching “The Hills” with my wife, creating a shared moment along with the show’s cast. A few years ago, a friend of ours was getting married in Laguna Beach, so I flew to Los Angeles for the first time, and then drove on the CA-73 to Orange County. As my wife and I entered the city, we had another shared moment, one we hadn’t had since “Unwritten” was no longer was a weekly presence in our lives. We connected an iPhone to the car’s bluetooth, opened the sun roof, and blasted “Unwritten.” It didn’t matter that the moment was gloriously cheesy, or that we were blaspheming Laguna Beach by not playing Hilary Duff. It just felt right to scream:
Feel the rain on your skin
No one else can feel it for you
Only you can let it in
No one else, no one else, can speak the words on your lips
Drench yourself in words unspoken
Live your life with arms wide open
Today is where your book begins
The rest is still unwritten
Matt Giles is the head of fact-checking at Longreads. He is also a freelance writer, who has written for several publications, including Deadspin, the Washington Post, Bleacher Report, and the New York Times (among others).