Thirty years ago, Diane Warren was nominated for her first Academy Award the Best Song category for “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” from the movie “Mannequin.” She didn’t win that year. She also lost in 1997 for “Because You Loved Me,” which earned her a Grammy Award, and in 2016 for “Til it Happens to You,” for which she got an Emmy. She’ll have another chance at an Oscar this year with “Stand Up For Something,” the song she wrote for the movie “Marshall.” And she’s hoping that the ninth time is the charm.
Warren invited friends over for a “slumberless slumber party” to await the nomination announcement, and was thrilled when the fourth name called in the Best Song category was hers. “I think I’m the most excited about this than any song I’ve ever done,” she told the Journal. “The song is so timely, such an important song.”
A rousing soul anthem sung by Andra Day with a rap break by Common, it was written to represent the character of young Thurgood Marshall, the future Supreme Court Justice. But Warren emphasizes its universal message, one that activist organizations including the ACLU, NAACP, Stand Up to Cancer, CNN Heroes, and the Me Too and Time’s Up movements have embraced.
“It’s about integrity and standing up, and with what’s going on right now in our country and the world, we can’t be passive,” Warren said. “This is one of those songs that goes to your heart and your soul and makes you feel like you can make a difference.”
Warren had met “Marshall” director Reginald Hudlin when he produced the Academy Awards telecast in 2016, and contacted him about contributing a song when she heard about the film. “He sent me the script and the moment I read it, I wrote down ‘It all means nothing if you don’t stand up for something’ right on the script,” she said. “I had the chorus and first verse in a half hour. But the rest of it took a week. I kept working on it because I didn’t want there to be one weak line or word in the song. I wanted it to be a classic.”
For inspiration, she listened to Sam Cooke’s 1964 classic “A Change is Gonna Come” on repeat. “I wanted to capture that sixties-era, really stirring, inspiring protest song that made you want to change the world, yet keep it modern,” Warren said. She had singer Andra Day in mind before she knew Day had a role in “Marshall.” And she thought, “Putting a rap on it would be a cool mash-up of decades and genres.”
“This is one of those songs that goes to your heart and your soul and makes you feel like you can make a difference.”
She and Common had discussed collaborating at the 2014 Oscars, when her song “Beyond the Lights” lost to his and John Legend’s “Glory.” On a flight to the Sundance Film Festival last year, she found the rapper sitting behind her, and promptly sang him the chorus she’d written. She had the demo sent to him after they landed. “We’re definitely going to do more together,” Warren said, adding that she also plans to work with Day.
Warren, 61, knew she wanted to be a songwriter as a kid growing up in Van Nuys, where she listened to her older sisters’ rock albums and her parents’ Broadway records. At 17, she scored her first sale with a tune called “Don Quixote Touches Windmills. “No one ever recorded it, but it was a big deal for me,” she said.
She grew up in a Reform Jewish home, celebrating holidays going to synagogue. But she did not have a bat mitzvah and believes that her parents “rebelled a bit” against their own parents’ observance. “I’m not super-religious, but I’m proud to be Jewish and I celebrate the Jewish holidays and I give to Jewish causes like the Jewish Home for the Aging. I have programs in my parents’ names there,” she said.
“I feel like I have the Jewish immigrant gene in me–people who came to this country to make something of themselves. It’s in my blood, that ambition, that hunger to do better,” she said. “I came from nothing. I didn’t know anybody in the music business. I made something of myself. But it’s a continuing journey.”
Warren has been to Israel twice, for the first time “when I was 15 with a bunch of Jewish kids. I was the rebel. I brought hashish and turned everybody on to it. When I came back to the States there was a hash pipe in my guitar case and they questioned me about it,” she said.
The second was in 2008 for a concert celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Peres Center for Peace, at Shimon Peres’ invitation. She laughed about how far she’s come, saying, “To go from almost getting arrested to coming back as the guest of the president was amazing.”
Warren, whose songs have been in over 100 movies, was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2001. Of her many accomplishments, she’s especially proud of “Til it Happens to You,” co-written with and performed by Lady Gaga. “It changed the conversation and helped people talk about things like sexual abuse or bullying,” she said. She’s confident that “Stand Up For Something” can be just as impactful.
For Warren, music is “not a job. It’s my life. It’s my lover. I can’t be in a relationship. This is full-time for me,” she said. “It’s like air to me. It’s like breathing. If I couldn’t do this I would definitely die.”
Currently working with Jennifer Hudson, John Legend, and Jason Derulo, Warren said that she hopes to continue writing for established and emerging artists, and explore new areas. “Maybe there’s a movie musical in my future,” she said.