Much as "Glory," the Oscar-winning original song from "Selma," is a stirring anthem for civil rights both past and present, "Til It Happens to You," from the harrowing campus sexual-assault documentary "The Hunting Ground," is also an expression of victimhood redirected into empowerment.
The often gut-wrenching song, which comes from Lady Gaga and seven-time Oscar-nominated songwriter Diane Warren, has received critical praise and has logged more than 21 million views on YouTube.
A phone interview with The Envelope between Gaga and Warren quickly became a rapid-fire chat between the collaborators, leaving their interviewer to marvel at the women's openness and strength.
Noting that she hadn't yet seen the film when she started work on the song, Warren spoke openly of her anger at such assaults and more obliquely about a personal connection. From the film's music supervisor, Bonnie Greenberg, she first heard some of the testimonials of rape survivors in the documentary.
Warren: They were infuriating and heartbreaking, and it [ticked] me off. Until you go through that, no one knows. People tell you it's going to get better, but until it actually happens — I mean, I've had my experience and … you know … with similar situations. You just want to do something. It just [ticks] you off.
Gaga: It was already kind of a finished piece when I came in to work on it with Diane. We made some changes so it would speak to more people than just rape survivors. The song kind of became a conversation between two women who'd been sexually abused. Finding our common connection through this song and her sharing that with me — Diane doesn't co-write with anybody, ever — it meant a lot to me; it was really a gift. She was saying, 'I want to share this with you; this is ours.' And that's what we're saying to people: We want to share our pain with other people.
(Gaga has been open about being sexually assaulted at age 19 since revealing it during an appearance on "The Howard Stern Show" last year.)
Gaga: Diane will tell you, it was really hard for me when [the song] came out. I was really stressed out about it. Every time I listen to it, I cry. Every time I get a text about it, I always feel sick. It's like this thing you don't want to face. But because she wanted to face it with me, it reminded me of what the song is for.
Warren: You could teach a master class on your performance. In the movie, in the song and in the video, to me, there's three parts. You start out as a victim, in the verse you're more vulnerable, then they get more [ticked] off — in the movie, they're becoming survivors — then in the last verse, you're victorious, like the movie and the video. That's the beauty of the film. I met the vice president the other day and he had tears in his eyes. The song touched him. It's empowering. That's why there's 21 million views of this thing right now.
Gaga: In the end of the song, it's like, "Yeah, I was abused. So what? You don't want to meet me in an alleyway." Then it belongs to you. But I was just saying to someone, you don't know how much it's destroyed you until 10 years later. I used to be this, then I realize I'm not like that anymore because I was destroyed. But now I'm back.
Warren: No one's [messing] with you.
Gaga: You're still standing, you're still alive. [But] when you've looked terror in the eye and you go numb like that, it's like something really dies in you. And that's something Diane really helped me with. I'm the artist on the other side, going, "I don't know if I can reveal this, Diane," and she's saying, "You can." But I had to forgive myself. I had to sit down at the piano and say, "You didn't provoke that person. It's not your fault." For women to be as sexualized as we are in the media and then to be judged for wanting to be sexual beings, that, to me, is a cage. We can't survive unless we're beautiful, but if we're beautiful, we're asking for it.
Warren: I'm inundated with letters and notes. This girl who grew up on my street, I thought lived the perfect life, she goes, "I was abused, I was raped when I was 12." All these people are writing to me, saying, "Your song has freed me, I can talk about this. I'm not alone."
Gaga: I don't have to have a serious conversation all the time. I'd just like to be able to have a glass of wine with someone and say it out loud and know someone else at the table might say, "Yeah, me too. Cheers. How'd you get over it?" I'm living my dream and that happened to me 10 years ago. So you can [still] live your dream.