Lady Gaga and Diane Warren huddled over a plate of French fries in a vacant hotel banquet room, relishing every bite. They were pumped up — and hungry. Their song “Til It Happens to You” from the 2015 campus rape documentary “The Hunting Ground” is up for a Grammy on Monday and an Oscar at the end of the month.
Everyone was buzzing over Gaga’s flawless rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl the night before. So naturally, Gaga and Warren were both too excited to eat anything during the Oscar nominees luncheon hours earlier. Warren arrived first, wearing all black, pacing and chatting rapid-fire asides; Gaga about an hour late, a coterie of hair and makeup people in tow. But it was impossible to resent the superstar as she glided forward in a deep blue gown, her hand outstretched, her wide-set eyes unwavering on her interviewer.
FULL COVERAGE: Grammy Awards 2016
Gaga’s presence seemed to both calm and stimulate Warren. Then the comfort food arrived and the two women, warmed by their camaraderie, spoke for 30 minutes, barely taking a breath. At times, they talked over each other, speaking urgently about the complexities of trauma and how facing their own led to an anthem for rape survivors.
Can you talk about the inspiration for the song?
Warren: Hearing the stories [from the film] was so compelling. And I’d been sexually assaulted myself. It was something I felt I needed to be a part of. I called this one [gestures to Gaga], and it could have gone either way. You still weren’t sure.
Gaga: When she first came to me and said, “There’s this documentary about campus rapes, and I have this idea for a song and I’d like you to do it with me.” She played me some ideas, and I was just like, “Diane, I really don’t want to do it.” It’s really hard to face an issue you haven’t really fully faced on your own yet. And also, I’ve never sung another person’s song. Ever. On all my albums, I’ve always co-written. Especially something that’s so personal. And she’s very particular.
Gaga: And I was like, “I need to take this bar out of the chorus. I need to change this note to this note. I need to change this melody to this. I need to add this part at the end. I’d like the chords to be more complicated in this just one spot.” It was just about me wanting to make this song more complicated in certain places.
Warren: It’s more you.
Gaga: Well, I’m complicated. But she’s really amazingly proficient in pop song writing, which does have [its own] methodology. What I think what makes us a good team, even in other songs we’ve written together, is we’re so different.
Warren: You make me a little more weird. I’ll go, “Wait, no one’s going to understand that.” And you’ll be like, “No, it could be a lot cooler doing this.” It’s that push-pull thing.
Gaga, initially, you said no to Diane. What changed your mind?
Gaga: It was because Diane was willing to share the song with me. She was willing to change things and make it into something I related to. It was a way for me to feel strong in the situation. I can’t feel strong about this issue in my mind, singing a song that [isn’t] my idea of triumph. I wanted to relate to it. And I wanted to relate to it in a way that’s informed by my fans. They have all told me stories over the years about this stuff.
This issue in my life wasn’t as abundantly clear to me yet. I hadn’t resolved that’s where the pain was coming from. I wasn’t able to admit to myself that [the sexual assault] happened. I didn’t deal with it. Then this issue came in my life at a time when I’m getting married and I’m turning 30 and you know, I gotta deal with this one thing that happened when I was 19 that I didn’t deal with through my 20s. I just didn’t grow up out it. And I gotta do that now.
I hope it helps anyone who’s had that happen to them to know that they can let go of [the pain] before it really makes them crazy.
Warren: I think that’s what the song is saying. You’re a warrior. You’re not a victim. I think we’re changing something with this song. The girls in the movie are making a change too. They’re going to Washington. They’re making real changes.
Gaga: I hope it helps anyone who’s had that happen to them to know that they can let go of [the pain] before it really makes them crazy. For me, it had to take over. That’s my experience. For me to be like, “I’m going to focus on really not thinking about this anymore.”
Warren: So you blocked everything out?
Gaga: I’ve had a weird body response to it. I feel actual physical pain from things that were traumatizing in my life. Not only just this issue. If you don’t want to deal with it in your mind, it will go somewhere. I’m hoping [audiences] will watch that movie and say, “I can let go of this.” Because they’re watching someone else let go of it and be strong. Forgive themselves. Stop asking questions, “Why did this happen to me?” The phrase that’s changed my life is: I can handle it. I got this. For a while, I couldn’t think that.
Warren: That’s the power of this song. It’s not only helping and healing other people. It’s healing us. It freed something within me. Before, I couldn’t even talk about it.
Gaga: Now you can handle it. The song is our way of handling it.