Getty image. Taylor Swift
The stories behind Grammy-nominated songs
All the contenders for song of the year at this year’s Grammy Awards have had a pervasive presence on pop radio. Otherwise, they’re a pretty diverse bunch, dealing with a variety of subjects and drawing inspiration from sources that range from 17th-century British poetry to 1950s doo-wop. USA TODAY’s Brian Mansfield and Patrick Ryan take a look at the stories behind the nominees.
Shake It Off, Taylor Swift
Writers: Max Martin, Shellback, Taylor Swift
Released: August 2014
Sales: 3.86 million, according to Nielsen SoundScan
One of the final songs written and recorded for Swift’s album1989, Shake It Off began life as an attempt to create something that sounded unlike anything either Swift or the Martin-Shellback production team had done before. As the album’s lead single, it signaled Swift’s full-fledged shift from country to pop.
“The moment it really locked in was when we were playing this chord progression over and over and over again,” Swift says. “All of a sudden, I went, ”Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play,'” Swift says. “The chorus just happened at once. Once that happened, we knew we had something special, and it was just about making the rest of the song as special as the chorus.”
Thematically, Shake It Off is similar to Swift’s 2011 hit Mean, though it’s a more carefree, mature response to criticism.
“I liked the double meaning: ‘Shake it off,’ meaning just walk it off, you’ll be fine, just let it go, move on, then taking it a step further, into the metaphor of actually shaking it off, dance-wise,” Swift says. “That’s why I wanted to make the entire music video about dancing.”
Jym Wilson, USA TODAY
Hozier, in an appearance for USA TODAY’s Studio A.
Take Me to Church, Hozier
Writers: Andrew Hozier-Byrne
Released: September 2013
Sales: 3.06 million
The idea for Take Me to Church had been building in Hozier-Byrne’s mind for a while before he sat down at his piano in early 2013. “I had a chorus, then all the verse ideas I had been working on or had lying around for a year, they all just fell into place,” says the Irish singer-songwriter, who uses the stage name Hozier.
The song grew out of his frustration with the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings on human sexuality. “It would preach gender inequality or discrimination based on sexual orientation,” he says. “There’s a lot more you could take issue with, but the song is about asserting yourself away from that and finding a new thing to devote yourself to.”
The song’s “loose collection of visual ideas” set the worship of sensuality against what Hozier perceives as the church’s shrine of lies. The line “I was born sick, but I love it/Command me to be well” paraphrases 17th-century British poet Baron Brooke Fulke Greville’s Chorus Sacerdotum, a poem Hozier discovered after hearing philosopher Christopher Hitchens quote it during a debate.
Having penned such a potentially controversial song, Hozier says, “I imagined it’d go to a small audience for a large part of my career. So the way it took off was totally unexpected.”
Mike Lawrie, WireImage
Meghan Trainor performs during Kiss 108’s Jingle Ball 2014 at TD Garden on December 14, 2014 in Boston.
All About That Bass, Meghan Trainor
Writers: Kevin Kadish, Meghan Trainor
Released: June 2014
Sales: 4.70 million
On the day Meghan Trainor and producer Kevin Kadish got together to write in Kadish’s garage-turned-studio, they immediately bonded over a shared love of ’50s and early ’60s pop and doo-wop. “I never met anybody who gave a crap about ’50s music until I met Meghan,” Kadish says.
Trainor was a fan of Jason Mraz’s Mr. A-Z album, which Kadish had co-produced, so she wanted to impress him. “I walked in, and I was, like, ‘Man, let’s not write for a specific artist; let’s just do a great song,'” she says. “Then I started showing him my favorite songs, doo-wop style.”
Soon, they were swapping lyrics in their favorite style, with Trainor bringing ‘I ain’t no size 2/I can shake it like I’m supposed to do’ and Kadish suggesting ‘Go ahead and tell them skinny (girls) that.”
“We already knew, first verse, we weren’t going to make any money from this,” Trainor says.
The resulting song, All About That Bass, failed to get cut, but the demo did catch the ear of Epic Records CEO L.A. Reid. “He heard it, and he was like, ‘Master that; that’s the version I want the world to hear,'” Trainor says.
“She got signed on the first song we ever wrote,” Kadish says. “That doesn’t happen every day.”
Sia performs onstage at the Humane Society of The United States 60th Anniversary Gala at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on March 29, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California.
Writers: Sia, Jesse Shatkin
Released: March 2014
Sales: 2.07 million
Chandelier, to paraphrase Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, might have been the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Started in producer Greg Kurstin’s studio during a break from a session for the Australian singer-songwriter’s album 1000 Forms of Fear, it’s the first song Sia and Shatkin wrote together.
“She was singing melodies, and we were recording it all on iPhone’s Voice Memo (app),” says Shatkin, who was Kurstin’s engineer. “The chorus idea was kind of instantaneous. We were throwing around ideas on the piano and marimba, and it just came to life.”
Chandelier came together in three stages: After that day in the studio, Shatkin spent a while building tracks, then the two came back together to finish it with Sia adding lyrics.
“We were shooting for a Rihanna or Katy Perry song,” Shatkin says. However, once Sia added lyrics — which, drawing from her struggles with alcoholism and prescription-drug addiction, outlined the dark side of pop music’s party-girl mentality — “I started to realize it was more of a personal thing for her.”
Not only did Chandelier helped Shatkin land a publishing deal, Shatkin and Sia came up with more melodic fragments that first day than they could fit into one song. “I’m actually trying to turn one of them into something at this point,” he says.
Matt Sayles, Matt Sayles/Invision/AP
Sam Smith performs on stage at the 42nd annual American Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live in Los Angeles.
Stay With Me, Sam Smith
Writers: James Napier, William Phillips, Sam Smith
Released: April 2014
Sales: 3.55 million
Like every song on his debut album In the Lonely Hour (nominated for album of the year), Sam Smith wrote morning-after ballad Stay with Me in one day.
In the studio with Jimmy Napes (Disclosure’s Latch, Clean Bandit’s Rather Be) and William Phillips (aka Tourist), it all started when Phillips played three chords on the piano. “Immediately, Jimmy started playing the drum pattern, and the song just flowed out of us so naturally,” the British troubadour told NME. “I think it took about 30 to 40 minutes to fully write the song with lyrics and everything.”
The song itself is about one-night stands, and not necessarily loving or wanting to be with someone the next morning, “but I just want them to be there, just so I don’t feel lonely,” Smith tells USA TODAY.
The opening line, in particular, Smith says he hopes people will pay attention to: “Guess it’s true, I’m not good at a one-night stand.”
“Especially when you’re a boy, to stand up in front of everyone, and say that and sing that every night, I feel like it’s more of a brave statement than a depressing message,” Smith says. “I don’t want people to feel depressed, I just want them to feel like I’m saying what they couldn’t.”
Note: Although Smith recently agreed to give partial songwriting credit (and royalties) to Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne for melodic similarities with Petty’s 1989 hit ‘I Won’t Back Down,’ the Grammys are not recognizing them as co-songwriters for the purposes of this award.
Larry Marano, Getty Images for iHeartMedia
Charli XCX (L) and Iggy Azalea perform onstage during Y100’s Jingle Ball 2014 at BB&T Center on December 21, 2014 in Miami.
In addition to song of the year, all but Take Me to Church were also nominated for record of the year, a producer’s award. The fifth contender for record of the year is Fancy, by Iggy Azalea featuring Charli XCX. Here’s the story behind that song:
Credits: Produced by The Arcade & The Invisible Men; Engineered/mixed by Anthony Kilhoffer and Eric Weaver; Master engineered by Miles Showell
Released: February 2014
Sales: 4.09 million
It’s no coincidence that Charli XCX (real name: Charlotte Aitchison) has sparked comparisons to Gwen Stefani for her brash, hypnotic chorus on Iggy Azalea’s Fancy. “When I was writing it, I was trying to make it into this Eve and Gwen Stefani thing,” Charli says, referring to the pair’s Grammy-winning 2001 collaboration, Let Me Blow Ya Mind.
Fancy’s hook was born within a few hours, after Iggy’s people called Charli to the studio to write some hooks for her debut record, The New Classic (nominated for best rap album). She wrote the chorus around some verses Iggy had already written, and says it came together “really naturally.”
“It was something that had no expectations on it,” Charli says. “I feel like a lot of people weren’t actually feeling the song at the beginning when we played it for them.” That changed with the song’s Clueless-inspired video (which has nearly 450 million views on YouTube to date). “I think the video really elevated it to another level.”
Believe it or not, there was a time when even record-label execs didn’t have faith in the eventual song-of-summer smash.
“They weren’t saying it was bad, they were just like, ‘OK,’ like, ‘Whatever.’ They weren’t like, ‘It’s going to be a hit!’ which I feel is a record label’s favorite phrase sometimes,” Charli says. “But yeah, we proved everyone wrong.”