Paula Cole Reveals The Secret (And Dark) History Of The 'Dawson's Creek' Theme Song

The singer opens up about how "I Don't Want To Wait" became one of the most popular songs of the '90s and the "really sad" aftermath of its TV reign.
Erica McDonald

Paula Cole was a relatively unknown singer-songwriter when the release of her 1996 album “This Fire” launched her to international fame. While it was the album’s first single, “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?” that got the world’s attention, it was its second single, “I Don’t Want To Wait,” that made her a household name. The song, a massive hit in its own right, became virtually inescapable when it was chosen by Kevin Williamson as the theme song for The WB’s immensely popular “Dawson’s Creek,” which debuted in 1998.

In honor of the teen drama’s 20th anniversary, Cole recently spoke with HuffPost about the inspiration for “I Don’t Want To Wait,” how it became such an integral ― and iconic ― part of “Dawson’s Creek,” and the “really dark” and “really sad” circumstances that have left Cole feeling bittersweet about the song’s colossal success.

I wrote “I Don’t Want To Wait” during the summer of 1996, right before the release of my second album, “This Fire.” I was in my apartment at 320 W. 15th Street in New York City, where I lived for six incredibly productive and musically generative years. The song was written at my little spinet piano and it was the very last song I wrote before I went into the studio. On that particular day, I had a feeling my grandfather was going to die and the song came very quickly — like a lightning bolt — and I wrote almost all of it in one sitting.

It’s amazing that premonitions sometimes come true. My grandfather ended up dying just a few months later, right after the release of “This Fire.” I was very close to my grandparents — they lived right down the street from me when I was growing up — and I would often go to their house to visit them. On the day I wrote “I Don’t Want To Wait” I was thinking about my grandfather and his effect on my dad’s life — as well as the marriage between my grandfather and my grandmother, which was filled with a lot of fighting and unhappiness. I thought about how those cycles get repeated from one generation to the next and how I didn’t want that for myself. In that moment I was thinking about how short life is and how I wanted to live my life wide awake.

The song just burst out of me and it felt uplifting and important and so it made the cut.

I played “I Don’t Want To Wait” for my father before I released it so he could prepare himself emotionally. It’s hard being a parent and having your kid write songs about you and your family that they then put out into the world. Imagine having no time to react, so you have to share your reactions publicly.

My grandpa never heard it. My grandmother loved it. It was very touching and meaningful for all of us. I think they conveniently overlooked some of the moments in the song where I really fine-tuned the microscope on my family but, all in all, they were touched.

I won’t say that I knew the song would be a hit but I definitely felt the chorus was bright and big and hooky. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I had Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got To Do With It” playing while I wrote it. Maybe it’s the righteousness of Tina I was channeling.

My manager at the time, Carter, actually signed Tina Turner to Capitol Records. And he believed in me. He supported strong women.

Carter was all over “I Don’t Want To Wait” the moment he heard it — he truly believed in it and he had a knack for identifying a hit. My record label wasn’t nearly as infatuated with it. At the time, I was a critical darling with my first album “Harbinger” and I’d sung with Peter Gabriel, but I didn’t have widespread commercial success. I was a New York City songwriter. I was known for having an androgynous look. I had really short dark hair and wrote introspective songs. I don’t think I crossed people’s minds as far as breaking out into real pop success.

“Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?” was the first single from “This Fire” and it just exploded. It was in the Billboard Top 10. The video was in constant rotation. It was nominated for MTV’s Best Female Video. It got all these Grammy nominations and, frankly, it was an unusual song — it still is. I don’t know of anything quite like it. It was clever and the lyrics grabbed people’s ears and it confused people too — they didn’t know if I was being serious or ironic. That opened the doorway for me.

Then we followed it up with “I Don’t Want To Wait” as the second single, which just was huge. It was an anthem. Even though it didn’t chart as high as “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?” it kept going forever and ever and ever — it was on the charts for something like two years. It was even No. 1 on a few radio formats. And so because of all of this, Kevin Williamson, the creator of “Dawson’s Creek,” just like almost every other American citizen in 1998, heard it and I guess he liked it and asked my management if it could be part of this fledgling show he was creating.

Carter was into the show from the very beginning. He actually approved “I Don’t Want To Wait” for use on the show without even asking me and then told me about it over the phone one afternoon. That was the paradigm at the time — as an artist, you’re busy, you’re touring, you can’t keep up with all of the different aspects of your career, so your manager handles a lot of business negotiations. Next thing I know, it was being attached to this TV show’s pilot. I did have a phone call with Kevin and I truly felt he was sincere with his love for the song. It really seemed like his heart was in the right place and it felt right to me to keep going with it. It felt like “I Don’t Want To Wait” was in good hands.

I’ve honestly never watched a full show. I’ve literally just seen a few moments from it. I don’t really watch TV. But I did meet the actors once when I went on location in North Carolina. Sony had set up some kind of promotional event and they wanted me there. They were all lovely people.

When I met James Van Der Beek he told me that he was a big fan of “This Fire” — it was apparently one of his favorite albums. Years later I read somewhere that he was haunted by “I Don’t Want To Wait” and would leave whatever room he was in if it started playing and I don’t blame him. Imagine never being able to escape a role you played years earlier and being forever stuck in people’s minds as Dawson. Hearing the theme song would become a form of torture! It just became ridiculous! Of course, I understand if he never wants to hear the song again. It has nothing to do with the actual music — it’s about the association. The song instantly makes him Dawson instead of James and that can’t be a fun thing to have to continually face.

Similarly, the idea that people only know who I am as an artist because “I Don’t Want To Wait” was used as the “Dawson’s Creek” theme song bothers me because I care so much about leaving a great body of work. And, not only do I have to deal with that association — with my name being both married to and usurped by the success of that show — but, even worse, I’m now being erased from the association with “Dawson’s Creek” due to (what feels to me like) corporate greed.

When they released the show on DVD and streaming platforms, they decided not to use my song and instead went with another artist, Canadian musician and singer Jann Arden. That surprised me just as much as it did everyone else! There was no discussion ― it happened because of a technicality at Sony Pictures. There was a Canadian executive there who wanted to save money. That’s all that was ― money, not artistic integrity or continuity for a beloved show.

I read in an interview that Jann had written only about 45 seconds of the theme song they’re using now before the show was picked up, and she sold them the song to use in perpetuity for just a few thousand dollars. That’s a shame because that throws all artists under the bus. You’re dealing with network TV — you’re dealing with giant corporations and we’re just musicians. It’s David and Goliath. No artist can compete with a paltry deal like that. So they decided to use “I Don’t Want To Wait” at the time but when they were choosing the music for the DVD and streaming versions of the show, they went with Jann’s song because they had already paid for it years ago and essentially owned it outright. To me, it feels like a money call and nothing but that. I want to be clear that I’m not saying anything about Jann — it was a great opportunity for her and of course she’s going to leap at it — but it’s a shame that Sony didn’t have more integrity regarding the legacy of the show.

To make matters worse, beyond “Dawson’s Creek,” I’m locked into a very draconian contract with Warner Bros. I’ve tried a couple of times to be released from it but I can’t get free ― yet. The legal costs are prohibitive and they threaten me with claims that I’ll be held in even more debt by the record company every time I try. It’s something that I need to rectify before my death because it’s so unbelievably unfair.

“This is really dark and really sad and terrible and hard to talk about and we don’t talk about it and everyone in the industry is suffering ― from the indies to the Eagles. Digital distribution, of course, has completely changed the music business.”

The music business is so labyrinthian and complicated and it’s precisely that way so that artists can be taken advantage of! Because Warner Bros. financed the original recording of “This Fire,” all of those costs are held against me. I have been trying to pay back those costs but you can’t pay them back dollar for dollar — instead it’s something like a penny on the dollar. Back in the ’90s, when it was a different time in the industry, the record company would charge you for everything — like every single town car that brought you to every single interview and you could only pay it back by the penny on the dollar. Then we moved into the digital age with streaming and you only make 0.0005 cents on every stream and if you need to repay those large budgets from the ’90s, you owe your soul to the company store.

This is really dark and really sad and terrible and hard to talk about and we don’t talk about it and everyone in the industry is suffering ― from the indies to the Eagles. Digital distribution, of course, has completely changed the music business. So, artists now have to tour and own our publishing and if you can own the master tapes of your songs, that’s where you see income but it’s increasingly difficult for artists, no matter their stature, to make a living.

As far as master tapes go, if a song is played on the radio, you get a percentage of a cent for a performance royalty. But in order for a company to use it for a TV show or a commercial or anything else, they have to pay to use the master. Warner Bros. still owns the original master of “I Don’t Want To Wait.” So, I re-recorded the song so that I own the new master (the “20th Anniversary Artist’s Edition”) and I don’t approve of the use of the song for anything unless it’s my master — not the original one owned by Warner Bros. For instance, in a commercial from 2015 that featured the song, I was paid because they used the master that I own the rights to. That’s what Prince did. That’s what Aerosmith did. A lot of artists have re-recorded their catalog to ensure they ― and not some record company holding artists to an unfair contract ― are getting paid for their work. Society should value artists, and all artists should be paid for their work so they can continue to create beautiful art!

Now that it’s the 20th anniversary of “Dawson’s Creek,” I’m seeing so many people talking about the song. I’m getting a lot of it on my Twitter feed — “Where is Paula Cole?” But I’m right here! I’m happy for everyone on the show. I don’t wish any ill will on Jann — I’m happy for her too even though I think she should be well paid for her master. It was a good show. It touched people’s hearts. I understand why there’s this resurgence around the anniversary.

via AIA

All in all, everything that’s happening right now is definitely bittersweet for me. It hits that painful chord — they stopped using my song and at this point, part of me would like for them to use my song again because there’s cachet to having your song used on a TV show. My 16-year-old daughter would probably smile upon it! When I initially approved “I Don’t Want To Wait” as the theme song for “Dawson’s Creek,” I got backlash. I got shit for “selling out.” Twenty years ago, if you were a successful artist and you had a song on a show, you were frowned upon. It was tacky! And now, it’s a totally different game and seen in a totally different — and positive! — way. I would love to be seen in that light now!

Everyone keeps asking me, “Why won’t you let them have the song?” Of course I would consider it! I’m right here! Come talk to me, Sony. Let’s negotiate! I’m an independent artist open for business! But I won’t give my music for free and I don’t think any artist should give their music for free unless it’s helping out another independent artist ― and then you renegotiate once the project is successful. I think giving one’s art for free to giant corporations hurts artists and musicians and society across the board.

In the end, I don’t have any regrets because how can you foresee how something is going to turn out? And the money I received at the time helped me to raise my daughter during the years she was suffering from severe asthma. I couldn’t work then — I had to be at home with her helping her breathe — so, having a show on television afforded me that time with her and she’s here and healthy today. I can’t regret that. I’m grateful for that.

And now it’s about the rebirth of my identity. If I can’t have “I Don’t Want To Wait” be part of the show anymore and Jann’s song remains the one associated with “Dawson’s Creek” from here on out, then I will just make peace with that part of my life, and maybe I can finally be free. I love that soulful artists like THEY and Jamila Woods have used “I Don’t Want To Wait” in their own work. I still hear “Wait” on the radio, in the grocery store and elsewhere on television. The song is so strong and lives on regardless. Besides, I have many, many songs, not just “I Don’t Want To Wait.” My real fans know me for the content of my catalog. I’ve been quietly releasing albums for many years now and I have a loyal, beautiful fan base. I continually perform live concerts and I’m here making meaningful music. That to me is the path — that’s my truth.

Paula Cole’s most recent album is “Ballads,” which is available for streaming and purchase. For more information about Cole, including upcoming tour dates, visit her official website here and follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Neither Sony Pictures nor Warner Bros. Records returned HuffPost’s request for comment on the situations described by Cole.

Popular in the Community