The Story Behind the Song: Bonnie McKee, “American Girl”

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After co-writing 8 #1 singles for pop sensations like Katy Perry and Taio Cruz, Bonnie McKee decided to write her own catchy pop single.  “American Girl” is a dance-pop party anthem about American girls who just want to have fun.  McKee’s song has reached a peak chart position of no. 7 on Billboard Bubbling Under Hot 100 and no. 28 on Billboard Mainstream Top 40.  Her flirty music video has accumulated over 2 million views since July.

Bonnie McKee, “American Girl”

Written by:  Bonnie McKee, Josh Abraham, Jon Asher, Oliver Goldstein, Alex Drury, & Jacknife Lee

Recorded by:  Bonnie McKee 

Peak Chart Position: No. 7 Billboard Bubbling Under Hot 100, No. 28 Billboard Mainstream Top 40

What is a typical day like in the life of Bonnie McKee?

Wake up, thank my lucky stars, get my ass kicked by a trainer, lately a lot of interviews, go to the studio, procrastinate, drink Red Bull, collect pictures from the internet for inspiration, work until I can’t see straight, watch Breaking Bad or Dexter, go to sleep, repeat.

When and where did you write “American Girl?”

I first started the idea at Pulse Studios in Silver Lake with my boyfriend, Oliver, and my friend, Jon Asher. It was originally supposed to be for Justin Bieber, but nobody bit. I always thought it was special, so several years later when I went I to work with Jacknife Lee way the hell up in Topanga Canyon, I kind of recycled the original idea and rewrote the verses, and pretty much everything but that first line “American Girl.”

Who wrote what among your co-writers?

Ollie wrote the original chords that inspired the first version of the song, I had the title I had been holding onto for a while, Jon Asher and I came up with the melody of the first line of the chorus together that ended up making the second draft of the song. Jacknife Lee had this awesome track and I brought back that original melody and wrote all of the rest of the top line squirreled in the corner by myself. He was playing some chords and I was like, “What if we did something like ‘Jessie’s Girl’ for the verse?”

How much or how little did you edit the song? Were there any phrases or words you can remember that were especially tough to make a final decision on?

Originally I wrote some hair-brained verse about falling in love in an Ikea. Something about a rocking chair! Haha! I was like, this isn’t American enough! So I rewrote it and set it in a 711 parking lot instead. I actually changed a lyric at the last minute. The second verse used to be a lot racier and I was afraid people might not get the joke so I switched it up. It used to say, “Yeah everybody is on me about my wild side/ but I’m makin’ money so baby I’m goin’ out tonight/and it’s a free country so I can do what the fuck I like/I wanna see all the stars and everything in between/ I wanna buy a new heart out of a vending machine/ I wanna blow up a car ’cause I can do anything!” But I was afraid people might actually take me seriously and I might put myself in a bad position. I mean I get comments on YouTube that say, “You can’t buy a heart out of a vending machine!” So I kinda have to remember that not everyone gets it.

How much of an idea did you have that this would be a smash hit before you released it?

I had that feeling. I remember sitting in the studio with Max Martin after we wrote “Teenage Dream.” He turned to me and said, “I wish I could bottle this feeling.” I said “What feeling?” He said, “When you know you’ve written a hit.” There was a certain magic in that moment, and so I always kind of look for that feeling after every song I write. “American Girl” had that feeling. But it’s not a hit yet. I won’t consider it a hit until it’s really gone all the way.

What do you enjoy most about songwriting?

I love to capture a feeling – paint a picture, frame a moment in time. In my head they’re always little movies. I think in color and visuals and try to express them as best as I can lyrically, and draw the emotion out with the melody.

What do you like about writing with Jacknife Lee?

Jacknife is so easy! He’s full of great ideas and is very smart and intuitive. He was patient with me too. I tend to sit in silence for hours at a time and he just let me do my thing, and then had great feedback when I brought the ideas to him. I think he’s an incredible producer and songwriter, and a true artist himself.

What advice would you give aspiring songwriters?

Write something every day! I made a New Years resolution like five years ago that I have pretty much kept, and that was to do something creative every day, or at least have a creative experience. You have to absorb as much as you put out, so listen to other people’s music, watch movies, look at beautiful things. Sometimes I forget that and hole myself up in the studio for too long. You have to have a life to write about, or at least observe other people’s. Four walls and a computer screen can get pretty stale. Songwriting is a numbers game – the more you write, the better you get, and the more likely you are to strike gold!