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Remembering the ‘Con Air’ Soundtrack War

Two women, one song, one Nicolas Cage movie, and one Grammy award: This is the wild story of “How Do I Live”

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

This is a story about two women, one song, and one movie about many convicts. Our exciting journey culminates with this strange clip presented by Gloria Estefan and Dwight Yoakam’s turtleneck.

Yes. This really happened. It was a spectacle. We’ll get back to Yoakam’s turtleneck soon. But let’s start at the beginning.

The year was 1997. Touchstone Pictures and the semi-demi Good Bad Movie god Jerry Bruckheimer commissioned a song for the upcoming film Con Air. The song was called "How Do I Live" and was written by Diane Warren.

Remember that song? It plays at the end of the movie when Nic Cage meets his daughter for the first time, just after landing a plane on the Vegas strip, which resulted in hundreds of casualties. But he got to give the little girl her tattered bunny rabbit toy, so it was totally worth it. REMEMBER?

The version of the song in the film is performed by country music legend Trisha Yearwood. But that wasn’t the original version of the song, or the one intended for the film. The artist who Touchstone initially asked to record the song was a 15-year-old rising star in country music by the name of LeAnn Rimes.

So what happened to that version? Rimes and her record label became attached to the song, per Rolling Stone, but Touchstone did not. According to an untraceable Wikipedia source (so you know it’s good), the studio felt it was "too poppy." Entertainment Weekly reports that the studio felt Rimes’s version lacked the emotional weight needed for the film. One more time, in case you glossed over that: The song lacked the emotional weight needed for a film about Nicolas Cage fighting convicts on an airplane, which features this scene:

(Buena Vista Pictures)
(Buena Vista Pictures)

So Touchstone axed Rimes’s version completely and pivoted to a more serious ballad vibe — this was Con Air, after all. So they called up Trisha Yearwood. At the time, Yearwood was an undeniable powerhouse. She already had six LPs and four no. 1 country hits.

Yearwood, however, had no knowledge of Rimes’s recording prior to being approached by Touchstone to do the song — and it DEFINITELY didn’t dawn on her that Rimes would release her own version of the song. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Yearwood says she was on tour in Europe and had heard that Rimes had done a video of the song — as far as she knew, her song. She wondered why anybody would make a video for a record that wasn’t going to be released.

"The Nashville rule is, if somebody has a song on hold, you don’t record it," Yearwood told the Tribune. But Nashville rules couldn’t hold a candle to Con Air rules.

Rimes was eventually persuaded by the head of her label, Mike Curb, to release her version anyways on pop — not country — radio. Which left us with this bizarre scenario: Both artists were set to release their own versions of the exact same song on May 27, 1997.

THAT’S RIGHT. ON THE SAME DAY. THESE TWO RELEASED THEIR SONGS ON THE SAME DAY. LATE-90S COUNTRY MUSIC BEEF > ALL OTHER BEEF.

Both versions were instant hits. Radio stations and newspapers were running polls where fans could vote for the song they preferred.

"It was very uncomfortable for me," Trisha said in an interview with Nu Country. "The radio stations started having play-offs where they would play both versions and people would call in and vote."

In fact, a number of radio stations played an unauthorized version of the song that mixed the two renditions together to make it sound like a Yearwood-Rimes duet. In a 1997 interview with EW, Bruce Logan, the program director of South Carolina’s WSSL-FM, said that the fake duet was their "number two most-requested song right now."

Which brings us to the craziest part of this story: the 1998 Grammy Awards, held on February 25 at Radio City Music Hall, where, for the first time ever, two artists were nominated in the same category — for the same song. The Grammys decided to go full WWE, scheduling Rimes to perform the song immediately before they presented the award she and Yearwood were competing for. Like, immediately immediately — not even a commercial break in between.

Consider the moment. Rimes has already been burned by Hollywood. There’s no way the Grammys ask a 15-year-old girl to perform a song then immediately crush her soul by giving the award to someone else who sang the same song. Right? That’s embarrassing for everyone involved.

Right? Trisha?

Let’s watch the award presentation in its entirety.

First off, shouts to this hero.

Second … Rimes lost! And in the cruelest fashion. They made her stand backstage and watch someone else accept an award for a song she’d just sang.

And this all took place on national television in front of more than 25 million viewers. Thirteen years before Game of Thrones hit the air, the Grammys perpetrated some Lannister-level savagery.

According to the Associated Press, there were reports of backstage emotional outbursts — something Rimes doesn’t altogether deny. "I wasn’t a happy person," she said. "I felt betrayed. Not by fans but by people in the business."

Things weren’t all bad for Rimes, though. Because while Yearwood won the trophy, Rimes was the people’s champ.

Prior to the Grammys, both the Rimes and the Yearwood versions debuted on the US Billboard Hot 100 in the same week. Yearwood’s version was on the charts for only 12 weeks while Rimes’s version spent a record-breaking 69 weeks on the chart, 32 weeks in the top 10 alone (which set a record), and 25 of those weeks in the top five (which set yet another record, albeit one tied by Bruno Mars’s "Uptown Funk" and broken by … the Chainsmokers’ "Closer"). Rimes’s version ranked no. 4 on Billboard’s All Time Top 100; it’s the most successful single by a female artist on the list.

So every time you see Nic Cage’s long, somehow receding hair blowing in the wind, remember the long and dramatic journey of "How Do I Live." It’s a song with a story — a story that’s at least as interesting as "hundreds of violent convicts commandeer a plane."