It began, as our greatest cultural artifacts must all begin, with Barbra Streisand. In 1997, the über-diva and her new fiancé, the actor James Brolin, snuggled on a couch opposite Barbara Walters for an enormously sweet 20/20 report on the fearsome intensity of their young love and the finer points of their nightly cuddling routine. “And we’re just about to fall asleep, I thought,” Babs recalled of one such super-romantic incident. “And he says, ‘I don’t want to fall asleep.’” She kept her eyes closed as she recounted this, to better simulate the experience of almost falling asleep with Barbra Streisand. “And so I say, ‘Why not?’ And he says, ‘’Cause then I’ll miss you.’”
End of anecdote. Her eyes opened, her smile brightened, a nation swooned. It is likely that very few fans of Boston arena-rock gods Aerosmith tuned in for this. But lucky for Aerosmith, über-songwriter Diane Warren did.
She wrote down a song title: “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.” Just the title. “I love a good title,” Warren told me in mid-June, some two decades after the fact. “So I do that a lot.” And a few months later, when director Michael Bay needed a pop song to anchor his new movie, a modest little indie called Armageddon, Warren set to work crafting a hymn worthy of both that song title and the literal end of the world.
“I wonder if he still — maybe he still feels that way,” Warren muses of Brolin, lovelorn insomniac and father of Thanos. It is a testament to the awe-inspiring power of Aerosmith’s 1998 smash “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” — the band’s only no. 1 hit, and Warren’s fourth Oscar-nominated song (of nine), and perhaps the last of the great hair-metal power ballads, and one of the last great action-movie anthems, period — that Streisand and Brolin are still together. Falling in love might be hard on the knees, but true love is forever.
My conversation with Warren about “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” begins like this.
ME: I can’t really believe it’s been 20 years. I don’t know if —
DIANE WARREN: Fuck.
Indeed, the popcorn-hawking sci-fi disaster epic Armageddon — starring Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, and Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler’s daughter, Liv — premiered on June 29, 1998, at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. (Gwyneth Paltrow was in attendance.) The movie made more than half a billion dollars worldwide. And there, over the closing credits (and a wedding), is “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” thundering and majestic, an intergalactic slow dance both unbearably tender and, for a cartoonishly lewd band, surprisingly chaste. Buy a lighter on Amazon Prime, wait 48 hours, unbox it, and crank it up as Steven howls the indomitable chorus:
Don’t wanna close my eyes
I don’t wanna fall asleep
’Cause I’d miss you, babe
And I don’t want to miss a thing
’Cause even when I dream of you
The sweetest dream will never do
I’d still miss you, babe
And I don’t want to miss a thing
“Maybe it didn’t have the masculine edge of our other ballads,” wrote Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry in his 2014 memoir, Rocks: My Life in and Out of Aerosmith. (Through a publicist, the band declined interview requests.) “But it was a beautiful song.” (A grateful Perry also shouted-out “the lovely and eccentric Diane Warren.”) Indeed, Aerosmith had done plenty of massive power ballads before, from 1973’s introductory “Dream On” to 1987’s stupendous “Angel” to 1989’s accordion-kissed “What It Takes,” among myriad other righteous Homecoming Queen jams. But the band wrote or cowrote those (often with the aid of superstar songwriter Desmond Child), and a Diane Warren power ballad is something else altogether, sleek and towering and structurally pristine. She is a pro who makes all other pros look like feeble amateurs; you can hear her voice clearly, no matter the song, no matter the artist, no matter if you’ve never actually heard her physical voice before.
Rock critics routinely abuse the word cinematic, but Warren’s best work can’t really be described any other way. “It has to work within that movie — that’s the most important thing,” she says. “It has to tie together emotionally and, you know, it just has to work. I know it sounds simple, but it’s not.”
It does not sound simple; that is central to the appeal. Born in Los Angeles in 1956, Warren got her start as a chart-scaling songwriter in 1983 with Laura Branigan’s “Solitaire,” and went on to write massive hits for Celine Dion, for Toni Braxton, for Ace of Base, for Cher, for Milli Vanilli, for Brandy and Monica. Her first Oscar nomination came in 1988, courtesy Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” a no. 1 pop hit from the movie Mannequin. In 1998, her third nomination, and one of her biggest hits ever, arrived in the form of “How Do I Live,” the peak-country barn-burner sung in separate versions, confusingly, by Trisha Yearwood and LeAnn Rimes.
Even more confusingly, the achingly sensitive “How Do I Live” appeared in the über-macho ’97 action classic Con Air, produced by popcorn-flick deity Jerry Bruckheimer. A year later came Armageddon, with Bruckheimer producing and Bay directing. Warren was really their only option, hit-song-wise, as incongruous as their styles might be.
“I think it was smart, to do those songs for those kind of movies,” Warren says. “Because they’re kind of Boy Movies, you know? And so to have a song, like an emotional song, it helps give it heart that it might not have, or accentuate the heart it does have.” She and Bay and Bruckheimer would reconvene for 2001’s Pearl Harbor, with Warren supplying the Faith Hill torch song “There You’ll Be” and picking up her sixth Oscar nomination. But “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” is the peak moment for both this unlikely trio and the notion of weepy power ballads in blaring action flicks overall, in part because the ultimate Boy Movie required the services of the ultimate Boy Movie band.
Most artists with a Diane Warren megahit tend to be female, though there are delightful exceptions, including Chicago’s magnificently despondent 1988 jam “Look Away” and the even better 1989 slow-dance staple “When I See You Smile,” from the otherwise negligible hard-rock supergroup Bad English. “My songs are open,” Warren says. “They could go a lot of different ways.” Still, when she broke ground on “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” she had a diva in mind. “I was thinking more like Celine or somebody like that.” But what propels this song heavenward is the subversive thrill of hearing opening lines this delicate and vulnerable …
I could stay awake just to hear you breathing
Watch you smile while you are sleeping
While you’re far away and dreaming
… sung by world-historical rock-god tomcat Steven Tyler, a.k.a. Mr. “Dude Looks Like a Lady” himself. “With that kind of lyric, I mean, for a guy to sing that song — especially a badass like Steven Tyler — it becomes a whole other thing,” Warren says. “It just makes it more compelling. That’s what women never usually hear their boyfriends or husbands saying, right? So, here you have this tough guy, Steven, singing that kind of lyric, whereas if you had a female vocalist … I don’t know, it’s not the same.”
Your feelings about “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” depend heavily on just how much of a tough guy you perceive Steven Tyler to be. By 1997, Aerosmith had dragged themselves through a solid half-dozen distinct eras, at least — coming from anyone else, Nine Lives would be a throwaway-cliché album title, but an inexplicable survival instinct is Aerosmith’s defining characteristic. In the mid-’70s, thanks to album-as-cocaine-delivery-devices like Rocks and Toys in the Attic, they were the quintessential mid-’70s hard-rock dirtbags. Then came a dark age of short-lived breakups and long-gestating drug problems, finally and triumphantly culminating in 1987’s comeback album Permanent Vacation, which spawned multiple grandiose hits, including (the great) “Dude Looks Like a Lady” and (the even greater) “Angel.” Two years later came 1989’s Pump, which likewise contained multitudes, or least contained the hornball rager “Love in an Elevator,” the noirish melodrama “Janie’s Got a Gun,” and “What It Takes,” at the time their most grandiose power ballad yet.
And then, as the ’90s dawned and grunge theoretically wiped all the legacy hair-metal bands off the face of the earth, Aerosmith somehow got even bigger. In 1993, the same year as Nirvana’s In Utero, the band released Get a Grip, their first no. 1 album ever. How did a 20-year-old longhair institution hack it in the Buzz Bin era? By turning themselves into the most cinematic band on MTV.
Consider the tale of Chris Ko, an Aerosmith obsessive from Florida who first adopted the online moniker AeroFANatic on AOL Instant Messenger and migrated to various message boards, forums, and newsgroups before finally settling on Facebook. “I became a fan in 1986, when I first saw the ‘Walk This Way’ video with Run-DMC on MTV,” Ko tells me. “I was 9 or 10, and I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen in my life.” That clip, in which a beloved rap group and a beloved rock band literally break down the wall separating them, was the first inclination that Aerosmith had an outlandishly shrewd sense of how to package — and repackage — themselves visually.
The eerie clip for 1989’s incest-and-murder epic “Janie’s Got a Gun,” directed by a young David Fincher, is Aerosmith’s high-art watermark. But in the Get a Grip era, they unveiled their most diabolical scheme yet, with an honest-to-god video trilogy — consisting of “Cryin’,” “Amazing,” and “Crazy” — that starred a young actress named Alicia Silverstone.
Thus does a scraggly band of ’70s warlords thrive in the alt-rock ’90s. “I think Aerosmith, in that era, every time they came out with something, it always felt right,” says former longtime MTV executive Tony DiSanto. “It felt cool. It didn’t feel that odd to have them on MTV. It was telling stories every three minutes, unlike other networks with long-form programming. I think what Aerosmith was doing with those videos was kind of similar to the visual language of what people were consuming with Dawson’s Creek and the WB, which I thought was doing a great job at branding itself visually and tonally. Aerosmith were making stuff that felt in sync with what the kids were consuming at the time.”
Warren credits the Disney music executive Kathy Nelson with first suggesting Aerosmith as the right vehicle for “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” in large part due to the band’s endless supply of teenage goodwill even into the late ’90s. The more vexing question, for superfans like Chris Ko, was whether the song was right for the band.
“The old-schoolers hate the song, only because they don’t view it as true Aerosmith,” Ko tells me. “True Aerosmith to them is Side 2 of Rocks while drinking bong water.” He concedes that even the hard-rock purists “kind of saw it coming,” given the band’s long stream of gargantuan power ballads, but “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” stands uncomfortably apart as a matter of pure scale. “It’s nothing new, but they don’t like the song only because they think it strays too far away from what the band is, and does,” Ko says. “Those other songs were cowritten by the band; this one wasn’t. It was essentially written for a movie. So they feel it’s the ultimate in cheese.”
Ko’s personal opinion is far less harsh. He has seen Aerosmith 57 times in concert, and since 1998, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” has ably served as the climax to most of those shows. “They don’t include it when, like, they’re playing a motorcycle fest,” he says. “You gotta know your audience. But they play it most of the time, and it still gets the biggest pop.” He respects that the song can (mostly) unite such a fractured audience, from the ’70s denim warriors to what he calls “the pink-boa crowd” that proliferated in the ’90s to young kids today who recognize Tyler from his stint on American Idol.
He also has a sentimental reason to valorize Aerosmith in 1998: That’s the year Ko appeared on the MTV show Fanatic, which let superfans hang around with their favorite bands on camera. “I’ve waited my whole life just to come here and talk to you,” he told Tyler, kicking back in the band’s Boston bar Mama Kin; “’98, that’s where it all came to a head, man,” Ko says now. “It was a big year for them, and for me being a fan.”
For her part, Diane Warren cherishes the memory of introducing Steven Tyler to “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” in person. “It’s still one of the most awesome moments for me, sitting at the Sunset Marquis in one of the rooms there, and there was like a grand piano, and I was just sitting there next to him and teaching him the song, and feeling him, literally next to me, singing it,” she says. “I think I had tears in my eyes. To hear it come to life like that. That’s the ultimate, for a songwriter to hear your song come to life. What voice on the planet would be better than that voice on that song?”
Warren was likewise blown away by the recorded version of “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” produced by Matt Serletic and kicking off with a gloriously pompous orchestral prelude that fits the mood perfectly. “My version is kind of softer, kind of pretty, you know?” Warren says. “And again, it was more for Celine, the demo I did. Hearing Steven on that song — it had balls, it had power and passion. It was a million times better than I could’ve imagined it.”
MTV learned to love it, too. “It just felt like it was gonna be a hit whether you liked it or not,” DiSanto recalls. “It was going to will itself into hit-dom.” For the video, a classic Lip-Syncing Band + Movie Footage deal designed to relentlessly cross-promote Armageddon, a young director named Francis Lawrence got the nod, a major step in a career that eventually led to his directing the last three Hunger Games movies, as well as this year’s Red Sparrow.
“Michael Bay, who I’d never met at the time, decided that I was the only guy that could do this video,” Lawrence tells me now, his voice still tinged with grateful wonder. “I still really don’t know why.”
For much of the ’80s and ’90s, blockbuster action flicks were a reliable source of overblown pop hits and overplayed videos, from Top Gun to The Bodyguard to the Guns N’ Roses–assisted Terminator 2: Judgment Day. “It’s always a little tricky,” Lawrence says. “There was sort of a phase where you had to do movie videos, and the classic kind of lame thing to do is somehow there’s TV screens around your setup somehow, and movie footage going on the TV screens.”
The “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” clip gets around that by staging Aerosmith in front of a space shuttle, with a full orchestra sawing away around them, and most of the movie clips relegated to NASA-control-room screens just as likely to show Tyler’s face in gloriously emotive close-up. (Tyler had recently torn up his knee onstage in Alaska and spent most of the video shoot on a tastefully concealed stool; Lawrence has an odd memory of sitting in a Minnesota hotel room and watching Aerosmith decide to cancel their lucrative U.S. tour as a result.) Incredibly, in September 1998, the resulting clip made the top 10 of the first episode of TRL, the MTV viewer-request show that came to dominate the turn of the century by leaning heavily on teen pop. Aerosmith came in at no. 4, behind Aaliyah, ’NSync, and a victorious Backstreet Boys.
It was the end of an era, for hair-metal power ballads specifically, and for pop-supernova movie tie-ins generally. “I think times change,” says Lawrence, who through the Hunger Games franchise saw up close the transition to a more tasteful and “curated” movie-soundtrack experience. “There was a time when you’d look at movies in the ’80s, and people would use saxophone in the score. You don’t hear saxophone in scores anymore, but for a while that was cool, or like pure, hip stuff, like Beverly Hills Cop and things like that. So I think tastes change: There was a time where it was cool to put these big songs in, and you could get this cue for them in the movie, and you could use them in advertising and marketing.”
That mentality hasn’t fully gone away. “When I did the Hunger Games movies, the studio was always after what the big song was gonna be at the end,” Lawrence continues. “But when we did those movies, they exist in a sort of alternate universe. So you can’t have pop songs in the movie — the only place you can put them are on the end credits, and so you put these albums out that are sort of songs ‘inspired’ by the story and the themes in the story and things like that, but it’s oddly disconnected.”
Which is to say that there is no “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” equivalent in a Marvel movie. “I think the problem is often now audiences are more sophisticated in some ways,” Lawrence says. “And so I think audiences can smell how disingenuous it can be for studios to try and jam pop songs into movies.”
Diane Warren has a very simple solution to the MCU problem: “They should call me!” After a decade-plus drought following Pearl Harbor’s “There You’ll Be,” Warren has scored Best Original Song Oscar nominations in three of the past four years, though the movies they’ve soundtracked have changed drastically, from the 2014 music-business drama Beyond the Lights (Rita Ora’s “Grateful”) to the 2015 sexual-assault documentary The Hunting Ground (Lady Gaga’s “Til It Happens to You”) to the 2017 Thurgood Marshall biopic Marshall (Andra Day and Common’s “Stand Up for Something”). Nine nominations total, and no wins. She thought the Gaga song had the best chance; she knew that 1997’s “How Do I Live” had no shot whatsoever, in that it was up against Celine Dion’s Titanic juggernaut “My Heart Will Go On.” “I was like, ‘OK, everybody, go and get drunk,’” Warren recalls. “‘I’m not going up onstage.’”
Nobody expected Aerosmith to take the Oscar for “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.” (The statue went to “When You Believe,” from the DreamWorks animated movie The Prince of Egypt.) But at least we got the spectacle of the band playing the Academy Awards, cramming the five-minute epic into three minutes, a muted version that still gave Tyler plenty of space to ham it up: “I could stay lost in this moment … [deep breath] … forever.” It conveyed just enough of the flamboyance of everyone involved: the band, the movie, and especially the songwriter.
Francis Lawrence remembers running into Diane Warren a lot in L.A. back in those days. “She’s really great — she’s really talented,” he says now. “She’s really interesting. Back then, I don’t know if she still has birds, but she used to always be talking to the parrot on her shoulder.”
Warren is happy to confirm this. “I still have that same bird,” she says. “He’s alive, but he bites. He tried to bite my lip off once. He was my buddy. I would just take him everywhere.” And what was this parrot’s name? “Buttwings,” Warren says. “I know. This was the Beavis and Butt-Head days, when I got him. Buttwings. B-U-T-T-W-I-N-G-S. He’s cool, but I love him from a distance, because he’s a little asshole.” It’s the purest kind of love, really. And perhaps a love worth preserving one day, onscreen, and in song.