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‘I Don’t Want to Wait’ Is the Story of the Modern Music Industry

Paula Cole’s 1990s hit is synonymous with ‘Dawson’s Creek,’ but it’s also instructive in illustrating how the record business has changed — and still screws over artists

All these years later, Dawson’s Creek star James Van Der Beek still has trouble listening to the song that’s synonymous with his show. “If I was at karaoke and it started playing, there’s a part of me — and I’m a fucking grown-ass man with four kids — that still wants to go hide under the table,” he said in 2017. “I was at a pharmacy in Philadelphia, and it came on and I immediately went into a weird panic. I think it’s tied to the pandemonium that accompanied that [show’s success], for which there was no off button. Walking around at that time was very tricky because one autograph could turn into a mob scene. So I walked around in fear of teenage girls.”

He’s talking about “I Don’t Want to Wait,” a ubiquitous hit from the late 1990s that ended up being the theme to Dawson’s Creek. Often, TV theme songs are written specifically for the show, or they’ve been out for a bit and then scooped up by the program, giving them a second wind. “I Don’t Want to Wait” was big, and then it got even bigger. “It was an anthem. … It was on the charts for something like two years,” the song’s writer and performer, Paula Cole, said a few years ago. “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.”

Songs connected to TV shows are weird things. Even if they had a life before the program, that history gets vaporized — from here on out, the song’s hook, chord changes and emotional contours become enmeshed with the show’s plot twists, emotional highlights and thematic undercurrents. For more than two decades, people have heard “I Don’t Want to Wait” and thought of Dawson, Jen, Pacey and Joey. Whatever Cole’s song was about in the first place doesn’t matter anymore. 

“Apparently it’s about World War II,” Busy Philipps, who became part of the main cast near the end of the show’s run, said during a 2018 reunion of its stars. “He came home from war, and there was a baby waiting for him — that’s, like, essentially the lyrics. You can look it up. It’s about a soldier returning from war.”

But for a while now, the association between song and show has been severed. During Dawson’s Creek’s streaming life, you couldn’t hear “I Don’t Want to Wait” during the opening credits. On Friday, Netflix announced that was changing:

The story of why “I Don’t Want to Wait” was gone fits in oddly well with Cole’s overall journey through the music business. If you want to understand how hard the industry can be — even for someone who had a fair amount of success — study what she’s gone through.

Born in 1968, Cole grew up immersed in music. “My family was far and away the biggest musical influence in my life,” she once said. “We watched hardly any television at all or any other media. In hindsight, I’m lucky. I’m very different, and because of that I’m more self-reliant.” She went to the Berklee College of Music, focusing on becoming a jazz singer. “I wanted to be a female Chet Baker, improvising vocally over chord changes,” she said. “I was so blown away by his improvisation — his ears, and the way he would sing inside the chord changes — so musically. Of course I wasn’t anything like Chet Baker, and things didn’t actualize as I’d hoped.”

She shifted toward a rootsier sound, landing a record deal and releasing 1992’s Harbinger, which failed to have much of a commercial life, although it did bring her to the attention of Peter Gabriel, who asked her to be a backing vocalist on his tour. “Sinead O’Connor was leaving the tour,” Cole recalled. “It was a huge opportunity. I flew to Mannheim, Germany, and had one rehearsal, then I was singing in front of 16,000 Germans that night.” She would duet with Gabriel on his So hit “Don’t Give Up,” taking over the part that her hero Kate Bush sang on the studio version. 

The gigs helped raise her profile, and by the time of her follow-up album, This Fire, she was primed to take the next step. Cole wanted to continue on the path that Harbinger first laid out. Reflecting back on her decision not to become an interpreter of old jazz standards, she noted, “A lot of these kinds of depressing lyrics … that was not my reality and I didn’t want to perpetuate these realities being written by men in the 1950s. I wanted my realities, and I needed them like therapy. So I went into therapy. And I started writing songs, and the songs were really autobiographically — they’re not jazz. I don’t know, they’re just me.”

It can be easy to forget that “I Don’t Want to Wait” wasn’t the first single off This Fire, or even its biggest hit. That would be “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” It was inspired by her love of XTC: “I thought, ‘We don’t hear enough of humor and wit in a catchy pop tune from women,” she said. “I’d like to do something incorporating that. That thought happened before I wrote the song.” And so she came up with a melancholy commentary about a woman who just wants a stereotypical alpha-male to take care of her: “Where is my John Wayne? / Where is my prairie song? / Where is my happy ending? / Where have all the cowboys gone?” 

Some people thought she was being sincere, while others saw that her tongue was very much in her cheek. “The story in the song isn’t about me,” Cole told the L.A. Times around its release. “It’s about a sort of everywoman, and I’m looking at her life — compassionately, I hope — and saying that, as much as we think we’re progressing, there’s still work to be done. For me, [the lyrics are] sarcastic. But it’s amazing how different people interpret the song, how many different levels of consciousness there are out there. I like the fact that people apply their own meaning to the song.”

“Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” was released in early 1997, a few months after This Fire hit stores, and it went into the Top 10. The song tapped into a growing wave of empowered feminism that was capturing the zeitgeist at the time. Between Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill and Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville, the 1990s were an era in which female songwriters sang overtly about the sexism they saw around them, and “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” with its easy-listening country/pop groove fit right in. (Plus, the first-person fictional storytelling called to mind earlier, similar standouts like Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.”) Nonetheless, the song’s success was a surprise to Cole. “I was a New York City songwriter,” she said in 2018. “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.”

This Fire’s second single was drawn from an even more personal place. Busy Phillips is mostly correct about the origins of “I Don’t Want to Wait.” Cole wrote the song in honor of her grandfather, who’d served in World War II. “I had a feeling he would leave the planet soon, and he did,” she told American Songwriter. “It’s about not wanting to repeat certain family patterns. My grandfather never heard it, but my father was able to listen to the song before he lost his father and that was important to me.”

The track came to her quickly at the piano, inspired by her connection to her family. “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,” she said. “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.”

Like the rest of This Fire, Cole produced “I Don’t Want to Wait” on her own, deciding to man the boards herself after Kevin Killen helmed Harbinger. “[T]hat took a lot of fights just to get to that point, to be producing my own albums,” she later admitted, firing Killen during the sessions in order to approach the material in a more organic way. (Thinking back to her thought process, she explained, “This is my life. I need to stand up for my life. So I had to walk into Warner Bros. and say, ‘You know that hundred thousand dollars you just spent on this incarnation of an album I really don’t like? Well, we have to throw that away and please let me have the rest of the budget. Please let me make this album. I can do it.’ Amazingly, they said yes, though I definitely [had] some naysayers there in the company.”)  

But unlike “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?,” “I Don’t Want to Wait” was steadfastly sincere, the narrator connecting her grandfather and grandmother’s marital trauma with her modern-day experience. The song jumps from World War II, where a mother of two young children fears getting news that her husband has died on the frontlines, to an unspoken tension between the narrator and her contemporary partner. She sees the familial pattern and wants to break it:

Ohhh, so look at me from across the room
You’re wearing your anguish again
Believe me, I know the feeling
It sucks you into the jaws of anger
Ohh, so breathe a little more deeply
All we have is this very moment
And I don’t wanna do what his father
And his father, and his father did
I wanna be here now

If “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” skewers female codependence and male sexism, “I Don’t Want to Wait” is a more touchy-feely examination of the imperfect bonds between women and men — and how rigid gender roles keep couples from really connecting. (Tellingly, the song is populated by men who can’t quite communicate, can’t quite open up to their partners.) Decorated with pretty sing-along choruses and graceful “Doo doo doo doo”s, it’s a wistful adult-contemporary tune about self-actualization. 

“I Don’t Want to Wait” peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard charts, but it was on permanent radio rotation — in the late 1990s. It was just about impossible to go to a dinner party without hearing it — and the song further burnished Cole’s acclaim in the industry. “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” was nominated for Record of the Year and Song of the Year at the Grammys, and This Fire was up for Album of the Year, pitted against Radiohead’s OK Computer and losing out to Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind. She also got a nod for Producer of the Year, the first time a solo woman had been nominated. But she did snag Best New Artist, where she faced off with some pretty formidable competition: Fiona Apple, Erykah Badu, Puff Daddy and Hanson. 

The night, however, wasn’t a pleasant one for her. “About halfway through, I was getting filled with dread,” she said in a 1998 Rolling Stone profile. “I really thought I wasn’t going to win anything.” After she won Best New Artist, she walked off stage and burst into tears. “As much as I want to say it didn’t matter, it really did.” However, her appearance at the Grammys — which included her performing as part of a collection of Lilith Fair artists — didn’t exactly win over the audience. She playfully flipped off the crowd. She dared to show off some armpit hair, which later made her a punchline on Jay Leno’s show. “There was a lot of hate coming down on me after,” she would say later. “All of that attention was ill-fitting for this introvert. And I ebbed away after the Grammys.”

This Fire sold two million copies, but the follow-up, 1999’s Amen, didn’t get anywhere close to that. Maybe the album didn’t have a hit single, but Cole always felt that her association with Lilith Fair, the tour put together by Sarah McLachlan that highlighted female singer-songwriters, ended up leading to a backlash against those artists. “Initially, the media sensation behind it all was beneficial,” Cole said in 2000. “But I do feel I would have been successful without Lilith Fair. And the media attention tended to homogenize a lot of disparate artists in people’s minds. … [In] the end, I think it only benefited Sarah — and some of the local charities.”

Cole stepped away from music, partly to raise her young daughter, who’d been diagnosed with severe asthma. Thankfully for her, she had a steady income source due to Kevin Williamson, the writer of Scream, who decided that “I Don’t Want to Wait” should be Dawson’s Creek’s theme. “[T]hat TV show saved my daughter’s life,” she said in 2010. “When I was taking years off of work to take her to the hospital, and to treat her for all of her different minutia, the checks that came in from Dawson’s Creek paid for those outrageous bills.”

It wasn’t the first choice, though. 

Executive producer Paul Stupin recalled that when Williamson was putting together the pilot for Dawson’s Creek, Morissette’s “Hand in My Pocket” was put over the opening titles. “[W]e loved it,” Stupin said, “the network loved it, the studio loved it, and that stayed for a relatively long time until we couldn’t clear it. So suddenly, when Alanis turned us down, we were looking for something as effective as that, and it set a very high bar. The network had licensed the Paula Cole song, ‘I Don’t Want to Wait’ … and they said, ‘What would you think about using the Paula Cole song [as the theme]?’ And you know what? It hadn’t really occurred to us, but we put that song on over the main titles, and it was very effective.”

The opening credits featured the song’s chorus, which easily (although unintentionally) connected to the show’s themes of growing up and savoring that precious period in your life when the whole world is stretching out in front of you. (“I don’t wanna wait / For our lives to be over / I want to know right now / What will it be?” might as well be the mantra for every teenager.) And for a generation who came of age with Dawson’s Creek, “I Don’t Want to Wait” became part of their unofficial soundtrack. Pretty funny, then, that Cole has apparently never seen an episode all the way through — and didn’t even own a television at the time. (“I am someone who likes to garden, talk to my cats and be wacky hippie bird lady,” she told Rolling Stone.)

 

Cole eventually returned to record-making with 2007’s more jazz-centric Courage, and since then she’s put out a series of albums. But she has remained best known for those two hits off This Fire, even after Sony decided not renew its license for “I Don’t Want to Wait” when Dawson’s Creek went onto some DVD sets and then streaming. The reason was money: Sony had already paid for another song, Jann Arden’s “Run Like Mad,” to be a replacement, and the studio had that license in perpetuity. If Sony wanted “I Don’t Want to Wait” for those new platforms, its executives would have to negotiate with Cole for the rights and pay her all over again. And if there’s one thing that studios love, it’s being cheap. As Stupin once recalled, “Sony came to me and said, ‘Listen, we’re trying to save some money. We want to change that main title song.’”

But fans felt cheated and complained, letting Cole know they were mad her song had been yanked. “People really care and are really upset about it,” Cole told The New York Times earlier this year. “They tag me in every post — so much tagging on the socials, fans tagging Netflix and Sony. It’s prolific.” But a deal was finally made, although astute viewers will notice it’s a slightly different “I Don’t Want to Wait.” It’s actually the re-recorded version she did in 2015 — a strategy artists are pursuing in order to secure a better financial return on their old hits being licensed in commercials and in movies and TV shows. (Having control of one’s masters is paramount for so many musicians — just ask Taylor Swift.) “I haven’t seen royalties for my hit songs for years and years and years,” she told Billboard this week, adding that the deal she just struck with Sony and Netflix will cover her daughter’s college tuition.  

Cases like Cole’s have shown a spotlight on artists’ rights and just how much they have to fight not to get screwed over by record labels and Hollywood companies. In an era in which the music business has completely been reinvented in the wake of Spotify and other streaming services, artists have to be more protective of the monetary value of their work. The dream of making a living selling a bunch of albums just isn’t feasible anymore — touring and licensing are now lifelines for so many songwriters. 

Back in 2018, Cole reflected on the irony of how much has changed since the late 1990s when This Fire was huge:

“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 [Sony] 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.”

Her career has certainly not been a straight line. It was very tempting to look at Netflix’s announcement that it would finally be featuring Dawson’s Creek with “I Don’t Want to Wait” and think it was just some nostalgia play: C’mon, who really cares about some 25-year-old song? But there’s a whole history there — and a reminder how complicated a musician’s life can be.

Back in 1996, right when This Fire came out and its hits hadn’t yet been unearthed, Cole was asked how she felt about the record. “I really like it,” she said. “It’s me, and I like me. I feel glad to be who I am in my life and glad to be making this music. I see my albums as working diaries, as living scrapbooks of me and my life. I’m still trying to find out who Paula Cole is. I always am — and I always will be — my real, inside self, which has no name.” 

It’s very likely a lot of Dawson’s Creek fans love her song but don’t know her name. That happens when songs get co-opted by TV shows — they become part of the fabric of the culture, so much so that it’s easy to take them for granted and assume they just always existed. But this one came from Paula Cole, who’s always been proudly herself. Let’s raise a glass to this wacky hippie bird lady. 

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