Ryan Tedder Whistled While He Worked: OneRepublics Frontman on Crafting a ‘Top Gun’ Soundtrack Smash With ‘I Aint Worried

It was taken as a given, early this year, that the “Top Gun: Maverick” soundtrack would deliver a worldwide hit. That belief came true, only instead of Lady Gaga’s emotional end-credits track, the global smash ended up being “I Ain’t Worried,” the whimsical OneRepublic tune that comes during a light-hearted football-playing interlude in the middle of the otherwise tense action movie. A nice caveat: it accompanied that full scene, which was hardly bad placement.

This led to “Worried” becoming a (what else?) TikTok phenomenon before it was a belated radio and streaming sensation. Of course, no one should ever assume that a mountain of careful thought hasn’t gone into anything Tedder puts his hands on, even before the final TikTokkiness of it all may come down to someone doing in the Midwest doing the right goofy dance.

For the Hitmakers issue, Tedder gave Variety a master class in how the soundtrack cut was written, recorded, edited and made into a summer hit. But our classroom time extended into his general insights about how the whole business of songwriting has changed into something seemingly more arbitrary than it used to be, and why writers rely on radio and streaming for entirely different forms of validation, in the culture vs. profit equation.

Tedder also weighed in candidly on not being pleased about the songwriting credits for “I Ain’t Worried.” Many assumed that the co-writing credit for Peter Bjorn and John and their “Young Folks” was given voluntarily; while it’s true the trio never asked for a credit, it came from Paramount Pictures, not Tedder, who says there is no real resemblance. (He adds that if he had to give up a slice of the writing pie to someone, he’s glad it’s a group he likes.)

Is having a huge hit a science anymore, when things are as unpredictable as they’ve seemingluy become?

There’s a measure of writing songs for sure that I would say almost anyone can accidentally write or stumble into something that just becomes insatiable and sticky. It’s doing it over and over again and repeating it where the craft component kicks in. But even with that, you could have all the craft in the world, you could have gone to Berklee, gone to Belmont, studied in Sweden, and done all of it and every hit still has to have the God particle. The God particle is that one moment where somebody in the room, whether it’s yourself or somebody else, hums something or says something where all the hair on the back of your neck stands up and everyone looks at each other in disbelief. Where did that come from? It has to happen for a hit song, and you never know what it’s gonna be or where it’s gonna come from. And every now and then it’s a whistle.

When you’re on tour now, do people whistle along during the live show, or do they just sing along during the vocal parts?

Yeah, people who can whistle do. Brian, who’s our keyboard player, is a phenomenal whistler, so he can do that live when we perform it, which is nuts. I’m the one who actually did the whistle on the recording, but it took me like 30 takes and a tube of chapstick and a bunch of water, because I’m not great at it.

Can you describe the origin point of “I Ain’t Worried”?

We zoomed with Tom Cruise and Jerry Bruckheimer and Chris McQuarrie, the (co-)writer of “Top Gun: Maverick,” on a Wednesday evening. The following morning, Brent (Kutzle) was in Seattle, I was in L.A., we FaceTimed, and he said, “What are you hearing?” I texted him a beatbox. I went back to high school when I considered myself a marginally talented beatboxers. I beatboxed the rhythm of the drums that you now hear in the song. I’d say, “I hear this as the breakbeat pattern. I hear chords that could be something like this,” and I’m humming notes, just like voice memo stuff. Within two hours, Brent sent me back a loop of what is the current chord progression and drum pattern. I kind of shut my brain off and turned the mic on, and my immediate reaction to those chords was me whistling that melody. I called Brent and said, “Hey, don’t hate me, but what do you think if we start with a whistle?” He laughed and was like, “Well, we’ve done that before.” [“Good Life,” from 2011, was heretofore the biggest of several OneRepublic whistling tunes.]

I said, “I know, but look, this song is probably gonna be for somebody else.” We had no clue that at the time that it was gonna be OneRepublic. I was just trying to write the best song and remove, as much as I could, my ego from the process. Of course I wanted to do it; it’s “Top Gun”! The other artists in conversation were Lady Gaga, Post Malone, all these huge names. In my mind I was kind of marginalizing us and I was like, “Well, I don’t think they’re gonna put us right next to Gaga on this film.” I’ve definitely never suffered from delusions of grandeur as far as my own band is concerned. I love what we’ve accomplished. I love who we are. But as I was just writing it, I wasn’t thinking, what am I gonna whistle? What am I gonna say? It was more, what does this scene of this movie need to sound like? Period, full stop.

The football scene was the only lighthearted moment in the movie. There’s nothing more lighthearted than a whistle, and if you’re whistling, you’re definitely not thinking about going to war, or getting shot at. So let’s do the whistle.

I broke almost every rule of pop math in this record. Number one, I start the song with the whistle, but the verse melody is identical to the whistle. That was a random idea I had, because I thought, what if every part of the song feels like a chorus? So let’s make the verse identical to the whistle.

Tom had said on the zoom, “This is the only moment in the film where nobody’s worried about anything.” So if there was any trade craft at all, it was on that one moment. I was like, I’m gonna use Tom’s own words, uh, you know, uh, for a purpose in this song. The phrase just hit me: “I ain’t worried.” So the entire song, soup to nuts, was about 45 minutes, approximately, of writing.

And the other kind of rule that I broke is, there is no pre-chorus, and the verse is seven seconds long before you’re in the chorus, and then it’s right back to the whistle. So I really was just aiming to be like, hook, hook, hook. Let’s make people feel euphoric and happy and carefree.

And, and then the verse lyrics, uh, you know, the lyrics in general when I tend to write one Republic stuff, and I started to get the inclination that it might be us that we, I’ll, let me put it this way. I thought that there was a shot, there was a window of a shot that we would get to do the song as I was writing.

And recording the vocals, I kept texting Brent like, “I don’t know who else is gonna do this. I doubt they’re looking for us to do it, but who else is going to do this?” I was like, maybe Foster the People, but I know them really well, and Mark’s not gonna sing somebody else’s song. I was going through all the other bands that I thought might do it, and I was, “Well, shit, maybe we’ll get lucky here and they’ll leave us on the record that we wrote.” It’s funny — if you talk to Randy Spendlove (president of music at Paramount Pictures), he would tell you that from the beginning he assumed it would be us. And I think Tom did too. I mean, clearly I need to improve my own perspective on my band, because I didn’t have us in the running, I was just trying to write the best song for the three and a half minutes that served that film.

So it was never brought up in the conversation one way or another whether you could be the artist.

Randy is such a champion of OneRepublic that I knew there was a shot. When I write for OneRepublic, it’s incredibly difficult because I get really self conscious about what I’m saying. I’ve been putting out albums for 15 years and, you know, you love us or hate us. You can’t buy groceries, get in an elevator, step in an Uber without hearing our music anywhere in the world. That’s a blessing and a curse. The curse of it is I’m cynical and when I hear myself singing back to myself, I’ve said a lot of what I want to say, as an artist, in 15, 16 years. And so now when I write songs, they have to almost fall from the sky because I don’t want to retread the same concepts.

How was the song received?

Tom and I talked about a dozen times about this scene, and me and McQuarrie and Jerry multiple times, going over it and making edits. We did one thing that I’ve never done for a film, but I was just so freaking determined to lock music to picture. We edited every inch of the song to the film, ourselves.

How did that work?

Everybody signed a hundred NDAs. It’s “Top Gun.” It’s the most locked-down, top secret film. Nobody had seen shit. Initially we weren’t allowed to have a copy of the scene we were writing for. When we Zoomed it, I was like, Oh shit. I turned my phone on, hit record on the video and just filmed it on my phone. Then we uploaded it, put it through in the Logic, slapped it with some time code. Once Tom signed off on the verse and chorus, he was like, “Oh my God, this fits perfectly now; we just gotta figure out how it edits to picture.” Working at Variety, obviously you know that you can lose a song if it doesn’t play to picture —it doesn’t matter how good the song is. If the edits aren’t right, you lose it. So I thought, “What else can we do to guarantee that this song’s gonna get locked to this film? What if we just do the editor’s job?” And we did the thing which I’ve never done: We threw some time code on it, went in and myself, Brent and Tyler (Spry, another co-writer) sat there for hours, hours and hours, going through each football catch touchdown, chest bump, Rooster’s famous six-pack moment, when Jon Hamm walks up and talks to Tom… “Who’s winning?” “Who cares?” All of those moments, we went through and preemptively edited the song, the lyrics — we would go from chorus to instrumental to whistle to chorus to verse — and we edited it, trying to guess what the film editor himself or herself would do.

Then the next day when Tom was like, “Well, we wanna see how this would cut to picture,” I don’t think he knew that I had filmed the thing, but I sent him the video and said, “Hey, check this out, man.” And I just sent him the three and a half minute full edit — I mean, it’s a long scene. It’s the whole song. And he just called me and goes, “How the hell did you do this? Like, what the fuck? Did the editor do this?” Like, no, no, no. “But how?” I was like, “Oh, I just filmed it on my phone.” And he just died laughing and was like, “Oh my God. Well, that’s a first.” And to my knowledge, the final edit that you see is probably 95% what we did on that day.

Let’s talk about how it was received. You’ve said something along the lines of “Every hit we’ve ever had was been like pushing a massive cart up a hill.” This one doesn’t seem like such a major push. Did it feel even a little bit more like coasting toward success?

I’ll be honest with you. With streaming and sales, it has done its own duty. Until Taylor Swift dropped her fantastic album that took over the universe, the song had pretty much been in the top 10 globally, if not top five, for about three months. So in terms of sales and streaming, it’s done its job with very little push, because it went viral on TikTok. We had all the boxes checked. You pray for a perfect storm and every now and again you get one.

My whole thing is very simple, dude. One of my best friends is an ex-pro baseball player, and we’ve talked about, how did you play so consistent for 13 years? He was like, “If you never leave the batter’s box, the law of averages dictates that you’re gonna hit one or two over the fence, and it’s gonna happen again and again.” So, you know, I’ve taken one six-month break in 15 years where I really walked away from songwriting in 2017. But for the rest, I just don’t leave the batters’ box. I told our band and and management two years ago, “If every three months we drop a new song, and if we do our best to make sure the songs are great and if we do our best to try and get them to align and land huge, in looks like films and commercials…”

Look what’s happening with Sia right now and “Unstoppable.” It’s a six-year-old song and she’s having a global hit because of a Samsung commercial. So we’re in a weird time right now with the battle for eyes and ears. It’s so hard to be seen when there’s 100,000 songs a day being uploaded to Spotify. With “Top Gun,” we’ve had a lot of other songs in movies, but this is the second time ever, maybe third, in 15 years where because of a movie, we had a huge hit. And I think it’s just by virtue of the fact that we don’t leave the batter’s box.

Now, that said, I will go on record: It has not been a cake walk. It should have been. We thought it would be. Radio has been the most difficult. With U.S. radio specifically, it has been a absolute knockdown/drag-out, at Top 40. We went No. 1 at Hot AC and top five at top 40. But we almost lost the record six weeks ago, and it was inexplicable. I was pulling my hair out, screaming at my manager going, “We’re No. 6 in America right now. Everything ahead of us is Bad Bunny or Harry Styles. Why are we still struggling?” So radio is its own beast, man. All they care about is their markets, as they should, and they focus on research.

(It comes down to) things as bizarre as this: When you’re doing research on a record at radio, if the sample of the song that you send out for research isn’t the right part of the song, or it’s not the part that’s gone viral, you’ll get bad research on a smash. I mean, I can tell you that Steve Lacy and “Bad Habit” (made it to) No. 1 but had major struggles at Top 40. Whereas the average person who’s not deep in the music industry would look at a song and go, “How is that not No. 1, if it’s already No. 1 at Spotify, Apple, etc.?” There’s still a cultural disconnect between radio and streaming.

And the reason I even bring that up is because, man, I’m a child of top 40. I grew up listening to Top 40 because in Tulsa, Oklahoma, there was no cool college radio station. I didn’t have some cool older brother sister playing me “Astral Weeks” by Van Morrison or Pink Floyd; I was literally listening to Boyz II Men, and Diddy, and whatever was popping on Top 40.

Also, with how songwriters get paid, radio still so out outweighs streaming. For me radio is because it always has been, culturally and just as my childhood, but when it comes to just being compensated for the work that you do… It’s amazing to have a record that streams like crazy. But until songwriters get their equitable share of payments from streaming, when everybody in your band and everybody else is trying to make a living, radio is still God, as far as that’s concerned. So for the songwriter, culturally, we look at Apple and Spotify. But to pay our bills, we look at radio.

And you put the difficulties you had with this song down to the research not getting things right?

I was in a yelling match with one of our promoters saying, “Tell the program directors to look at the U.S. (Hot 100) chart. Right now, the only thing ahead of us is Spanish records or the Harry Styles record that already peaked. I’m not an idiot, so I can read the tea leaves. But I’ve been doing this long enough to understand that you’re getting great research in this part of America, but for some reason you’re getting really bad research in this part of America.” And I’m probably pulling the curtain back too far, but I went as deep as asking regional program directors, “What part of ‘I Ain’t worried’ are you using in your research?” I found out that there were stations that were using a part of the song that wasn’t familiar.

And I had to explain to one of our promo people, “Dude, have you been on TikTok — i.e., the 2022 version of MTV?” Never before has an outside thing more than MTV influenced the music industry heavier than TikTok is. And I’m telling my promo guy, “Go on TikTok. The part that the whole world knows is the whistle.” And I sent him three videos, which was Kevin Hart, Ryan Seacrest and Reese Witherspoon all doing things to our whistle on their TikTok with 500 million in audience. And I was like, “Dude, if you don’t put the whistle in the clip of this song, thousands of people in their 40s and 50s, who are the key demographic for radio stations, are not gonna recognize it. The only part they’re gonna recognize is the whistle.” So that’s how easy it is to lose a record that should be undeniable.

I have congratulations text messages from like half a dozen huge songwriters going, “Dude, congrats on another No. 1.” I’m like, “Dude, don’t jinx me. We’re not.” The same thing happened with “Counting Stars.” We got to like No. 7 and stalled. And my manager, God bless his heart, gets on the phone and makes a hundred phone calls and we’re pulling favors…

This isn’t me complaining, this is just me stating the reality — we’re not Ed Sheeran, we’re not Taylor Swift, and I don’t have a lever I can pull where 500 million people know that OneRepublic has a new song at the same time. I would say that I wish I did, but that also comes with its own cost, meaning I couldn’t walk out of my hotel without being mobbed. So you have to be careful what you wish for.

Not to disparage Lady Gaga, but there was a presumed breakout smash with this soundtrack, and it was her leadoff single, and didn’t happen. So when that went away, a lot of people were probably just thinking, “OK, this ‘Top Gun ‘soundtrack was not destined to be ubiquitous thing that the last one was.” Maybe you were the hail Mary… or maybe not that much was expected out of your song at all?

Your assumptions are pretty much correct. Look, nobody saw our song coming right the way they did. To be fair, nobody thought “Counting Stars” was a hit. I’ve seen this movie before, a lot, not just with us, with lots of artists. Here’s the truth, man. Nobody knows anymore. All the greatest ears in the music industry will tell you right now that everybody’s guessing because it’s just the nature of how music is right now. You can have 10 of the top A&Rs and ears in the business all in a room together listening to 10 songs, and five years ago, those people would’ve picked the biggest hit out of those 10 75, 80% of the time. Now there is a 75 to 80% chance that they are all dead-ass wrong. And that’s not because their ears suck. It’s because getting a hit in 2022, more than any time in history, is a lottery ticket.

There is no more singular mouthpiece to broadcast, “Hey, here’s a new song.” Used to be you go on the Today Show, SNL and the Tonight Show, and if the song’s a hit and you perform it, they’re gonna have a hit. That no longer is the case. You look at Lizzo’s “About Damn Time” — that song’s a smash, right? Except that when it came out, it died immediately. It debuted in the sixties, dropped and then fell off the chart. She hosted “SNL,” performed it — it went down the chart further! Ten days out of release, they were pivoting to the next single. “About Damn Time” was completely dead. Then a girl in her kitchen danced to the second verse — not even the chorus, the second verse — and within three days it was back inside the top hundred, then the top 50, then the top 20, then the top 10, then a Billboard No. 1. So then philosophically, you go, “Well, was it, or wasn’t it a hit?” You know what I mean? I told the songwriters, “Guys, I hope I don’t jinx it, but I think this is a smash,” the day it came out. And then it died and I was like, “Oh my God. I need to have my ears checked. I think ‘About Damn Time’ is a smash — how am I that wrong?” And then two weeks later… I think that that story encapsulates the state of music right now, which is no matter how good the song is or how big the artist is…

Look at Imagine Dragons — they did that song years ago. They didn’t even put it on an album. And I know because I know all the people surrounding it. It’s now the biggest that they’ve ever had. I think there’s almost 8 billion streams total when you count the end game streams, 6 billion of which came from the game. It’s not like Dan Reynolds doesn’t know how to write a hit. That guy can write hits all day. But I talked with him the week it came out. Nobody thought it was a hit, and then it came out and exploded. We’re just in a different time. The song that everyone in the room thinks is the catchiest, biggest, best song is not the hit, period. I compare it to “Stranger Things.” We are in the Upside Down. So that’s why you just can’t leave the batter’s box. You just keep swinging.

The good news is, that means anybody at any stage in their career can have the biggest hit of their career. You could be 65 years old and have the biggest hit you’ve ever had now, which has never happened. The downside is, you’re gonna have a a lot of heartbreak and you’ve got to have really thick skin. Because you’re gonna make what you think is the best song of your life, set it up, do an expensive video, all the promo in the world, put it out, and it’s gonna be a tree falling in the forest. And some 17-year-old in a basement in Cleveland is gonna shit out a song on their iPhone, and it’s gonna go No. 1, and it’s the first song they’ve ever written. That’s the state of music right now. Because you’re competing against the world there. There are no gatekeepers anymore.

So for a guy like me, you have days where you want to quit, but I just go, OK, I have to be strategic. We still tease songs all the time cuz you never know what’s gonna go off on TikTok. If I really give a shit about the song that I’m putting out, I’m literally picking up the phone and saying, OK, what, what can I do to surround this song with some type of bubble wrap? Because culture right now is more important than the song itself. Culture is everything.

I just wanted to ask about what the song reminds people of. And of course you gave a writing credit to Peter Bjorn and John. But I also went online to look at people discussing the song, and I have a list of about 25 different songs where people were going, “No, this is the song it’s like,” and they’re naming tunes by everyone from Chris Brown to AJR to Bruno Mars. So maybe that’s part of the brilliance of the song is that almost everybody thinks it reminds ’em of something, but they can’t agree on what it is.

If I’m good at any one specific thing with songwriting, it’s coming up with melodies that feel like quickly, oddly familiar, but you can’t put your finger on it. If I have one trick, that’s my favorite trick. That’s the thing that I try to do the most because, well, it works.

With preemptively giving credit to Peter Bjorn and John, is that just a smart thing to do these days?

I’m gonna be dead honest. Every time you release a song on a major label, now, internally, you’ve gotta pass their own kind of music guidance people.We passed the Universal Music (test). Nobody at Universal Music thought it sounded like anything. But one person inside of Paramount Pictures said, “Oh, it kind of reminds me of that one Peter Bjorn and John song.” And we were like, what? And I’m gonna be honest, we said no. Like, “We’re not doing that.We didn’t copy that. It’s a different melody. It’s a different thing.” And at Paramount, the policy is, because there’s too much at stake with movies, if they think it sounds like anything, then you have to literally preemptively reach an agreement.

So look, I love Peter Bjorn and John, I think they’re sweethearts, and I’m happy it was them. You know what I mean? That it wasn’t somebody else. But if I’m being fully transparent, we did not copy them. We weren’t sitting around going, “Let’s do the ‘Young Folks.’” My first-verse melody is the same as the whistle melody, and that’s the same thing they do in that song. So, I guess I’d rather it be this than having than a bunch of people call us out and be like, “Man, you ripped them off.” But it’s not that.

The last time we really talked to you in depth about a song was the Jonas Brothers’ “Sucker.” We’re destined to talk to you every time there’s a whistle song, which is great, because it’s quite a genre.

You know, Clive Davis once told me that with the best songs in the world, you can whistle the melody. And genuinely speaking, I think that stuck in my brain, him telling me that and me going, “Well, Clive told me whistles always work.”  We’ve had three hits with whistling, two of which were in the U.S., one of which was outside the U.S.

So I think I’m keeping the whistle genre alive. That’s my calling card. It’s definitely not something that’s ever intentional. We had a band meeting and we were just talking about what the sound is, moving forward, of the band, because I’m starting to hand in some records that sound really different. And I just told them, “Just so you know, we are placing a seven-year moratorium on whistles.” I said, “For the next seven years there will be a drought of whistles.” I’m fucking whistled out. But I’m happy that we did it.

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