When Natasha Bedingfield agreed to allow MTV to use her hit song “Unwritten” as the theme for The Hills in the early 2000s, she had no idea it would kick off a cycle of recurring love on social media that has continued to introduce her to new audiences.
“‘Unwritten’ is one of those songs that's bigger than me — it's a classic of some kind,” Bedingfield told BuzzFeed News. “It's one of the things that makes songwriting so magical because you're really conjuring something up from nothing. You're in a room [writing and working] by yourself, and then the song comes out and it just does its own thing, it opens up something. Even when you listen to a song, it opens up a goldmine within you, and that song particularly has layers to it. You can either just kind of enjoy it, but you can also get something really meaningful from it.”
Now, years after the song was first released in the UK in 2004, it’s seen a resurgence in the form of memes and TikTok trends, breathing new life into an early aughts anthem.
Bedingfield cowrote the now-iconic song alongside Danielle Brisebois and Wayne Rodrigues, cementing lyrics like “Feel the rain on your skin / No one else can feel it for you / Only you can let it in / No one else, no one else / Can speak the words on your lips / Drench yourself in words unspoken / Live your life with arms wide open / Today is where your book begins / The rest is still unwritten” into the cultural lexicon.
In May, when people were posting jokes and memes about the CDC, digital producer at Bravo Frank Costa got more than 11,000 retweets and 57 thousand likes when he tweeted, “CDC says fully vaccinated people can stare at the blank page before them, open up the dirty window, let the sun illuminate the words they cannot find, reach for something in the distance, so close they can almost taste it, release their inhibitions, & feel the rain on their skin.”
And earlier this year, a new generation of young people gave new life to the song by using it to create viral TikToks — one user, @rony_boyyron, danced to “Unwritten” in a flash mob, and the @gleefuljhits account posted a different dance to the song on TikTok with three women dressed in neon sweatpants, tube tops, and ski masks. The videos made their rounds online and prompted others to join in using the remixed “Unwritten” audio, including TikTok influencer Noah Beck.
“During the lockdown, we've all been having to find our tools to survive a really weird, isolating time that’s also been painful for many people. I'm sure everyone has their songs that are their go-tos, and one of the ones that I've been hearing is ‘Unwritten,’” Bedingfield said. “TikTok is the way that kids have been communicating. They've been on Zoom all day at school and no one wants to FaceTime, but TikTok is a real relief in a way.”
Bedingfield even joined in herself. The pop star started posting on TikTok at the end of February and when she caught wind of the new trends using her music, she started sharing duets with the original creators and re-creating their dances.
“It feels like every seven years or something it kind of makes a resurgence in that way,” she said. “Different friends of mine kept sending me videos and being like, ‘Hey, you’ve got to check this out.’ The thing that people kept saying is, ‘There's just so much joy coming from your song. You need to enjoy that and engage in it and get involved.’ I'm enjoying seeing what certain people are doing and the way that they're shaping it to be.”
Before “Unwritten” developed into a viral trend and meme, Bedingfield wrote the song for her younger brother who was 14 at the time. She said she was 8 years old when he was born and always felt maternal and protective over him, so when people started pushing him at a young age to decide what he wanted to do with his life, she felt defensive.
“I remember feeling like, Hey, he doesn't have to have it all figured out right now,” Bedingfield said. “At that age there's so much of life ahead of you and so much wisdom that you just kind of have innately and then so much to learn as well. There’s so much uncertainty. I was quite a serious 14-year-old myself where I was trying to be an adult already, and I wish someone had said that to me.”
The fact that young people continue to discover the song makes sense to Bedingfield, who said preteens were the original audience. When MTV approached her about using “Unwritten” as the theme song for The Hills, which started airing in May 2006, it opened the song up to an older audience of listeners, proving the inspirational lyrics are meant to connect with anyone who’s experiencing a coming-of-age moment in their life. According to Bedingfield, MTV contacted her to ask if The Hills star Lauren Conrad could stop by the studio and film a scene for an episode of the reality show.
“The reality TV format was still in a very new stage with The Simple Life, The Osbournes, and Newlyweds with Jessica Simpson,” she said. “The song was already a hit on the radio at that point. Some people are careful about what they put their songs in. For me, I was really like, ‘Yeah, why not? That sounds great.’ Also the show is about finding yourself, so I think that the song fits quite well with it.”
Since the start of the pandemic last year, Bedingfield has been back in the studio working on new music. She’s excited about an upcoming project and whatever the future has in store, but she also knows the lasting legacy of “Unwritten” and that its cultural impact will be hard to duplicate. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“The point is to find these wise sayings that aren't clichés,” Bedingfield said. “You don't want to use clichés. You want to try and find a way of saying something that we all need to hear without saying it in a way that's been said before.”