Paula Cole is sick of talking about Dawson’s Creek. The 52-year-old Grammy-winning singer/songwriter has had her name – not to mention one of her most recognisable songs – attached to the teen drama’s opening credits for decades. Ask anyone over 25: the second an older millennial hears that breathy “do do do do do do…”, they are instantly transported back to the fictional town of Capeside, Massachusetts, and its startlingly loquacious teenage cast, Dawson (James Van Der Beek), Joey (Katie Holmes), Pacey (Joshua Jackson), and Jen (Michelle Williams). On the surface, Dawson’s Creek was ostensibly another soapy teen romance, but a longer look reveals a late-Nineties paradise of cargo shorts and butterfly clips, unrealistically insightful adolescents, and a love triangle for the ages between Dawson, Joey and Pacey.
Cole was barely 30 when Dawson’s premiered on the WB network in the US in 1998 (later airing on Channel 4 in the UK). She was at that point only two records into her career, having released her critically acclaimed sophomore album, This Fire, in 1996. The album’s closing track, a piano-led ballad inspired by the life of her grandparents, struck a chord with showrunner Kevin Williamson, who called up Cole asking to attach it to his new TV pilot. Williamson had originally wanted to use Alanis Morissette’s “Hand in My Pocket” as the show’s opening theme, but it was going to cost too much money to license. Before discovering “I Don’t Want to Wait”, the network commissioned various artists to write an original theme song, with Canadian singer Jann Arden winning out with “Run Like Mad”, which was ultimately pushed aside in favour of “I Don’t Want to Wait”.
“I had no idea it was going to be such a smash, totally eclipsing my own career,” says Cole, who to this day still has not watched Dawson’s Creek.
Even now, more than two decades after the show’s debut, millennials continue to joke about and reference the song’s titular lyric I don’t want to wait on TikTok, where Cole’s best-known song lives on as a semi-permanent song meme.
One place where the song is nowhere to be found, however, is on Dawson’s Creek reruns. Not only does “I Don’t Want to Wait” not appear on the show’s DVD collection, but it doesn’t accompany any of the seasons streaming on Hulu or Netflix, where Dawson’s Creek is currently available for a whole new generation to become acquainted with television’s most unapologetically introspective adolescents. As for Cole, every time the series pops back up onto streaming platforms (and simultaneously into the pop culture zeitgeist), the singer is forced to answer the same question: Why isn’t “I Don’t Want to Wait” the theme song for Dawson’s Creek any more?
The answer, as with most things, ultimately comes down to money. “It was really just a financial decision that was made precipitously by one executive at Sony,” explains Cole. In more specific terms, Sony Pictures Entertainment, which owns Dawson’s Creek, swapped “I Don’t Want to Wait” back to Arden’s “Run Like Mad” because they had paid for the latter’s use years ago, and essentially own it outright. It also helped that Arden never requested compensation for using “Run Like Mad” on Dawson’s reruns. Cole, who is an ardent advocate of artists’ rights, had a hard time wrapping her mind around that. “If you start doing that with a network and with large companies, you’re throwing every artist under the bus,” she says. (Arden did not respond to multiple interview requests for this piece.)
And yet, if you combine the show’s streaming popularity with the continued career success of its main cast members, not to mention supporting players and guest stars (Busy Philips, Rachael Leigh Cook, Seth Rogen, Jane Lynch, and Julie Bowen all showed up on Dawson’s), fan outcry at the loss of the original theme song never really dies down. If anything, it just reasserts itself every few years, and Cole keeps getting tagged on Twitter by fans wanting to know why they have to wait for “I Don’t Want to Wait”.
According to Cole, fan engagement has been so strong that Sony has now made a verbal agreement with her to reinstate “I Don’t Want to Wait” as the opening theme song to Dawson’s Creek at an undisclosed date. “We’re in discussions now,” Cole says of the progress she and Sony have made, noting that the show’s original theme is likely to return after Dawson’s finishes its current run on Netflix.
“The main thing about it all is that it was due to fan reaction,” Cole marvels. “It was due to all of their posts and their tweets and their fabulous feedback. Sony finally noticed and wanted to please their fans. I’m just really happy about that. I’m really happy that they listen and they care.”
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The news is not only a win for fans of the show, but it is a major victory for artists’ rights as well, especially in an age where streaming has stripped most songwriters of the ability to earn a comfortable living, and most artists still do not own or profit directly from their master recordings. In 2018, for Dawson’s Creek’s 20th anniversary, Cole wrote a first-person essay for the Huffington Post outlining her frustrations with the “labyrinthian” music business and how it has historically put artists such as her at a disadvantage.
“Everyone in the industry is suffering – from the indies to the Eagles,” she wrote. “Digital distribution, of course, has completely changed the music business. So artists now have to tour and own our publishing, and if you can own the master tapes of your songs, that’s where you see income but it’s increasingly difficult for artists, no matter their stature, to make a living.”
Happily, a few years ago, Cole recorded a newer version of “I Don’t Want to Wait”, and the updated version will open future iterations of Dawson’s Creek. Even better, she’ll profit from the song’s return as the show’s theme, because she’ll own the master recordings (as opposed to Warner Bros, which owns the 1990s original).
For the record, Cole has no issues with Arden – only the system that allowed the two singers to be pitted against each other for so long. “I think Jann's a lovely person. I think we’ve both been put in an awkward position,” she says. “But as media content has moved off of network and is moving to all these new platforms, people want the integrity of the music.”
Though “I Don’t Want to Wait” and other hit singles from This Fire (including “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?”) may define her pop career, Cole has released seven albums since 1999, and has another one called American Quilt arriving in the summer. Ultimately, Cole has dedicated her life to music. Any hits that have stood the test of time via television exposure is just icing on the cake.
“I want to leave a lifetime of catalogue,” she explains. “I'm dedicated to that. I’m not in it for a clothing line or perfume or satellite businesses. I love and worship at the altar of music.
“One of my babies just happened to be used for this TV show,” she continues. “And people are very attached to it. And I’m so happy that the fans got what they wanted and that people will learn about my song and hopefully more of my music again. I just appreciate the opportunity very, very much.”
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