It's called an encore," the young woman next to me explained to her friend. "It's not over yet," she said, nodding with encouragement. Her friend was anxious and I knew why. British pop star Natasha Bedingfield had left the Fine Line stage after an hour without performing "Unwritten."
"Unwritten" is a monster of a pop song, and the obvious reason as to how a cute but sub-Christina Aguilera-level belter had sold out the joint. Daylight streaming in the club during the early show stole some of the glamour from Bedingfield's sparkles, but she attracted a mix of two groups: iPhone-owning tweens and the parents who love them, and late-twentysomething women and the men who love them. It was a suburban crowd with lots of sleek hair and the tidy outfits, and that made sense. Bedingfield's "Unwritten" has two major claims to fame: It's the theme song for The Hills, the popular reality show which began as a spinoff of Laguna Beach and is thus forever tied to Orange County and the tanned, enhanced blondes whose dubious hopes and romances carry them northward to Los Angeles. Today, it has pulled tan blondes northward from Edina.
The song's second claim to fame provides my own personal connection to the song, the reason why I can sing eight bars of the chorus—it's used in commercials for Pantene products. "Feel the rain on yo-ur skin/No one else can feel it for you/Only you can let it in." There's not a show on prime time this ditty hasn't interrupted. Oh, and Barack Obama used it in his campaign.
Is there anything "Unwritten" can't do? Well, it's been rumored that while it can treat sunburns, it doesn't soothe the itch from bug bites. But that hit was from an album released back in 2005, and when Bedingfield opened with "Piece of Your Heart" off this year's Pocketful of Sunshine, it became clear that her Fine Line appearance would concentrate on her more recent clichéd songs about love, rather than her previous clichéd songs about self-determination. "It's quite intimate in here," she said pleasantly. In her native England, she probably sells out clubs thrice this size, but she's a good sport. In tailored navy trousers and a sporty white belt, she flashed her midriff and a big smile but otherwise looked quite tame for a member of the Maxim Hot 100 (she's #72, while the young stars of The Hills, Lauren Conrad and Heidi Montag, are numbers 56 and 32, respectively).
"This song is about finding your soulmate," explained Bedingfield needlessly. Her lyrics are all generic variations on a tired theme. But her delivery has enough personality to make up for it. She puts rocker-swagger together with husky-alto yelping and island-party bass lines and pulled off an admirable feat: a commercial act that doesn't feel like it's pandering. By the time she got to "Love Like This," the audience was happily singing along to make up for the lack of Sean Kingston. Bedingfield can do Beyonce-melisma when called for, and she can pull off crooning, reflective ballads. When she sings "Wild Horses," you can imagine Disney music directors eagerly enlisting it for a scene in their next big modern fairy tale.
After a dozen songs she's ready to call it a night. But the show can't be over until "Unwritten" is sung, and when the call for an encore brings her back on stage, arms fly in the air as the first few distinctive guitar phrases ring out. "Unwritten" is a joke of a theme song for a show as unimaginative and obviously scripted as The Hills, but its message of endless possibility and optimism couldn't be more perfectly suited for 2008. Whether you're talking about your last boyfriend or your last haircut or your last government, the future is still a blank page, a clean slate. And for all it's commercial appropriation, that still makes "Unwritten" a rousing theme song for hopeful people living in dissatisfied times.