Released: 23rd February 1998
Writers: Diane Warren
Peak position: #7
Chart run: 7-9-12-17-12-9-9-7-11-12-12-11-9-10-11-15-17-20-27-24-29-30-22-28-32-27-35-32-32-36-41-51-66-X-72
Billboard Hot 100 chart run: 89-49-28-27-22-18-12-9-10-6-6-5-4-5-4-4-3-4-3-3-3-3-3-3-3-2-2-2-3-5-4-2-4-3-3-4-6-10-10-12-20-20-21-23-26-27-28-31-31-27-33-29-26-33-32-29-29-36-38-37-38-43-40-40-41-42-43-48-45
When Trisha Yearwood agreed to sing the theme for what was sure to be one of 1997’s biggest summer movies, there was just one problem…LeAnn Rimes had already recorded the song, and the two versions were about to go head-to-head in the charts.
How Do I Live was written by Diane Warren to soundtrack the blockbuster movie Con Air. Because every action thriller – even one starring Nicolas Cage as a discharged army sergeant trying to regain control of a flight hijacked by violent criminals – demands an epic, chart-conquering power ballad. She earmarked it for LeAnn Rimes, who had recently risen to fame after signing with Curb Records and releasing her debut album, Blue. The song was recorded shortly thereafter, but Touchstone Pictures weren’t satisfied when it was submitted to them. They felt it was poppier than had been envisioned and were also concerned about the appropriateness of the lyrics for a 14-year-old, who was younger than the movie’s age rating. LeAnn Rimes’ voice may have sounded more mature than that, but it still might have been difficult to market. So, they contacted country music star Trisha Yearwood and asked her to record How Do I Live instead, an offer she accepted.
It’s not uncommon for artists to inherit songs from one another. However, Curb Records – spurred on by Diane Warren – did something completely unprecedented. Although LeAnn Rimes had established herself as a country singer, the label decided to push ahead with her version and target pop radio instead. What’s more, they went so far as to release it on the same day as Trisha Yearwood’s. Even though there might have been an argument that each was ostensibly targeting a different market, the reality is that the two songs shared far more in common than that which divided them. So, as How Do I Live grew in popularity, radio stations pitted LeAnn Rimes and Trisha Yearwood against one another by asking listeners to vote for which they wanted to hear. Some even went so far as to create an unofficial mash-up, which merely served to prove their similarity. Particularly since both are sung in the same key.
This almighty tussle wasn’t confined to America, either. Both singles were released internationally and, in some territories – such as Ireland and Australia – Trisha Yearwood’s was the more successful. However, it was very much LeAnn Rimes who rose to prominence with How Do I Live in the UK, and she did so in a major way. The secret to its appeal…isn’t much of a secret at all: this is a classic example of what can be achieved by a talented singer(s) performing an exceptionally well-written song.
Lyrically, How Do I Live is a masterclass in songwriting from Diane Warren, as she carves out a space where the track can be interpreted in different ways. It’s fundamentally a love song, albeit one where the emotions are experienced to the point of anguish: “Oh, I, I need you in my arms, need you to hold, you’re my world, my heart, my soul and if you ever leave, baby, you would take away everything good in my life”. But it can also be read from the perspective of a break-up or even a bereavement: “Without you, there’d be no sun in my sky, there would be no love in my life, there’d be no world left for me”. Either way, How Do I Live is readily relatable as it taps into the underlying fragility and insecurity of love that many people experience.
Although Touchstone Pictures had their reasons for passing on LeAnn Rimes’ version, it isn’t easy to see much evidence within the track itself. Her delivery of How Do I Live – allegedly ‘too pop’ – is resolutely not by bombastic late-‘90s standards. Instead, it leans more into adult contemporary or easy listening with a tender electric guitar melody and gentle percussion. More crucially is that her age is never a determining factor. At 14 years old, LeAnn Rimes probably didn’t have the equivalent life experience, but her reading of the How Do I Live isn’t lacking. She sings with heartfelt sincerity and for the first few minutes until the music starts to crescendo; her presence alone – the warmth and tone of her voice – keeps the track brilliantly engaging.
Of course, LeAnn Rimes not being chosen for the Con Air soundtrack is a moot point in many respects because How Do I Live still satisfyingly hits all the beats associated with a ‘90s movie ballad. The squealing electric guitar riffs become more heightened moving into the middle-eight: “Please tell me bay-bay-ay, how do I go o-o-o-o-on…”, while LeAnn Rimes is afforded more room to showcase the power in her vocals as she stretches the melody: “How do I LIVE without you? I WANT to KNOW-OH-OH, how do I BREATHE without you? If you ever GO-OH-OH, how do I EVER, ever sur-VI-I-I-IVE”. Sensibly, the song never fully submits to a histrionic finale and reigns itself back in for the outro, where LeAnn Rimes is again able to show the versatility and range she possesses in a remarkably controlled way. None of this would have been a revelation to her American fanbase, but in territories where How Did I Live acted as a debut single, it simultaneously demonstrates what she was capable of while also piquing curiosity for what might come next.
The accompanying music video similarly gives off the sense of having been associated with a movie at some point. This is what the ‘90s were all about as LeAnn Rimes stands atop a building – the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville – with intense, ethereal spotlighting upon her, while the surroundings are bathed in stunning shades of blue. She looks every bit the superstar, and the entire sequence would lend itself perfectly to clips of Con Air being inserted. Indeed, even without them, How Do I Live still has a cinematic quality. There is a lot to be said for a video that inherently understands the appeal of a song and its singer. The visuals don’t try to do anything more than capture both in a way that ties them neatly together and remains immediately recognisable. Which was perhaps inevitable given what happened next.
The back-story of How Do I Live could so easily have ended up overshadowing the song itself. But in the end, it remained a talking point for all the right reasons, thanks to the record-breaking success LeAnn Rimes experienced. For avid watchers of chart runs, few singles are as intensely compelling as this one. In the UK, How Do I Live debuted and peaked at #7 before following a usual downward trajectory. Then, as airplay and exposure started to pick up, the track returned to the top ten on two separate occasions, for seven weeks in total. There was never that defining point where its popularity exploded, which is a fair reflection on the type of song How Do I Live is. Instead, it was a slow burn hit that spent 18 weeks hovering around the top 20. In the age of streaming, that’s not so unusual anymore; but back in 1998, this wasn’t just a rare feat: it was unheard of. Singles just did not spend 30 weeks in the top 40 (most would be lucky to make it to double figures), and certainly not one that had peaked at #7. How Do I Live eventually totalled 710,000 copies to end up the sixth biggest selling hit of 1998.
That longevity wasn’t just confined to the UK, either. In America, the single showed even more staying power. With both versions releasing the same week, LeAnn Rimes debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 at #89, a fraction ahead of Trisha Yearwood at #91. However, the decision to focus on pop radio paid off, and LeAnn Rimes quickly jumped ahead, eventually peaking at #2 and spending no less than 32(!) weeks in the top ten. The track shattered records as How Do I Live because the longest-running song ever on the Billboard Hot 100. It remained on the chart for over a year (69 weeks), finishing as the ninth biggest single of 1997 and the sixth biggest single of 1998. Although several tracks have now surpassed LeAnn Rimes, she is still very much up there as an all-time success.
Meanwhile, Trisha Yearwood peaked at #23, which is still mighty impressive given the close resemblance of the two songs. However, her label opted for a different tactic and used the momentum of How Do I Live to galvanise album sales instead. Once initial pressings of the CD single were sold out, it was only physically available on the Songbook (A Collection Of Hits) compilation, which became Trisha Yearwood’s first top-five album.
With LeAnn Rimes and Trisha Yearwood having both enjoyed success – in different ways – with How Do I Live, that could have been the end of it. But there was a further twist, as both versions were nominated for Best Country Recording at the 1998 Grammy Awards. The drama behind the song was clearly not lost on the show organisers. In a transparent move, they scheduled LeAnn Rimes to perform immediately before the award was presented, only to announce Trisha Yearwood had won. The sheer audacity of the whole thing would be laughable were it not for the fact that neither of them wanted to be in this situation, and ultimately both had been left to deal with the fallout of a decision that stemmed from record label politics. LeAnn Rimes and Trisha Yearwood have always maintained that this was never a personal feud or rivalry. Unsurprisingly, however, there remains some tension about it having happened at all.
Nonetheless, there were many silver linings to be found here, both critically and commercially. How Do I Live further established LeAnn Rimes as a formidable star, now on a global scale. And she did, eventually, get her actual movie soundtrack moment a few years later when she once again joined forces with Diane Warren to record Can’t Fight The Moonlight.