The Sad State of the Oscar for Best Song

In our house, the Academy Awards are like the Super Bowl. It’s one of the big events of the year. Typically, we have friends over for an “Oscar party.” For months before the actual how, I scour magazines and websites for information about who is likely to be nominated and who is supposed to win. Then I do my own prognosticating. True, the show itself is often a letdown (the same could be said of the Super Bowl). But I return each year and eagerly await the opening of the envelopes.

Beyond the major awards at the end of the show, one of my favorite categories has always been Best Original Song. Not any more. the decline of this category in recent years is a disgrace.

Less than five?

Where to begin? How about with the nominating process? This year there were only four nominated songs. Why is that? Almost every other category has five nominations. The only categories that have less than five are ones where there seems not to be enough qualified movies (such as Best Visual Effects).

This logic cannot apply to Best Original Song. Not this year anyway. How do I know this? Let’s look at this year’s nominees:

Coming Home (from Country Strong)
I See the Light (from Tangled)
If I Rise (from 127 Hours)
We Belong Together (from Toy Story 3)

The award went to frequent nominee Randy Newman for We Belong Together. Admittedly, this was not a spectacular collection of songs. My point, however, is that if these four songs qualified, surely there must be at least one more of this caliber that could have been included. Randy Newman said as much when he accepted his award: “They only nominate four songs? They nominate five for cinematography. They could find a fifth song somewhere.”

Yes. And, in this particular case, they wouldn’t have had to look very hard. Recently, I saw Burlesque. While not a great movie, it did have some very enjoyable music. Of particular note is You Haven’t Seen The Last Of Me, sung by Cher and written by Dianne Warren. It won the Golden Globe for Best Original Song. Surely, it is good enough to have been the fifth nominated song at the Oscars.

Why was this (or any other potential song) not given the fifth spot? I have never seen an official explanation. I haven’t even read any reasonable speculation. It appears to be a mystery. Whatever the reason, it must be a ridiculous one. There is no good reason for it.

[A sidenote: As its name implies, nominees in the Original Song category must be “original” — meaning that the song must have been written expressly for the movie. That’s why, in Burlesque again, Christina Aguilera’s driving performances of Something’s Got a Hold on Me and Tough Lover could not be considered. These are old Etta James’ standards. It’s also why, years before, Whitney Houston’s mega-hit cover of I Will Always Love You (from The Bodyguard) did not qualify.]

Less than good?

On the other hand…I can see one rationale for having less than five nominated songs as a general rule: the overall low quality of the music in recent years. No offense to Randy Newman (whom I greatly admire) but, compared to nominees from decades ago, there have been almost no songs in the past decade that qualify as memorable or future standards.

Need proof of this? As a comparison, check out nominees and winners for Best Original Song from years past.

First off, let’s look at songs from the period prior to 1961:

White Christmas
I’ve Got You Under My Skin
Pennies from Heaven
They Can’t Take That Away From Me
That Old Black Magic
The Man that Got Away
Three Coins in A Fountain
Love is a Many Splendored Thing
Unchained Melody
Que Sera Sera
All the Way
April Love
High Hopes

See any ones you recognize? Of course you do. And the above list is by no means exhaustive.

Next, let’s move to the period from 1961 to 1990. Familiar nominees include:

Moon River
Town Without Pity
Days of Wine and Roses
Call Me Irresponsible
My Kind of Town
The Shadow of Your Smile
I Will Wait for You
Born Free
Georgy Girl
The Look of Love
Windmills of Your Mind
Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head
Come Saturday Morning
What are you Doing The Rest of Your Life?
The Way We Were
Nobody Does It Better
Hopelessly Devoted to You
Up Where We Belong
I Just Called to Say I Love You
The Power of Love
Take My Breath Away
Somewhere Out There
I’ve Had The Time of My Life
Storybook Love

Whew! Impressed yet? I hope so. Yes, there were clunkers among the nominees (I haven’t listed those here). But, in any given year, there were almost always a few good ones. This is no longer the case.

Starting around 1991, things began to decline. Several songs from Disney and Pixar animated films were top-notch (such as You’ve Got a Friend in Me). Occasional other songs stand out, such as Because You Love Me and My Heart Will Go On (both from the 1990’s). After 2000, however, the pickings became really slim (Emimen’s Lose Yourself being one exception).

The year 2008 was a low point. Only three songs were nominated; two of them came from Slumdog Millionaire. In other words, out of the entire crop of films released that year, only two movies contained songs deemed worthy of a Best Song nomination. As with 2010, there were probably other songs that could have (and perhaps should have) been nominated. But my recollection is that this was indeed a bleak year.

What accounts for this decline? I believe there are two factors:

• Rock music. Starting in the 1950’s and 1960’s, popular music underwent a profound change. Popular music had been dominated by composers from Tin Pan Alley and Broadway. The rock and roll revolution changed all of that. From Sun Records to Motown to the Beatles and onward today’s diverse number of rock genres, it’s now a different world. Hollywood was slow to adapt to this. If you look at the above list of songs from 1961 to 1990, only a few (at the tail end of the list) could even remotely be considered rock music. By the 1990’s, movie songs had largely become irrelevant to the rest of popular music. The quality of songs were in decline because most top artists of the time weren’t writing for movies. The Academy made some effort to appear hip (such as when It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp won in 2005). But it was too little, too late.

• Money. There’s another reason top artists weren’t writing for movies: they weren’t asked to do so. Why? Because it had become too expensive. With the rising costs for making a film, and with original music seen as having little to do with a film’s financial success, producers were no longer interested in paying the escalating fees that musicians were demanding. An informative blog posting provides further insight on this point.

Sad. The end result is that what had once been a highlight of the Academy Awards show — great artists performing great music — is now just ho-hum at best, annoying at worst. I keep hoping that next year will be better. But I’m not optimistic.

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