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.

Posted in Entertainment, Movies | 1 Comment

All Politicians Are Hypocrites

Yesterday, Republicans in the Senate used the ludicrous filibuster rule to successfully block and up-or-down vote on the nomination of Goodwin Liu to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. His qualifications were not in dispute. As noted in NPR’s coverage:

“He was given a top rating of unanimously well-qualified by the American Bar Association. He was a Rhodes Scholar and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He received numerous awards for academic and legal achievements.”

Rather, the Republicans cited two main objections. The lesser one was that he was too “liberal” The more critical objection was that he had “criticized” (Republicans would use the word “insulted”) the records of John Roberts and Samuel Alito, when they were nominees for the Supreme Court.

This was political payback, pure and simple. Even if everything the Republicans claimed was 100% true, there would still be no basis for rejecting Liu’s nomination, let alone preventing it from even coming to a vote. Offering a documented critique, however harsh, of a judicial nominee should not be grounds for rejection. Republican’s real concern was that, if Liu made it to the Appeals Court, he might well someday become the first Asian-American to ascend to the Supreme Court.

My larger point today, however, is the hypocrisy of it all.

As pointed out in a San Francisco Chronicle editorial, it was these very same Republicans (including John McCain and Lindsey Graham) who had argued, back when the Republicans had control of the Senate, that it was downright unconstitutional for senators to deprive a judicial nominee of an up-or-down vote — except in the most “extraordinary circumstances.”

But let’s be clear. The Democrats are not on the side of virtue here. They can be just as hypocritical. Back in 1987, as one example, Democrats prevented Robert Bork’s Supreme Court nomination from coming up for a vote, citing his “conservative writings” as their justification. At least among conservatives, Bork’s name has become a verb, used to describe any unfair attack on a person’s reputation and views (as in: “He was borked.”)

The underlying theme is this: Whatever view a politician vigorously supports when their party is in control of the legislature (or the presidency or whatever) they will just as vigorously oppose when they don’t have such control. Partisanship trumps rationality and consistency every time. It’s a point I’ve commented on before. But it bears repeating.

You can see examples of this almost every day. For example, I recently read about Republicans criticizing President Obama for making too much of a show of his success in getting Osama bin Laden. Can you imagine these same conservatives criticizing George W. Bush, if Bush had managed to accomplish what Obama did and had behaved in a similar (or even more extreme) manner? Of course not.

Politicians live and breathe hypocrisy. Trying to find one that does not reverse his/her beliefs whenever the political shoe shifts to the other foot would be like trying to find the proverbial needle in a haystack — except that the haystack is the size of the universe and the needle is smaller than an atomic particle.

The truly sad part is that the public generally accepts all this as “business as usual.” No matter how many times people like John Stewart point out these hypocrisies, almost no one ever gets held accountable. We laugh (or not) and we move on.

If there’s a difference between political parties here, it’s only that Republicans are better at accomplishing their hypocritical goals. If this were an Olympic sport, Republicans would win the gold medal while Democrats would have trouble even making the final group. But they’d both be trying just as hard.

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Drop NPR Federal Funding

I’m in favor National Public Radio (NPR) losing its federal funding.

It’s not for the reasons you may think. I am not a tea-party conservative railing against NPR’s supposed liberal tilt. To the contrary, I am solidly planted on the left side of the fence. Still, when all is said and done, I believe NPR will be better off if it frees itself from the shackles of its federal support.

NPR states that “While NPR does not receive any direct federal funding, it does receive a small number of competitive grants from CPB and federal agencies like the Department of Education and the Department of Commerce. This funding amounts to approximately 2% of NPR’s overall revenues.”

According to other information on NPR’s website, NPR’s total revenue for 2010 was around $180,000,000. Two percent of this amounts $3.6 million. This is nothing to sneeze at. But there’s a cost to accepting this money, a cost that I believe is untenable in the current political climate.

The cost is that it pressures NPR into potentially ill-advised decisions in an attempt to appear politically neutral. In the end, this attempt too often works against the very goal it seeks. They wind up distorting news coverage rather than maintaining a balance.

Attempting to appease the right is a lose-lose battle in any case. No matter what NPR does (short of putting Glenn Beck in charge of programming), conservatives will maintain their belief that NPR favors progressives. Meanwhile, progressives are nearly equally disgruntled that NPR isn’t as liberal as its critics complain. “If only it were so,” they lament.

The problem is that “balanced” coverage does not equate to always giving both sides of a debate equal time and consideration. Rather, it means that you do your best not to let personal biases influence what you cover and how you cover it.

If one side of debate consistently presents false arguments while the other stays closer to the truth, the media should make this clear. You aren’t being “fair” to your listeners by giving both sides equal time (such as by interviewing both a Republican and a Democratic senator) with little or no challenge to what they are saying. In other words, when someone makes a claim that Barack Obama is not really a U.S. citizen, assuming you decide to cover this lunacy at all, you don’t just say “Thank you, and now for an opposing view…” You challenge the lunacy. You offer a critical assessment, based on the facts.

To be clear, I like NPR. It is the only radio or TV news media that I consistently listen to. And they do often follow exactly what I recommend. But not as much as I believe they should. Or would, if they were not worried about public perception, political fallout, accusations of bias and potential loss of federal funding.

Of course, to be fair, I believe you should do this for both sides of the political spectrum. However, there is reason to believe that this will cast conservatives in a negative light more often than progressives. As pointed out in a Mother Jones article:

“It all raises the question: Do left and right differ in any meaningful way when it comes to biases in processing information, or are we all equally susceptible? There are some clear differences. Science denial today is considerably more prominent on the political right—once you survey climate and related environmental issues, anti-evolutionism, attacks on reproductive health science by the Christian right, and stem-cell and biomedical matters. More tellingly, anti-vaccine positions are virtually nonexistent among Democratic officeholders today—whereas anti-climate-science views are becoming monolithic among Republican elected officials.”

If this means that a media outlet will be critical of Republicans more often than Democrats, so be it. This is not being biased. It’s being honest.

Actually, as I’ve already indicated, even if NPR offered such critical analyses equally for Republicans and Democrats, it would still be accused of bias by conservatives. That’s because conservatives apparently view even the slightest challenge, however reasonable, as an attack on their entire political viewpoint. A crystal clear example of this came up in a recent segement of NPR’s On the Media that asked “Does NPR have a liberal bias?

During the show, an interview of Intel CEO Paul Ortellini by NPR’s Michele Norris was raised by a conservative spokesperson. In the interview, Otellini proposed a tax holiday for any company that built a new factory in the U.S. Norris replied, “Can this country afford that right now?” This was taken as proof (as also cited in other conservative media, such as a article) of NPR’s “liberal bias.”

Say what? Ms. Norris was simply asking a question that anyone who potentially had the slightest disagreement with the CEO’s proposal would have asked. This is what journalists do. It’s called doing their job. Mr. Ortellini was given an opportunity to respond — fully and with respect. What’s wrong with that? [As an aside, how many times has Bill O’Reilly interrupted, cut off, yelled out and insulted someone on his show whom he disagreed with? If you’re looking for bias, why not start there?] The presumption is that Ms. Norris would have asked a similar question if she later interviewed someone who claimed the solution to our economic problems was to radically raise taxes on all U.S. corporations. Her response would likely be along the lines of: “Can the country afford that right now? Might it not lead to more corporations leaving the U.S. to go overseas?” This would not represent a conservative bias — just as the question asked to Mr. Ortellini did not represent a liberal bias.

I can only assume that people weaned on Fox News have come to believe that the only way for a media outlet to appear “balanced” is to never challenge positions conservatives support while always attacking the ones they oppose. Although not as extreme, MSNBC viewers can be guilty of the same transgressions for liberal positions. Maybe in cable news’ universe, that’s how things work. But that’s not a yardstick worth picking up. In such an Orwellian universe, fairness becomes evidence of bias.

Ira Glass made some of these same points in his defense of NPR. But the question remains, what should NPR do beyond making a spirited defense? If the choice ever comes down to sacrificing sound principles of journalism in order to maintain federal funding, then it’s time to abandon federal funding. Perhaps we’re not quite at this point yet. By why push it? Unless NPR could not survive without the federal funding, it is time to seriously consider whether it’s worth keeping. I vote no.

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The iPad Pro

Question: Does the iPad 2 need better specs to better compete with the other tablets on the market?

Answer: First off, this is a trick question. Most of the promised iPad competitors aren’t on the market as yet. There are the Android-based Motorola Xoom and Galaxy Tab (neither of which have really reached the end of their gestation periods as yet). And that’s about it. We’re still waiting for the tablets from HP and RIM and presumably others.

Even so, I expect the answer to be “No.” Apple has argued (successfully in my view) that what matters most is not who has the fastest processor or greatest amount of RAM or largest higher-definition screen. What really matters is which platform delivers the better overall experience. That’s why, as pointed out in a PCMag article, Apple doesn’t even list the megapixel size of the iPad’s cameras — or tell you how much RAM is installed.

If the iPad’s screen resolution is good enough to be stunning, if its speed is adequate for all that you do — a small deficit of specs won’t affect purchase decisions by today’s consumers. Plus, there is all that the iPad can do that its competitors can’t…starting with working as an iPod for your music and continuing with the unmatched collection of apps in the App Store.

Add to to all of this the fact that “he who gets to dominate the market first typically stays first” — even when late-coming competitors offer marginally better products. According to some reports, Apple had as much as 100% of the tablet market in 2010 and can be expected to hold on to most of that share in 2011. Unless a competitor comes up with a “game-changing” device, don’t expect any of them to successfully challenge the iPad. I know some people will point out that Android has taken a lead in market share in the smartphone arena. But this is different. There are no two-year phone contracts with tablets and they are not linked to a specific carrier. In fact, I suspect the majority of iPad buyers don’t even get a 3G model. Android devices will have a much tougher time gaining share here.

Finally, as I argued in a User Friendly View column (and as echoed by a New York Times analysis), a key — perhaps the key — factor that gives the iPad 2 an unbeatable edge is its lower price. When you can get the caché of Apple (who usually extracts a premium for its products) and spend less money than on a competing device, why consider anything else?

Yes, I’d like to see the iPad 2 have better cameras (the ones included now really suck and are not at all what I expect from Apple). And sure, Apple could throw in a bit more RAM. Oh, and how about a Retina Display? But are the lack of these features going to get me to consider buying something other than an iPad? No way. And I’m far from alone. Just ask all the people who still can’t get an iPad because demand has far outstripped supply.

The iPad Pro

All of that said, trying to accurately predict the future in the technology universe is ultimately a fool’s errand. The time may yet come when Apple will feel compelled to compete on specs. Assuming that time comes, how might Apple fight a spec war without sacrificing the iPad’s price advantage?

To get the answer, Apple need look no further than its laptops: The MacBook and the MacBook Pro. Why not make a similar distinction for the iPad: The iPad and the iPad Pro?

The iPad 2 (and its successors) would remain the iPad and maintain a starting price no higher than $499. The iPad Pro would offer all the features that might otherwise give the competition some advantage — and sell for about $150 more.

Developers might have a few problems making sure their apps are compatible with both lines of iPads. But I don’t expect this to be a major hassle. Otherwise, it should be smooth sailing.

In one move, Apple can claim to have both the least expensive tablet and the most feature-packed one. Game. Set. Match.

P.S. Some have predicted that an eventual “iPad Pro” will be a combination of the MacBook Air and the iPad. To me, that’s a different animal, separate from what I am considering here.

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