Assuming things go the way most Oscar observers are expecting, “Shallow,” the Lady Gaga–Bradley Cooper off-the-deep-end duet from A Star Is Born, will win this year’s Academy Award for Best Original song. If and when that happens, it will mark only the fourth time in this young century that a bona fide hit song has received that gold statuette.
Actually, if the nominee widely seen as the stiffest competition “Shallow” faces, “All the Stars,” co-recorded and co-written by Kendrick Lamar for the Black Panther soundtrack, wins instead, it would achieve the same distinction. “All the Stars” peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 and the Black Panther soundtrack spent three nonconsecutive weeks as the No. 1 album in America, while “Shallow” peaked at No. 5, and A Star Is Born held onto the No. 1 album slot for three straight weeks last fall. Both of these songs qualify as mainstream hits. The last time a best song met similar criteria was in 2014, when the smash“Let It Go” from Frozen iced out (sorry) all the other original song contenders. On just two other occasions since the nonexistent Y2K crisis has a top ten pop song walked away with the original song Oscar: in 2013, when Adele’s James Bond theme “Skyfall” did it, and all the way back in 2003, when Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” did.
It wasn’t always like this. In the 1980s and 1990s, the original song category was flush with inescapable radio and MTV staples. Even if you hadn’t seen all the movies that were nominated in a given year during those two decades, there was a good chance you recognized at least a couple of the song contenders, and sometimes more. But starting in the early 2000s, things started to change. This is a look at how and why that happened, and why 2018–2019 could, maybe, mark a turning point.
In the 1970s, some chart-toppers certainly triumphed in the best song category, including the theme from Shaft and “Evergreen,” the (ahem) love theme from the 1976 version of A Star Is Born. But the tracks that stacked the most significant soundtrack of the decade — Saturday Night Fever, which remains one of the best-selling soundtracks ever — were completely overlooked in the original song race. It’s tempting to say that members of the Academy were just being snobs about disco, except that the following year, they gave the Best Original Song prize to Donna Summer’s “Last Dance” from Thank God It’s Friday, a movie about … a disco.
Even though the Bee Gees didn’t get their Oscar moment in the sun, the commercial success of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, followed closely by the juggernaut that was Grease, spoke loudly to what a pop-music-filled soundtrack could do to market a film and how much additional cash it could generate for the music industry, thanks in large part to young people who wanted to hear those familiar tunes over and over. This is why, in the 1980s, the pop-music movie soundtrack really began to flourish, a fact reflected in the winners and many of the nominees for Best Original Song.
From 1981 to 1987, starting with “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)” through the also parenthetically titled “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” every single Best Original Song winner was a No. 1 hit that had risen to the top of the pop charts before receiving an Oscar. (Irene Cara’s “Fame,” the 1980 victor, never quite got to No. 1; it reached its peak on the Billboard singles chart at No. 4.) Many of the other nominees from that decade — “9 to 5,” “Endless Love,” “Eye of the Tiger,” and “The Power of Love,” among others — were equally ubiquitous on radio and in the air in general.
The ’80s selections certainly didn’t reflect even the milder side of the decade’s cutting edge. But the nominated songs suggested, at least on some level, what mainstream pop sounded like at the time.
You could certainly hear that in 1985, the apex of the American Top 40 era in Oscar songdom and a year when every single nominated song from the previous year — “Against All Odds” from the film of the same name, “Footloose” and “Let’s Hear It For the Boy” from Footloose, “I Just Called to Say I Love You” from The Woman in Red, and “Ghostbusters” from, you know, that movie about busting ghosts — spent multiple weeks at the top of the charts. You can quibble over the quality of these songs. I certainly quibble over the fact that there isn’t a single track in the mix from Purple Rain, which won in the since-discontinued Best Original Song Score category. But you can’t deny how culturally omnipresent these tunes were. You didn’t have to go hunt down these songs to figure out what they were. These songs found you, whether you liked them or not.
That trend continued to a lesser extent during the Oscars of the 1990s, an era dominated by beloved Disney pop themes; a full half of the decade’s winners fell under that umbrella. But some pretty famous songs by prominent talents won too, including “You Must Love Me,” performed by Madonna for Evita, “Streets of Philadelphia” by Bruce Springsteen, and a real monster, “My Heart Will Go On,” the love ballad from Titanic belted out by Celine Dion. Plenty of other well-known releases — “Everything I Do (I Do It for You)” and “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?” by Bryan Adams, the Trisha Yearwood version of “How Do I Live” from Con-Air, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” by Aerosmith — were nominated during those years, too. While it wasn’t eligible for an Academy Award because it wasn’t originally written for the film, “I Will Always Love You” — perhaps the most successful movie song ever recorded, and certainly the biggest smash on what remains the top-selling soundtrack of all time, The Bodyguard — also came out during this period.
Then, in the 2000s, something shifted. While songs recorded or written by famous artists still received some nominations, it was increasingly rare to see a Best Original Song contender that had burrowed its way into the collective American earhole the same way that “My Heart Will Go On” or “Flashdance … What a Feeling” did. Often, even movie buffs struggled to remember the sounds of the melodies honored in the Best Original Song category. Seriously: If you can hit even one note of “Loin de Paname” from the movie Paris 36, a nominee at the 82nd Academy Awards, I will jump off the deep end and you can watch as I dive in.
Like most things in life, this trend can be blamed on one factor: the internet. Well, sort of. During the first decade of the 21st century, as music lovers turned to digital services to cherry-pick songs they wanted to hear instead of buying them in hard copy form, CD sales plummeted across the board. That meant fewer people were avidly consuming soundtracks in the same way they once did.
Soundtracks didn’t go away. They were still being released and artists were still writing and performing songs specifically for movies. But what the New York Times had referred to in 1995 as a soundtrack boom was no longer making as much noise. A scan of the pop single and album charts of the time reflect that. After hitting a peak in 1997, when 11 film soundtracks made it onto the list of the top 100 highest-selling albums of the year, the number of soundtracks landing in the top 20 in the 2000s dropped to low single digits. The same phenomenon played out on the Billboard singles chart. After two decades in which at least one or two movie selections appeared in the top 20 songs of each year, the 2000s rarely had a film-related hit land in the highest section of its year-end countdown. Based on my research, during most years, there were zero movie singles in the top 20.
In 2011 and 2012, things hit a low point. There were no soundtracks in the top 50 albums of the year, no movie-related singles in the top 20 songs of the year, and at the 84th Academy Awards — held in 2012 to honor the film achievements of 2011 — Oscar voters could only bring themselves to nominate two original songs: “Real in Rio” from the movie Rio, a Sérgio Mendes song I cannot recall even though I saw Rio twice, and “Man or Muppet” from The Muppets. Neither song was performed during the ceremony. That’s right: The Oscar producers, faced with the opportunity to stage a wowzer of a live musical number with actual Muppets, said, “Nah. We’ll pass.” Without saying it outright, the producers made it clear that they assumed the viewing audience wasn’t interested enough in the original songs to listen to them on live television.
Essentially, there were two things going on: As previously noted, soundtracks and movie songs had fallen a bit out of fashion. But also, to get back to blaming this on the internet, the way we consumed popular culture had become increasingly fractured because of the choices the digital revolution presented. Part of the reason we stopped recognizing a lot of the Best Original Song nominees was because they were not popular, in the traditional sense. But they were not popular, in the traditional sense, because it was and is rare for anything to be popular the way it once was. The idea of everyone sharing the same cultural touchstones at the same time was beginning to fade in the 2000s. Now it’s an accepted fact of life. It’s one of the reasons why viewership of the Oscars ceremony has dipped, and why many average Americans are unfamiliar with many of the Best Picture nominees each year: We’re all ingesting different sources of entertainment on entirely different schedules. I would argue that the Best Original Song category has reflected that broader societal trend.
Which is why it’s so remarkable that 2018 was such an incredible year for the soundtrack, as Forbes put it. By year’s end, three soundtracks — The Greatest Showman, Black Panther, and A Star Is Born had done it, too. The last time three soundtracks each spent multiple weeks atop the album chart in the same year was in 1998, when Titanic, City of Angels, and Armageddon: The Album, pulled off that hat trick. That doesn’t even take into account the success of Bohemian Rhapsody, whose soundtrack also sold quite well and made “Bohemian Rhapsody” a pop hit for the third time. (The first was in the 1970s, and the second was in the ’90s, when Wayne’s World resurrected it.)
Unless there’s a wild, surprise upset, the winner of the Best Original Song will most likely speak to this movie music resurgence. The question is whether that win will mark another blip in the otherwise flatlining category, the way “Let It Go” did a few years ago, or the beginning of a trend that will make this element of the Oscars look a little more like it did in the ’80s and ’90s.
Truthfully, it could be a blip. Putting The Greatest Showman aside for a moment since it technically came out in 2017 and competed for an Oscar last year, the music from the other soundtracks share dynamic, established artists — Lady Gaga, Kendrick Lamar, Freddie Mercury? Yeah, that’s a hell of a supergroup — performing solidly written songs for movies that obviously struck a chord with a wide audience. These are all blockbuster songs that are well suited to the blockbuster movies they represent. It’s not easy to pull off that kind of alchemy every year.
On the other hand, looking ahead at the some of the movies coming out in 2019 — including remakes of Aladdin and The Lion King; films about Judy Garland and Elton John; and Frozen 2 — there seems to be a good chance that next year’s nominees will once again be largely familiar to most people. And if the triumphs of this year’s soundtracks result in other movies trying to duplicate those successes, copying being the thing Hollywood is best at, who knows? Maybe the Original Song category can be made great, or at least a little more recognizable, again.