There are few things the Oscars love more than a narrative, and the Best Original Song category was shaping up with a beautiful one. Pop superstars Beyoncé and Taylor Swift were each representing songs from feline-focused musicals, and were expected to duke it out at the top of the category, fending off challenges from the likes of Frozen II and Cynthia Erivo and, believe it or not, Mary Steenburgen. But when the Academy released their shortlists in nine Oscar categories on Monday, Swift’s “Beautiful Ghosts” from Cats was, like Macavity, not there. RIP to the Tay-vs.-Bey Stan Wars Oscars.
We can debate until the cats come home about why “Beautiful Ghosts” was snubbed. (Is it a good song? No! But plenty of not-good songs have gone on to Oscar nominations, to say nothing of making a 15-song shortlist.) What’s clear is that it leaves the Best Original Song category with a distinct lack of star power. After Beyoncé’s “Spirit,” from The Lion King, there’s a pair of Elton John songs (one from The Lion King, one from Rocketman); a Pharrell Williams song from a Netflix documentary called The Black Godfather; Radiohead’s Thom Yorke with a song from the critically drubbed Edward Norton movie Motherless Brooklyn; and, of course, “Into the Unknown,” Frozen II’s would-be heir apparent to “Let It Go.” Any one of these would make for fine Best Song fodder if they had in any way crossed over into the public consciousness, but they haven’t. Even the Beyoncé song is an uncharacteristically slight and unmemorable ballad, the best thing about which you could say was that its energy appropriately matched the slight and unmemorable Lion King.
To look at the full Original Song shortlist is to peruse a whole bunch of songs, and even movies, you barely knew existed:
“Letter to My Godfather,” The Black Godfather
“I’m Standing With You,” Breakthrough
“Da Bronx,” The Bronx USA
“Into the Unknown,” Frozen II
“Stand Up,” Harriet
“Catchy Song,” The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part
“Never Too Late,” The Lion King
“Spirit,” The Lion King
“Daily Battles,” Motherless Brooklyn
“A Glass of Soju,” Parasite
“(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again,” Rocketman
“High Above The Water,” Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am
“I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away,” Toy Story 4
“Glasgow,” Wild Rose
The near-guarantee of an underwhelming Best Original Song category this year is an even bigger bummer because the category had really turned things around in recent years. While still a far cry from the halcyon days of the 1980s, when pretty much every nominee in the category was also a bona fide hit song, or even the ’90s, when Disney’s animation renaissance led to a string of some of the best-remembered songs in the Disney catalogue going home with Oscars, the category had largely recovered from the dark days of the aughts, which culminated in the nadir of the 2011 Oscars, when only two songs were even nominated, one of which was called “Real in Rio,” from a movie called Rio, and I straight-up dare you to remember either one. But thanks to a string of strong winners like “Skyfall,” “Let It Go,” “Glory,” and “Shallow” — songs that were dynamic and memorable, and in many cases legit pop hits — the category had righted its ship. (The less said about the class of 2015, when Sam Smith’s wan “Writing on the Wall” limped to victory, the better.)
So what are our best chances for a halfway interesting Best Original Song category for 2019? Allow for some quick handicapping:
The Star: “Spirit” from The Lion King. Underwhelming song or not, Beyoncé is still Beyoncé, and right now anyone involved with the Oscar telecast is praying she gets nominated so there will be some kind of star power on that stage come Oscar night.
The Credibility: “Daily Battles” from Motherless Brooklyn. Sure, nobody seemed to like Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn. But plenty of people both like and respect Thom Yorke, and with his and fellow Radiohead bandmate Jonny Greenwood’s contributions to cinema becoming more standard and less like bored rock stars having a lark, the better his chances of breaking through with his first nomination. It probably won’t come for this instrumental jazz noodling with Flea and Wynton Marsalis, though.
The Personal Narrative: “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” from Rocketman. It wouldn’t seem right to have a well-received Elton John biopic that’s getting buzz for its star, Taron Egerton, and not have Sir Elton in the mix for Best Original Song, would it? After Queen opened the ceremony last year, an Elton John moment at this year’s awards wouldn’t sound all that unlikely.
The Recent Trends:
“Letter to My Godfather” from The Black Godfather: Pharrell Williams is a recent nominee (a little song called “Happy” from Despicable Me 2), plus a documentary film has been nominated in this category in five of the last seven years.
“I’m Standing With You” from Breakthrough: Diane Warren is a ten-time nominee in this category, including four of the last five years. Don’t be at all surprised if she’s nominated for writing the song Chrissy Metz (This Is Us) sings in this power-of-prayer Christian drama.
“Stand Up,” from Harriet: After Golden Globe and SAG citations, Cynthia Erivo stands a good shot at being nominated in Best Actress for playing Harriet Tubman, and for co-writing “Stand Up,” she stands a decent shot at being double nominated, making it the third year in a row that someone has pulled off dual songwriting and acting nominations (after Mary J. Blige in Mudbound and Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born).
“I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away” from Toy Story 4: Randy Newman stays winning Oscars for Pixar movies (he previously won for Monsters, Inc. and Toy Story 3).
The Wild Card: “A Glass of Soju” from Parasite. All the talk on Monday was about how apparently Parasite has an Original Song contender. Who knew?! Which makes “A Glass of Soju” the only song on the shortlist from a movie that stands a realistic shot at a Best Picture nomination. Historically, a song doesn’t need Best Picture crossover to be a winner in this category, but it can’t exactly hurt that there will be a lot of enthusiasm for Parasite, and perhaps some Oscar voters looking to vote for it in as many categories as they can.
The Sentimental Favorite: “Glasgow” from Wild Rose. While the movie itself is a modest, under-the-radar film about a young Scottish woman looking to rebound from some bad choices and make it as a crossover country star, it’s in its rousing number, “Glasgow,” that it all comes together. But the real hook lies in co-writer Mary Steenburgen, who wrote the song while under the strange aftereffects of general anesthesia. This is the song that has inspired the most genuine enthusiasm over the last few weeks of precursor awards. There’s a very real chance it picks up some steam — à la “Falling Slowly” from Once — and carries Ms. Steenburgen off to her second career Oscar win.