Best Original Song has always been a curious little Oscar category. On balance, of all the elements that go into making a movie — writing, acting, sets, costumes, effects — the addition of a song seems to be, on paper, the least essential. And to specify that it be an original song, written specifically for the film, thus denigrating the time-honored contributions of perfectly selected, preexisting needle drops … it’s all so peculiar. And yet, with the exception of the acting categories, no single corner of the Oscar ballot has historically been more essential for putting on the production of the Oscars telecast. It’s the only element of a movie that can be replicated in full onstage, and the writers and performers of those songs are the only non-actors who have a prayer of keeping that all-important TV audience glued to their screens. Lady Gaga, Elton John, and Pharrell are far more likely to draw a crowd than the sound effects editors.
But as anyone who’s followed the Oscars through the years will tell you, the category has been slipping over the last several decades. While the 1980s saw a nonstop run of hit songs by artists like Lionel Richie, Irene Cara, and Cher parade their way through the category, followed by the new Disney golden age delivering signature song after signature song, the category took a nosedive in the 2000s, with a handful of good, worthy, memorable songs (“Lose Yourself,” “Falling Slowly,” “Skyfall”) dotting a landscape of forgettable filler. Apologies to the die-hard partisans of U2’s “The Hands That Built America” from Gangs of New York or “Learn to Be Lonely” from The Phantom of the Opera.
The last decade alone has seen multiple years that could have reasonably been considered the category’s nadir: the 2011 category where only two songs were nominated and one of them was a song called “Real in Rio” from a movie called Rio; the 2013 category where a thoroughly unknown movie called Alone Yet Not Alone got its title song nominated and then revoked for improper campaigning; the 2015 category where Sam Smith’s unlistenable “Writing’s on the Wall” from Spectre was declared the best of the year. But there’s a very real chance that the pandemic-hobbled roster of films from 2020 may end up producing the most bizarre, anonymous, puzzling Best Original Song lineup … ever? I’m not sure we’re ready, but we should get ready.
As with many of the Oscar categories, the Original Song lineup got whittled down to a handful of finalists a month ago. Now, 15 songs will compete to see who gets nominated.
“Turntables” from All In: The Fight for Democracy
“See What You’ve Done” from Belly of the Beast
“Wuhan Flu” from Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
“Husavik” from Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
“Never Break” from Giving Voice
“Make It Work” from Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey
“Fight For You” from Judas and the Black Messiah
“lo Sì (Seen)” from The Life Ahead
“Rain Song” from Minari
“Show Me Your Soul” from Mr. SOUL!
“Loyal Brave True” from Mulan
“Free” from The One and Only Ivan
“Speak Now” from One Night in Miami
“Green” from Sound of Metal
“Hear My Voice” from The Trial of the Chicago 7
If you haven’t heard of half of these movies and pretty much all of these songs, you’re not alone. It’s going to be incredibly hard to field a set of nominees from these finalists that stand out as impactful music moments from the year in film. Part of that is due to the simple fact that we don’t employ music in movies the same way that we used to. The era of blockbuster movie soundtracks is over, and with some very notable exceptions like “Let It Go” from Frozen and “Shallow” from A Star Is Born, the movies don’t produce hit songs anymore. These days, you’re far more likely to watch a movie execute an indelible moment with a previously produced song — the way Promising Young Woman did with the Britney Spears classic “Toxic” — than with something original. The exceptions to this rule are musicals, of course, but for every original musical like La La Land and A Star Is Born that captures Oscar’s fancy, you’re far more likely to be dealing with a big-screen adaptation of a stage musical, in which case the film will add a new original song that will qualify for Oscar — and that way lies pain, madness, and “Suddenly” from Les Misérables.
The Oscar voters who determine the short lists aren’t doing themselves any favors either when they omit possibly popular nominees like Taylor Swift’s “Only the Young,” just the latest in what is becoming a long history of Oscar giving the cold shoulder to Taylor. We also lost out on a possible nomination for recent Golden Globe champion Andra Day, who, along with Raphael Saadiq, could’ve been nominated for “Tigress & Tweed” from The United States vs. Billie Holiday. And somehow we all lost out on the opportunity to have the absurd Emily Blunt–Jamie Dornan romance Wild Mountain Thyme end up as an Oscar nominee for a Sinead O’Connor song. Help us help you, Best Original Song!
What this year’s 15 Original Song finalists do represent is a kind of cross-section of what the category has become in recent years. Taylor Swift snubbage aside, the category is still friendly to prestige artists. John Legend is probably going to score a nomination for one of his two short-listed songs, from the Netflix films Giving Voice and Jingle Jangle. The expected success of Judas and the Black Messiah in the other categories on the Oscar ballot will likely extend to the H.E.R. song “Fight for You.” Leslie Odom Jr.’s probable Best Supporting Actor nomination for One Night in Miami could be augmented by a nomination for “Speak Now,” similar to how Mary J. Blige scored acting and songwriting nominations for Mudbound a few years ago.
Another strangely popular option for Oscar voters in the Song category lately has been in documentaries. Since 2012, six docs have scored Best Original Song nominations, and this year that genre is well represented, with Janelle Monáe’s song from All In: The Fight for Democracy, Mary J. Blige’s song from Belly of the Beast, John Legend for Giving Voice, or “Show Me Your Soul” from Mr. SOUL!
Somehow, the sentimental favorites in this category — and really the only possibilities for genuine intrigue come Oscar night — have come from the power ballads. Maybe that’d be some kind of cosmic nod to the category’s 1980s glory days, when chart-topping power ballads like Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” and Carly Simon’s “Let the River Run” ruled the day. Diane Warren, who has written dozens of songs for movies, to the tune of 11 Oscar nominations, has two finalists on the short list: “Io sì (Seen)” from the Sophia Loren–starring The Life Ahead, for which she won the Golden Globe on Sunday, or “Free” from The One and Only Ivan. A win would end one of the longest Oscar droughts on record, even if the song she’d end up winning for wouldn’t be a patch on past nominees of hers like “Because You Loved Me” or “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.”
And then there’s Eurovision. While that movie’s true banger, “Ja Ja Ding Dong,” was cruelly cut from the short list, the surprisingly emotional “Husavik” has become an odd rallying point for anyone who enjoyed the Netflix film, and, naturally, the nation of Iceland, which produced awards season’s best piece of campaigning to date in support of its hometown hopeful.
Cheesy? Perhaps. But a win for “Husavik” would at least be a win for an original song that makes an indelible mark on the film it’s serving. It seemed like a long shot at best when Eurovision premiered in June, but right now, it might be the Academy’s only hope for a Best Original Song winner we’ll remember when this strange pandemic Oscars is behind us.