The OTHER Oscars: Best Original Song
The Best Original Song category has had something of a dubious history at the Oscars. First instated at the seventh Academy Awards in 1934, the category has seen some of the best, most memorable pop hits of our age – as well as some of the schmaltziest, most grating ballads imaginable. Looking back over the winners in the category reveals some songs that everyone seems to intrinsically know (like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or “When You Wish Upon a Star”) to completely forgotten pop ditties (who on Earth remembers “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening” from Here Comes the Groom?).
In the early days of the category, any number of songs could be nominated. In 1934, there were only three songs nominated, but in 1944, 14 songs were deemed amongst the greatest of the year. The following year, the Academy has tried to cleave more closely to the "five songs only" rule, although that has been stretched a few times. In 2011, only two songs were nominated.
The Academy has always had a soft spot for sickly sweet love songs as well, and for a period there in the 1990s, it looked like every single winner required to word “heart” in the title to win. Over the years, the Academy has given the Original Song Oscar to all manner of horrible aural atrocities, a steady syrup flow of cavity-inducing sentimentality. “You'll Be in My Heart,” the infamous “My Heart Will Go On,” barf barf “You Light Up My Life,” I still hate “Moon River,” I really, really hate “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?,” I have to be in the right mood to endure “Take My Breath Away” or “I've Had the Time of my Life,” and only especially strong souls can endure the limitless Hellish horrors of “Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head.”
The notion of having an original song in a feature film almost seems moribund in today's realism-driven cinematic paradigm. Back in the 1930s and 1940s, movie musicals were far more common, and the biggest hits of Broadway were frequently adapted to the silver screen. Singing and dancing were deemed more acceptable forms of entertainment, and people like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers could have thriving star power. As such, dozens of musicals would be released every year, each with their own set of original songs, some composed by now-legendary songwriters: Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Gene Autrey, Frank Loesser, Harold Arlen, and even Oscar Hammerstein II all competed for cinematic screentime.
As the years passed, the genre of the movie musical passed out of fashion, except in the world of animated features. As such, Disney's animation studio provided a huge number of memorable songs from their animated feature films. Nine Academy Awards have been given to Disney cartoon films (if you count Mary Poppins and Song of the South in there). These days, live-action musicals are practically unheard of outside of India, and even animated films are writing original songs less and less.
For the record: an original song must – in order to be eligible for an Oscar – appear in the body of the movie itself for a finite amount of time. It cannot be played over the credits of the film.
This year's song nominees are, like in previous years, a collection of largely nondescript love songs and vaguely upbeat pop ditties, with the exception of one notable belter.
“Happy” from Despicable Me 2
Music and lyrics by Pharrell Williams. This song is one of the rare movie songs that has been breaking through one radios with repeated airplay. An odd trend with many recent pop songs, however, precludes “Happy” from sticking around in the consciousness: it's in a minor key. All the upbeat dance numbers are – musically speaking – very downbeat. Perhaps I'm going mad, but it seems to me that many “happy” pop songs feature minor keys and descending cadences. “Happy” also has the disadvantage of being kind of annoying.
“Let It Go” from Frozen
Music and Lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. Most assuredly this year's winner, “Let It Go” is clearly aching for a Broadway stage production, as were all the songs in the stage-ready Frozen. Although the song itself doesn't make a whole lot of sense in the context of the film (it's a song about freedom sung by a character who never stops being cautious), it's just so boldly exciting that it's hard to resist. I have said this before, but I feel this is a song you'll hear at karaoke in the near future, and thousands of teenager girls will use it as their audition piece.
“The Moon Song” from Her
Music by Karen O, Lyrics by Karen O and Spike Jonze. Do you remember this song? I don't. Was it the one Samantha sang to Theodore? Her, for however great it was, has been accused of no small amount of hipster twee-ness, which is especially evident in the ukulele-ready song that few recall with clarity. That this song was nominated was kind of a surprise, so an actual win is probably out of the question.
“Ordinary Love” from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Music by Paul Hewson, Dave Evans, Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton, Lyrics by Paul Hewson. In case you don't recognize the names, those are the members of U2. Paul Hewson is Bono. This is 2013's power ballad to be sure, constructed by the most powerful pop act currently working, as well as one of the most stridently political. It's lovey-dovey and pointedly “important,” this song, tapping into the spirit of a great politician. Sadly, this moderately good song is in service of a pretty average movie.
DISQUALIFIED: “Alone Yet Not Alone” from Alone Yet Not Alone
Music by Bruce Broughton, Lyrics by Dennis Spiegel. This song is an outright hymn about the comforting presence of God, and could make its way into actual church hymnals someday. Few saw Alone Yet Not Alone (including me), but I have listened to the song, and find it to be sincere and sweet. Songwriter Bruce Broughton was once the president of the Academy, and his song was disqualified for dubious campaigning practices. We'll never know what came in sixth.
Slideshow: Eight of the Best “Best Original Song” Winners:
And of course, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" is immortal.
Witney Seibold is the head film critic for Nerdist, and a contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly articles Trolling, and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.