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The Long History of the Oscars’ Struggle With Best Original Song

The category has rarely recognized the best in cinematic songwriting. Why can’t the Academy face the music?

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In each of the past two years, the Oscars telecast has opened with a medley of songs, none of which were eligible for awards. Two years ago, we got to watch celebrities awkwardly dancing in place to “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions,” performed by Queen and Adam Lambert. In 2020, it was an avant-garde number sung by a cardigan-clad Janelle Monáe and combining “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and her 2010 song “Come Alive,” reworked with Oscars-themed lyrics. Starting the show with a banger is smart—it makes the event feel like a party, instead of the corpse-fest it can be at its worst. But it’s worth wondering: Why don’t they open the show with songs that were nominated for Best Original Song? Well, there’s a simple reason for that: Those songs would put an entire viewing public to sleep.

In the world of things the Oscars get wrong, the failures of the Best Original Song category are relatively underdiscussed. But in the past half-century alone, the category has been home to the ceremony’s biggest whiffs and most heartbreaking errors. Just look at the past decade, in which “Glasgow” from Wild Rose, “Drive It Like You Stole It” from Sing Street, and “Please Mr. Kennedy” from Inside Llewyn Davis were all ignored. NONE WERE EVEN NOMINATED. The winners in each of those years—“(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” from Rocketman, “Remember Me” from Coco, and “Glory” from Selma, respectively—represent the full range of quality that can be found in this category. One is very good. The other two are fine. But there were four other spots available each year, and if the Academy’s not going to nominate well-written, beautifully-performed songs in films about musicians, what is this category even for?

It’s definitely not for comedies. Beck couldn’t score a nod for any of the songs he wrote for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. (I’d have gone with “Garbage Truck,” although “Ramona” is more Oscar-friendly.) Nor could songwriter extraordinaire Andrew Wyatt get a nom for his infectious simulacrum of ’80s new wave, “PoP! Goes My Heart,” from Music and Lyrics—although he would later win for cowriting “Shallow.” In a better world, “Inside of You” from Forgetting Sarah Marshall and “Scotty Doesn’t Know” from EuroTrip would have been nominated, although maybe that’s asking too much of the Academy, which has made ignoring broad comedies one of its most hallowed traditions.

But that’s no excuse for ignoring songs like “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, a gorgeous, lilting melody anchored by a pitch-perfect Gene Wilder performance. It’s one of the film’s most memorable scenes, but the Academy didn’t agree. Isaac Hayes’s “Theme From Shaft” won that year’s award—no crime there, but there should have been plenty of room for “Pure Imagination” in a category filled with lesser Marvin Hamlisch and Henry Mancini joints.Mercifully, “That Thing You Do!” did receive a nomination in 1997, but it lost to “You Must Love Me,” an original song written by Andrew Lloyd Webber for Evita. Both that film and that song have been largely forgotten, while “That Thing You Do!” lives forever in the minds of all who have heard it. Composed by the late Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne, it’s an infectious earworm that’s played a zillion times in the film but somehow never becomes unbearable. The movie simply wouldn’t have worked without it.

The horror show goes on: Blondie’s “Call Me,” written for American Gigolo? Not nominated. “Stayin’ Alive” from Saturday Night Fever? Means nothing to the Academy. “New York, New York,” written for Martin Scorsese’s 1977 film of the same name and performed with peak gusto by Liza Minnelli? They must have missed that one. Oh, and no acknowledgements whatsoever for anything from This Is Spinal Tap or Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping.

In the interest of fairness, there have been some instances where the Academy got it right. “Shallow” did win, after all, and so did “Remember Me.” Similarly, Adele’s “Skyfall” was simply too good to be ignored in 2013; Trey Parker and Marc Shaiman also got nominated for “Blame Canada” from South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, stodgy pundits be damned. But none of this excuses the Academy’s failures. Just because The Silence of the Lambs won Best Picture doesn’t mean it’s OK that Green Book did.

The underlying pattern is clear: The Academy consistently overlooks songs that fit meaningfully within a film’s narrative and instead opts for superstar-led tunes that play over the end credits. Only thematically connected to their film, these songs are designed to be performed at the Oscars, not to contribute to the art of storytelling in any significant way. In 2021, the problem is bigger than ever, with four of the five nominees played during the end credits. Leslie Odom Jr. is likely to win for “Speak Now,” which concludes One Night in Miami..., but it’s comically interchangeable with Celeste’s “Hear My Voice” from The Trial of the Chicago 7. “Fight for You,” which H.E.R. recorded for Judas and the Black Messiah, has strong protest-song energy, but it’s hardly rousing, and feels more like a song meant to play in the background. “Io Sì (Seen),” meanwhile, is from The Life Ahead, a film that, ironically, almost no one has seen. Of the five nominees, only one—“Husavik” from Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga—figures into its actual film, even if it’s only the second-most memorable song from that film. (Somehow, we will not hear “JaJa Ding Dong” on Oscar night.)

Of course, the Oscars aren’t fair. In order to make room for these songs, the music branch chose to ignore some of the actual best bops in movies this year, like “Poverty Porn,” the electrifying rap performed by Radha Blank in her debut film The Forty-Year-Old Version. In a film that chronicles the protagonist’s creative frustrations, “Poverty Porn” is its jubilant apex. Also left out of the final five was “Wuhan Flu Song” from Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. You might assume Borat is just too dangerous for the stuffy Academy, but it did manage to score nominations in two major categories: Adapted Screenplay and Supporting Actress. Its absence from a category once won by Three 6 Mafia—the correct, if historically absurd, choice, by the way—is just bizarre. On the subject of eligible comedies, it’s also worth noting the absence of any songs from Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar. “Edgar’s Prayer” was curiously not submitted by the studio, but “Palm Vista Hotel” was right there, you guys.

One way to understand the failures of this category is as a symptom of the broader problems facing the Academy, which always moves too slowly toward change. Music, on the other hand, progresses quickly, and with the Academy’s lifetime membership, it may always be behind the times in this category. Then there are the theories that Academy members vote with the aim of simply getting more pop stars to the ceremony to increase ratings. While it’s true that the honoring of closing-credit songs has gotten the likes of John Legend and Common, Jennifer Hudson, and Sting to the Oscar stage and, maybe more importantly, the after-parties, it strains credulity to think a majority of the voting branch would come to the same calculation and favor the same pop stars. It also doesn’t explain this year’s exclusion of Taylor Swift. Her song “Only the Young,” written for the documentary Miss Americana, was eligible but didn’t even make the short list. A Swift performance at the Oscars would’ve been a coup for an Academy eager to make inroads with young viewers; if there were any conspiratorial calculations going on at all, she would be the biggest no-brainer nominee of them all.

While the cause of the problem remains elusive, there’s an easy way to correct course: Change the way the nominating branch listens to the songs. Currently, members of the music branch receive only three-minute clips of each eligible song to determine the nominations, removing the full context of the film in which the song is played. If a song is over three minutes, they still receive only a three-minute clip—make it make sense, because I cannot. This approach enforces a view that a song’s usage does not matter. That’s not just short-sighted; it’s anti-cinema. It’d be like making the full Academy vote on Best Picture based only on each nominee’s trailer. What if, instead, the Academy required members of the nominating branch to view the whole film featuring the nominated song? It could re-contextualize the entire award and lead to better outcomes.

It could happen. Granted, the Academy has a well-deserved reputation as being resistant to change, and the recent diversification of its membership that resulted in the surprise Best Picture win for Parasite last year—the first Asian film to win the top prize—occurred only after the #OscarsSoWhite campaign drew attention to the ceremony’s race problem. But on the other hand, the Academy made a less-heralded change this year, combining Sound Mixing and Sound Editing into a single category, seemingly without much pressure at all. They did it simply to make the Oscars more accurately reflect the experience of the average viewer, who understandably could never tell the difference between the two former categories. The same logic should be applied to Best Original Song, which has rarely reflected the best version of what music in cinema can offer.

In other words, play “JaJa Ding Dong.”

Noah Gittell is a film critic and journalist based in Connecticut.