Idina Menzel sings “Let It Go,” a Best Original Song winner that actually made sense
If someone offered you a million dollars to hum any two of this year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Original Song, could you do it? Sure, you could manage a few bars of “Everything Is Awesome,” which you’ve probably been trying to dislodge from your brain ever since you saw The Lego Movie. The particularly culture-savvy might know John Legend and Common’s Selma anthem “Glory” or Adam Levine’s Begin Again ballad “Lost Stars.” But how about Rita Ora’s song “Grateful” from the little-seen Beyond the Lights or Glen Campbell’s “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” from the documentary Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me?
Ironically, that same two-song challenge would be a piece of cake if you were asked to hum the 1982 nominees, which included “Up Where We Belong” from An Officer and a Gentleman, “Eye of the Tiger” from Rocky III, and “It Might Be You” from Tootsie. Even if you were presented with the 1936 nominees, you could probably summon the tune of “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Pennies from Heaven,” or “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” more easily than the melody of some of this year’s Oscar songs. How did the Best Original Song category get so out of step with popular tastes? Like most Oscar categories, this one is complicated by internal politics. But the experts we spoke to blamed a complex voting and eligibility system that has transformed a category that used to be intuitive (i.e. is a song good?) into one that’s bogged down in bureaucracy.
“They make it so difficult to vote and figure out the voting system,” says composer Marc Shaiman, a Best Original Song nominee for “Blame Canada” from South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut (1999) and “A Wink and a Smile” from Sleepless in Seattle (1993). “I mean, I’ve gone to the meetings myself and said, ‘Can’t you trust that we’re all adults and that we’re all professionals and that we are going to vote with our heart and for all the correct reasons, and just let us write five things on a ballot instead of the mathematics involved?’ It’s crazy!”
Diane Warren, a seven-time Best Original Song nominee (most recently for this year’s “Grateful”), concurs, saying, “There’s always some kind of new rule that you have to kind of go, ‘What? OK…’”
When the Academy created the Best Original Song category in 1935, the intention was to honor the advent of talking films, and musicals in particular. Songs from musicals dominated the Best Original Song category through the 1950s. As the popularity of the musical began to fade in the 1960s, nominees were increasingly plucked from title songs and theme tunes, and then later from incidental music and end-credits songs. As films continued to use songs in more and varied ways, the Best Original Song field grew immense, and the category became trickier to judge.
“Probably for 60 years, no one had to think twice about the fact that you just heard five songs and basically, you chose which song you liked the most,” says Shaiman. In 1975, the Academy added language to the voting rules indicating that songs should be judged not on their own merits but on how well they serve the film. Current voting guidelines for the Best Original Song category state that “works shall be judged on their effectiveness, craftsmanship, creative substance and relevance to the dramatic whole, and only as presented within the motion picture.”
But what does it mean for a song to be “relevant to the dramatic whole?” In a musical, it’s pretty easy to judge which songs matter, and that may be why movie musicals continue to have a leg up in this category (including the Disney animated canon, most recently represented by Frozen’s much-deserved win for “Let It Go”). Unlike the early days, production numbers from musicals must now compete with songs that play over credits or underscore key scenes of films that aren’t musicals. It’s apples and oranges — or, to use an analogy from Shaiman, it’s the musical equivalent of lumping Best Picture, Best Documentary, Best Animated Film, and Best Short Film contenders into the same Oscar category.
In an attempt to level the playing field, the Academy has added dozens of eligibility guidelines over the years, which makes it easy for voters to get bogged down in details. For example: Does a song qualify as “original” if it appeared on an album before it appeared in the film? (Technically, it does not, but the music branch has been known to make arbitrary exceptions, like 2008 winner “Falling Slowly” from Once.) What if the song didn’t appear on the album but the songwriter wrote it prior to the movie? (Stevie Wonder caused a minor controversy when he admitted that “I Just Called to Say I Love You” wasn’t written specifically for the 1984 comedy The Woman in Red.) Warren told Yahoo Movies that her song “Silver Lining (Crazy ‘Bout You),” recorded by Jesse J for the Silver Linings Playbook soundtrack, was ineligible for nomination because it played under dialogue. (“Why should I be punished if the director cut part of it off?” asks Warren.) And any song that samples a previously existing song isn’t eligible, which puts the entire hip-hop genre at a disadvantage and has ruled out deserving nominees like Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” from Do the Right Thing.
Stevie Wonder accepts his Oscar in 1985
The no-sampling rule also points to another issue with Best Original Song voting: The members of the music branch are often tone-deaf to changes in the popular music landscape. Recent years have seen artists like Lana Del Rey, Lorde, Janelle Monáe, Mary J. Blige, and Taylor Swift overlooked for nomination. But this isn’t a new problem. The first major scandal over Best Original Song erupted in 1976, when the music branch of the Academy determined that Diana Ross’s “Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)” was ineligible for nomination because it lacked “artistic merit.” The backlash was furious, with an editorial in The Hollywood Reporter saying that the decision “once again points out the completely antiquated and biased structure of the music branch of the Academy, whose executive committee appears to be run like a restricted private club.” In response, the nominating committee made the dramatic decision to choose an entirely new slate of nominees, and “Theme from Mahogany” got its nod after all.
Diana Ross in the film Mahogany
But the thing that arguably drove the Best Original Song category into the ground was a change to voting rules in 2005. That’s when the music branch established a complicated system requiring voters to attend a screening of Best Original Song clips (excerpted from their respective films), then rate them all on a point scale. The songs with an average score of 8.25 or higher then received a nomination. The voting system transformed what had once been an intuitive decision into a highly tedious, time-consuming one — not to mention the fact that voters could actually handicap songs they didn’t like by voting them down. Shaiman believes that the point system was instilled because “the music that was winning was so far away from where the majority of the [music branch] members lived, as far as their musical tastes.” (The Academy did not respond to our request for comment by press time.)
It’s worth noting that the new rules were installed two years after the Academy Awards’ first-ever nominated rap song, Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” from 8 Mile, took home the award. Ironically, the second-ever nominated rap song, “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp” by Three 6 Mafia from Hustle & Flow, won the Oscar in the same year the new system was put into place. The points system remained for seven years, during which time only songs with that elusive 8.25 average qualified for nomination. As a result, the number of nominees dwindled; there were just three in 2005 and 2008. In 2009, the Academy ruled that, in the event that no contenders scored the desired number, the Best Original Song category would be eliminated entirely for that year. By 2011, the situation had become nearly that dire: Only two songs were nominated.
Thankfully, the rules were changed in 2012, restoring the system by which voters simply nominate their five favorites. But there are still plenty of hoops for music branch members to jump through. In order to vote for nominees, they’re required to watch every movie scene that contains an eligible song. (Not the full movie, just the scene.) “That’s hours, and I think a lot of people in the music branch probably don’t have the time to sit through all that,” says Warren. This year, that list included 79 songs. And yet some of the best musical films of the year — God Help the Girl, Frank, and We Are the Best! — were deemed ineligible for the Best Original Song category on technicalities.
Long gone are the days when voters could simply nominate the five movie songs that made the biggest impression on them. And with that intuitive element gone, the category has become bureaucratic to a fault. Warren, for one, states unequivocally that some of her previous nominated songs, massive hits all, would be ineligible under the current rules. “I remember distinctly that with ‘There You’ll Be,’ the Pearl Harbor song, there was scoring before the song started [in the credits]. In 2014, it would not have been eligible,” says Warren. “Why should you be penalized? You still wrote the song for the movie.”
All that said, the music branch has an incredibly difficult job in managing the Best Original Song category. Given the sheer volume of films and songs, the task of narrowing down every new song in every new movie to five nominees seems nearly impossible. “There’s just too much” music, says Shaiman. “So I don’t know that there’s ever going to be a way to make everyone happy. Or anyone happy.”
Image credits: John Shearer/AP; ABC/ Getty Images; Paramount