Never in contemporary times has there been a year where the Best Song category was so strong — and relevant to younger viewers, even — that the Oscars were actually glad to put the nominated tunes on the telecast. That didn't keep the show's producers from severely abridging most of the songs. But we've come a long way from the Debbie Allen production numbers of olde when the show has music fans actually looking forward to U2, Pharrell Williams, Karen O, P!nk, and Idina Menzel (or, as she's known to John Travolta, Adela Dazeem?).
They all acquitted themselves like winners, though some made a bigger impression on tech-award-wearied viewers than others. We reviewed the performances and ranked them from least to most galvanizing...
7. Karen O's "Moon Song." The song makes for a sweet aside in "Her," as Joaquin Phoenix and his software program get woozily romantic late at night. But it felt a bit wispy for the room in this context, whether we're talking the thousands inside Hollywood's Dolby Theatre or an impatient TV audience of hundreds of millions. Still, it got the most elegant possible rendering as Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs kicked off her shoes and sat alongside Vampire Weekend's guitar-plunking Ezra Koenig for the quietest moment that was not a death montage.
6. P!nk's "Over the Rainbow." If anyone were going to revive the Judy Garland classic, picking one of pop's more golden-throated thrushes of the moment was a smart pick on the Academy's part. And we all breathed a sigh of relief when we caught sight of P!nk's gown and realized there were no wires attached to send her flying into the rafters in homage to the "Wizard of Oz" tornado. That said, though, it wasn't altogether clear why there needed to be a 75th anniversary tribute to "Wizard," in an edition of the show otherwise skimpy on historical tributes. P!nk's reading of the song was strong enough but didn't feel particularly moving without any real raison d'être.
5. Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath My Wings." Midler could knock this ballad out of the park in her sleep, and she didn't do it any less justice than ever. But having her sing this funeral-favorite golden oldie after the In Memoriam tribute instead of during the montage kind of made it feel as if, after all that death, Oscar producers also wanted to kill time.
4. U2's "Ordinary Love." When U2 performed this from the couch on the opening night of Jimmy Fallon's "Tonight Show" a couple of weeks back, we discovered that this "Mandela" song comes off better performed acoustically than it does in the movie/recorded version. So it was smart of the Oscars to have the band revive that simple arrangement. (Either that, or the producers just didn't want to fuss with amps and kick-drum mics.) And it's hard to resist the sight of Bono slowly slinking toward the front of the stage like the rock star he is. But with its vague lyrics and medium tempo, it's just too subtle an entry in the group's catalog to kick up the excitement you might have hoped for from U2's single most-watched performance ever.
3. Idina Menzel's "Let It Go." None of the three other nominated songs have a huge sense of drama to them, but the Frozen entry has enough passion and belting for the entire division. Little girls and lovers of musicals were all rooting for this deserved Best Song winner, which certainly has come to rival "Defying Gravity" from Wicked as Menzel's signature song. But did something seem just a little bit off about it Sunday night? Maybe it was just the fact that the telecast's producers stupidly decided that this gradually building anthem ought to be cut in half so that there'd be more time for the host's ongoing pizza gags. Even so, you'd be hard-pressed to watch a glass-shattering vocal like this one and think Menzel's isn't a name to remember forever, unless you're Travolta.
2. Pharrell Williams's "Happy." Even if the "Despicable Me 2" ditty wasn't necessarily the finest of the four nominated songs, Williams's live take on it was the performance that best lived up to its TV potential. Pharrell started off by weaving through what looked like an Oscar-statue obstacle course, wearing another version of That Hat, and soon was joined by a troupe of truly cheerful dancers who looked like escapees from a vintage Old Navy commercial. Going down into the audience to briefly engage some of the evening's leading ladies in dance was the corniest move ever...except, it worked, as Amy Adams, Lupita Nyong'o, and shoulder-shimmying Meryl Streep all reacted as if they'd spent weeks already dancing to the 24-hour "Happy" video. If only they'd been able to keep up the momentum and good will generated by this number through all that pizza delivery.
1. Darlene Love's "His Eye Is on the Sparrow." Did Oscar producers know that Love planned to bust out an a cappella gospel number if "20 Feet From Stardom" won the documentary award? Who knows? But we suspect everyone who voted for it was hoping something like this would happen. Baby, please come home and sing something — anything — on next year's telecast, too!