XO: Remembering Elliott Smith, 10 Years Later
The year was 1998. The 70th Academy Awards were being held at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, and as Madonna approached the podium to hand out the Oscar for Best Original Song, it seemed a given that one of the most unstoppable and popular celluloid anthems of all time, Celine Dion's Titanic megahit "My Heart Will Go On," would take the prize. And of course, it did. But another, very un-Celine-like singer-songwriter made an impression that evening, performing his own nominated underdog song, "Miss Misery."
His name was Elliott Smith. And a little more than five years after this moment, on October 21, 2003, he would be dead, at age 34. But the heart of Elliott's music still goes on, a decade later.
Elliott, who'd first come to underground fame as a co-founder of the Portland alt-rock band Heatmiser before striking out on his own, had gotten his big break when fellow Oregon indie icon Gus Van Sant enlisted him to contribute six songs to the soundtrack of Good Will Hunting. This unusual partnership — which took place in an era long before hipster soundtracks (think Garden State, Twilight) became the norm or indie duo the Swell Season actually won a Best Song Oscar for their Once ballad "Falling Slowly" — was likened by critics to Simon & Garfunkel's iconic soundtrack for The Graduate. But despite Good Will Hunting's success (the film's Robin Williams won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar that night), most of America was still unfamiliar with Elliott's genius. This was by far the largest audience he'd ever faced.
Elliott's performance must have thrown many spectators, both at home and inside the Shrine, for a loop. On a night dominated by Titanic's more-is-more aesthetic, when Celine Dion performed with a full orchestra amid billowing dry-ice clouds, this unassuming, nervous guy in a rumpled suit (which looked like the result of another sort of Goodwill hunting, so to speak), standing alone onstage with nothing but an acoustic guitar, seemed extremely out of place. Elliott reportedly hadn't even wanted to appear on the telecast, but only agreed to do so after the Oscars' producers informed him that if he didn't, they'd book another artist to sing "Miss Misery" instead. Thankfully, Elliott showed up and performed, providing a refreshing antidote to the rest of the night's bombast and a truly unique pop-culture moment.