Unless some mercurial actor happens to be recommending a friend’s book during the festivities, my investment in the Oscars is low. They don’t even work as meaningless spectacle; most of each ceremony seems to be that transitory hum in between the fatuous speeches, like a house made out of insulating foam. I do, however, have an inexplicable affection for the Best Original Song category, which started off ratifying entries from the American repertoire (“The Way You Look Tonight,” “Over the Rainbow,” “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”), flailed around entertainingly while the use of pre-existing pop music transformed film scores, and now exists as the event’s demanding misfit child, forever mandating unwieldy medleys or the presence of Bono. Any club that includes both Irving Berlin and Juicy J can’t be all bad.
If Pharrell wins for “Happy” this weekend, though, he might become the first musician to ever receive an Oscar statuette and top the U.S. Billboard charts simultaneously, suggesting a dialectical experiment: listen to every Best Original Song alongside its concurrent #1 single and see which I liked best. The tastes of the Academy versus the People, however distantly refracted through the record industry. “Popular culture … is the arena of consent and resistance,” in the words of Stuart Hall, who did not win an Oscar.
The Academy Award for Best Original Song dates back to 1935, but there was no comprehensive singles chart, however flawed, until the Billboard Hot 100 emerged a quarter-century later, roughly coinciding with the beginning of the rock era. That phrase, “the rock era,” rings of neat demarcation, as if every pop crooner entered the musical fossil record at once, though in fact certain older styles and performers continued to hang around. A teen idol like Frankie Avalon wasn’t too far removed from the pre-radio youths who put a cute face on the latest songs crossing off Broadway. But “Venus” is no standard: the short list of cover versions appropriately includes Barry Manilow. It just sounds smarmy, and I can’t think of a less attractive affect than that.
“Theme from A Summer Place” remains the most enduring instrumental #1 ever, at nine weeks, and if you click that hyperlink it might become an unwelcome guest of your skull for nearly as long.
Advantage: “High Hopes”
A rare cover that manages to be funny without succumbing to smug parody, the Marcels’ doo-wop version of “Blue Moon” splits those lonely lyrics across two minutes of chattering unquiet. It’s like strangers ushering you into a noisy party.
Advantage: “Blue Moon”
Kitschy as it may be, “Moon River” aged better than most other things related to Breakfast at Tiffany’s, like weird coyness about sex work, or Truman Capote’s face. I was hoping that “Johnny Angel” would fall into the brief teen-death subgenre, but its crushing is too idealized for mortality to ever intrude.
Advantage: “Moon River”
I love this Chiffons track in part for its air of spontaneity: the laconic doo-langs, “but then again he can’t shy, he can’t shy away forever,” that svelte 1:50 running time. Girls invented pop-punk.
Advantage: “He’s So Fine”
A minor Beatles single, audibly shrugged off, except that it completed their 14-week, multi-song occupation of the #1 spot; positions 2-5 were filled by “Twist and Shout,” “She Loves You,” “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “Please Please Me.” (They also set up what might be my favourite Hot 100 record of all: when “Hello, Dolly!” succeeded “Can’t Buy Me Love,” 63-year-old Louis Armstrong became the oldest performer to ever chart that high, and remains so.) Nothing fromHard Day’s Night got an Oscar nomination.
Advantage: “Can’t Buy Me Love”
The Supremes could do twee: see “Twinkle Twinkle Little Me.” They also did “Love Child.” This song exists somewhere beyond either mode, or any mode, the longing sharpened and made dire by fear, strummed as a tremble.
Advantage: “Stop! In the Name of Love”
“A teardrop kissed your lips…” Is the narrator mooning over a cubist painting?
Advantage: “(You’re My) Soul and Inspiration”
Advantage: “Happy Together”
This is around the point where the Academy’s traditionalist chauvinism—exacerbated by the show-tune-reared composers and songwriters among its membership, who enjoyed a hammerlock on the Oscar nominating process—becomes glaring. Next to the futile grace of “Dock of the Bay,” with Redding saying each word like he’s ruminated over it for days, some bouncing-ball novelty maintaining that claim to musical centrality could only look laughable.
Advantage: “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”
Forty-five years later, the imagistic similes spiraling through “Windmills of Your Mind” feel psychedelia-adjacent, so it was funny to queue up “Aquarius” and hear the stars, as it were, align. ~*~mystic crystal revelations / and the mind’s true liberation~*~
Advantage: “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” (chart nerd bonus: the first medley to reach #1!)
The secular-hymnal school of ‘60s songwriting is one I find constantly off-putting, but maybe if Burt Bacharach had run some melodies through it…
Advantage: “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head”
The Temptations broke with their longtime producer Norman Whitfield a year or two after the release of this single, resenting the way his elaborate orchestrations veiled their vocals. Listening to “Just My Imagination,” you can understand why: even the ballad he wrote to placate them after much “psychedelic soul” abounds with instruments and effects, reducing Eddie Kendricks’s falsetto almost to a murmur. Then Paul Williams arrives at the bridge, giving “every night on my knees I pray” the acoustics of a confessional box, and I remember, oh yeah, Whitfield was responsible for “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Not much psychedelia, soulful or otherwise, had such a sense of narrative.
Advantage: “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)”
As if to underscore what a freak occurrence the Academy’s rare accidental coolness was, Isaac Hayes did switch from his all-gold-everything stage outfit to a tuxedo—furred, midnight blue. But there was canniness to their selection too, because despite getting knocked off into parodies of parodies of parodies, the original’s swaying poise remains. It was a token pick that refuses the designation.
Advantage: “Theme from Shaft”
I’ll be honest: after seeing “Love Train” here, I didn’t even listen to that fucking Poseidon Adventure song.
Advantage: “Love Train”
In Lipstick Traces, Greil Marcus argues that punk emanated from a hidden lineage of avant-garde blasphemy, but the juxtaposition above could make a nihilist out of anybody. Denver was so fanatically committed to inoffensiveness he hedged his pro-sunshine sentiments.
Advantage: “The Way We Were,” if only for its own secret history
Is that “candle in the dark” lyric on a soundtrack cut from a fiery disaster movie supposed to be ironic? When Minnie Riperton sings la la la la la, I imagine her stringing each syllable into a flower crown.
Advantage: “Lovin’ You”
It’s kind of hilarious that Nashville won its only Oscar via Keith Carradine’s passive-aggressive ballad, utterly decontextualized from his fictional womanizer and their manipulative sensitivity. The slyness in “December, 1963” is all dadly nostalgia, elision after chuckled elision (“you know, I never even knew her name”), including one of the narrator’s premature ejaculation. Insincerity has its pleasures, whether that incongruous disco bassline, a crayon-bright synth solo, or Frankie Valli et al. actually carrying off “sweet surrender, what a night,” but I prefer the song exposing male guile to the one reveling in it.
Advantage: “I’m Easy”
What am I supposed to say about Daryl “of Fame” Hall and John “Power Perm” Oates? That they were Robin Thicke minus the sexual repulsiveness? That “Billie Jean” wasn’t not in their debt? That nobody had a better “Sun City”cameo? That this track gets its expert work done in less time than Timberlake’s last album lavished on codas?
Advantage: “Rich Girl”
The featureless banality of “You Light Up My Life” begins to unnerve after discovering its composer/director/screenwriter/producer was also a sexual predator. Even the Grammys managed not to fuck up disco this badly.
Advantage: “Night Fever”
Two classics, one chastened attempt to compensate for 1978’s Saturday Night Fever snub. “I Will Survive” has become a mise en abyme now, wasted across a hundred trite musical cues, but I hear something new every time Donna Summer leads her tempo onto the dancefloor.
Advantage: “Last Dance”
Pretty ironic discography entry for somebody as controlling as Roger Waters! I bet he gets a kick out of that in between brooding about how much he hates everyone else from Pink Floyd!
Advantage: “It Goes Like It Goes,” lovelessly
Best Original Song winner: “Fame” (from Fame)
#1 Billboard single: “Rapture,” by Blondie
Not the David Bowie one with that riff. The Irene Cara one with the slightly desperate ambition.
I might hold more ambivalent feelings about rock and roll, I may have spent half an hour last week replaying Toto’s “Africa,” but I will never fuck with Christopher Cross.
Advantage: “I Love Rock and Roll”
Respect to Buffy Sainte-Marie, but…
Advantage: “Billie Jean”
Oh man, this pairing would only be more ‘80s if Oliver North were covertly facilitating it. Although the Logg lends “Footloose” a pleasingly slouchy twang, Giorgio Moroder’s sudden accelerations to hi-NRG speed make lyrics indistinguishable from “Fame” glide.
Advantage: “Flashdance… What a Feeling”
Why couldn’t Stevie win for “Wild Wild West” instead? Why didn’t literally anything from Purple Rain take his place?
Advantage: “I Just Called to Say I Love You”
The Lionel Richie track is sort of interesting in that he’s phasing between two or three different songs, possibly trying to escape their garishly dated production.
Advantage: “These Dreams”
I can’t deal with the hideous synths on Club Nouveau’s mangling of Bill Withers, which sound like sound effects from an NES game about spiders. The critic Tom Ewing gave “Take My Breath Away” a clever taxonomy some years ago: “It feels like the start of something, a harbinger of the soon-come glory age of the film tie-in, when balladosaurus rexbestrode the charts, roaring and beating its chest and weeping for week upon emotional week. Of course the evolution of this sonic megafauna was gradual. Play ‘Take My Breath Away’ next to something later, and functionally similar, like ‘I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing,’ and ‘Breath’ seems thoughtful, almost delicate. But the key species characteristics of the titan song are present: the stateliness, the sense of scale, the yearning, most of all the epic abstraction.”
Advantage: “Take My Breath Away”
Let’s not perpetuate the historical revisionism that Dirty Dancing had a good soundtrack just because they put “Be My Baby” on it. Billy Ocean is a B-list soul singer, and in the music video above he keeps summoning disembodied cartoon lips, but the man could still switch it up while repeating the same verb dozens of times.
Advantage: “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car”
oh christ get me out of this decade
Advantage: “Let the River Run,” a representative of pop’s late-’80s nadir which at least eschews a children’s choir, or the line “I’m sure I heard his echo in my baby’s newborn tears”
Have you ever noticed that “Under the Sea” is about finding a haven from constant violence and death? Or how the instruments’ roll call echoes Neneh Cherry at the start of “Buffalo Stance”? I like “Black Velvet,” excellent karaoke selection, sort of a Shania test run, and I can’t even remember any other songs from The Little Mermaid, but “Black Velvet” doesn’t have a crab playing steel drums.
Advantage: “Under the Sea”
Stephen Sondheim needs to earn that EGOT somehow, and if it benefits North America’s second-tier burlesque festivals, so much the better. The master did manage one or two characteristic couplets here (“delight me / excite me”). Meanwhile, Timmy T reminds us all of that special musical era when a mediocre karaoke performance could reach #1 if it sounded enough like freestyle.
Advantage: “Sooner or Later”
In a contest of anonymity against idiosyncrasy, Williams’s genericized voice oddly seems to suit her material more.
Advantage: “Save the Best for Last”
Disney’s Aladdin was the first movie I ever saw in theatres, which means my first experience of Cinema was this very racist song describing Arabs as duplicitous bandits. The fact that “Informer” topped the chart for seven weeks also feels vaguely racist.
Advantage: “A Whole New World”
It figures that an AIDS movie as heteronormative as Philadelphia would approach Bruce Springsteen. It also figures that he would turn around and hand back a contribution in his synthiest mode, recalling Pet Shop Boys’ “Suburbia” or “We All Feel Better In the Dark”; a song far more affecting at its hushed volume than his post-9/11 guitar elegies. If “The Sign” wasn’t three unmarred minutes of open space, I’d even vote for it.
Advantage: “The Sign”
They should’ve given an Oscar to the ballad from the second Lion King movie, where Rafiki rhapsodizes about how wonderful sex is. And what Babyface does on “Take a Bow” is my idea of perfect harmony.
Advantage: “Take a Bow”
You may be gathering that a lot of Disney numbers won Academy Awards in the ‘90s, often alongside multiple competitors from the same film. (Hercules received a nomination! Sting got one! “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” somehow did not!) After a decade or so of grudgingly acknowledging pop music, the songwriters branch resumed backing quasi-show-tunes over and over again, its reactionary tendencies metastasizing until Andrew Lloyd Webber and schmaltz auteur Diane Warren both held gold statuettes. They couldn’t even identify the effective Warren compositions, such as “How Do I Live” (whose nomination dashed itself against a certain looming iceberg), or this track from what I’m told is Celine Dion’s best album. Next to “You think the only people who are people / Are the people who look and think like you,” Celine sounds subtle.
Advantage: “Because You Loved Me”
My dad met Tim Rice once. He said he was very polite.
Advantage: “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down”
“She was really sweet, which has made it impossible for me to dislike Celine Dion anymore. Even though I can’t stand the music she makes—with all due respect, I don’t like it much at all—she herself was very, very nice. She asked me if I was nervous and I said, ‘Yeah.’ And she was like, ‘That’s good, because you get your adrenaline going, and it’ll make your song better. It’s a beautiful song.’ Then she gave me a big hug. It was too much. It was too human to be dismissed simply because I find her music trite.” — Elliott Smith, as quoted by Carl Wilson in Let’s Talk About Love. And did you know “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” samples “He’s the Greatest Dancer”?
Advantage: Nile Rodgers, suspensions of judgment, wounded empathy
Mocked at the time, Cher got the last inhumanly digitized laugh: the uncanny vocal resilience of her gigantic hit surely anticipated the past decade’s broken-robot pop. We heard the future at junior high dances.
Some musicians sing about self-respect. Others provide cautionary examples.
Advantage: “Say My Name”
Not being a habitué of strip clubs—my friend Susan, who is, tells me it clings to hideous un-life there—I haven’t heard “Butterfly” for at least 10 years. Let’s see what… oh no… why are they rapping so much… why does this video take place inside a screensaver… why are everybody’s piercings where they are…
Advantage: “Things Have Changed”
R.I.P. thug love songs ;_;
Advantage: “Ain’t It Funny”
50 was great at playing rap’s self-amused pantomime villain for a time, but secretly he was maybe even better at sleek, utilitarian bangers. Eminem’s hectoring-dad “inspirational” mode was never good.
Advantage: “In Da Club”
You can really sense the Academy voter pool throwing its collective hands up around now, and not in the Usher-induced way. “Some fucking song about elf heaven? Sure! My nephew loves it!”
Thank you, random selection from the Che Guevara biopic, for keeping the phrase “Oscar-winning band Counting Crows” out of America’s style guides. I would like to ascribe it to communist sympathies, but that seems too optimistic.
Advantage: “Let Me Love You”
This is one of the more obscure Beyoncé singles, especially considering it peaked at #1 for five weeks, although it is more or less a Southern-rap-inflected “Bootylicious.” And forcing an archetypal Three 6 Mafia track onto the Oscars telecast was a rather more audacious change in emphasis. Juicy J’s brief audience with 30 million viewers only feels flukier as the years and dreary nominees pass—their loss, not his.
Advantage: “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp”
They actually changed the category rules after three Dreamgirls numbers canceled each other out and allowed this shitty Melissa Etheridge song to win.
Advantage: “Say It Right”
They also changed the rules to allow for a coronation of “Falling Slowly.” Wait, “Low” was on the Step Up 2 soundtrack? Why didn’t T-Pain get to perform with grinding modern dancers before a screenplay award was doled out?
I forgot that this Eminem single existed. Anyway, wasn’t it neat when “Jai Ho” won? And then Nicole Scherzinger lunged for another few seconds of cultural relevance by awkwardly suturing herself onto A. R. Rahman, amidst bindis, beads, and some guy wearing a shirt that says “Jai Ho”? “Appropriation” would be too charitable; it’s more like survivalist cannibalism.
Advantage: “Jai Ho” (original flavour)
Ugh. I’m seriously going to flip a coin.
Advantage: “The Weary Kind”
“We Belong Together” wouldn’t threaten my personal top 50 of Randy Newman songs, or even top the all-Pixar one, but it’s charming, y’know? Bright piano chords, nice little saxophone solo at the end, an undertone of anxiety that brings to mind his ‘70s albums. He should keep writing them just for the chance to give acceptance speeches.
Advantage: “We Belong Together”
I did not expect the musical core of a Muppets movie to at least gesture towards the crushing impossibility of masculinity. Having said that, I still prefer “Rainbow Connection”—or “Me Party.”
This was an odyssey of sorts, so of course I’d get ambushed at the end of it.
FINAL TASTE TALLY: 21 allegiances with the Academy, 34 with the People, which I guess makes me a populist, unless Barbara Streisand or John Denver are involved.