It has been there for almost a century and remains a special case. Even before we reward supporting actors or best original screenplay, there was already a Oscar for Best Songawarded since the seventh edition in 1935.
So what is this Oscar for? Certainly to justify the importance of having a song as a showcase for your film, a piece that manages to transcribe the tone of the story into music, and convince the public to go see it. This sound business card will also make the notoriety of the film last, to the point that many Oscar-winning titles have become classics of popular music.
“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, “Moon River”, “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head”, the theme of shaft, “Famous”, “Lose Yourself”…, not to mention Disney songs. It’s to the point that we forget that very famous songs are actually from films. And there are plenty of them, especially in the 1980s.
If a song can be a guarantee of long visibility for the film, it is all the more interesting for the authors and performers: a punctual but resounding promo shot. This category is a call to stars of the song, who in addition to participating in a film project, potentially have the chance to deliver a performance in front of the cream of the cinema, broadcast live on television.
And that’s perfect for the Oscars ceremony, where we try to entertain the public as much as possible to make them digest hours of awarding prizes: Adele’s vocal flights (“Sky Fall”), Celine Dion (“My Heart Will Go On”) or a young Michael Jackson (“Well”) in 1973; the soberly touching interpretations of Bruce Springsteen (“Streets of Philadelphia”) or Elliott Smith (“Miss Misery”); and surprises that wake up the evening like Robin Williams who resumes “Blame Canada” from the movie South Parkor Three 6 Mafia and its “It’s Hard out Here for a Pimp”.
A very (too) precise price
It is therefore a pillar of the ceremony, and yet one wonders what it is doing there: rewarding a particular piece is not something frequent among film festivals. It’s a prize found in some North American ceremonies such as the Golden Globes or the Satellite Awards, but not in Europe. The best soundtrack (or the best composer) is more often voted for, for example at the BAFTAs or the Césars.
It’s quite logical since she is part of the story, she accompanies us throughout the film. The best song? It is a punctual moment that can happen at any time (even after the end), be an integral part of the narrative or not, be interpreted by a character or serve as an extradiegetic illustration. The price leaves a lot of freedom.
And yet, it has very specific criteria: “An original song consists of words and music, both of which are original and written specifically for the film. There must be a clearly audible, intelligible (not necessarily visual) rendition of the lyrics and melody, used in the body of the film or as the first music heard in the end credits.” Thus, an Oscar-nominated song must have been recorded for a film before any other use.
In the selection process, applicants must, among other things, provide a score of the lead vocal, as well as a music video of no more than 3 minutes, which must show the context in which the song is used in the film. The jury will watch each of the clips and thus determine the 15 shortlisted songs, before a second vote to arrive at the five candidates who will be in the running for the Oscar.
Only principal composers who crafted the entire piece can win the prize. All potential contributors, producers, arrangers and especially performers are excluded. If Elton John, Lady Gaga or Bruce Springsteen won the statuette, it’s not for their voice, it’s for their pen. When “My Heart Will Go On” won in 1997 for titanicit was not Celine Dion who was invited on stage, but the authors James Horner and Will Jennings. Another important detail: the Academy does not accept songs that contain samples of other songs, which must have ruled out a good bunch of candidates from hip-hop.
If the criteria are so detailed, it is because at the beginning any song in a film could win the Oscar. In 1942, “The Last Time I Saw Paris” was chosen when it was already a hit in the United States long before it was used in the musical Lady Be Good. His co-composer, Jerome Kern, finds this decision unfair and launches a petition for the rules to be changed. They will be the following year.
These guidelines resulted in a few pirouettes to secure an Oscar spot: musical comedy adaptations very often contain an original song written for the film. The irony is that if there can’t be covers or samples of existing songs, you can have remakes among the candidates. The musical movie A Star is Born has been adapted four times and three times nominated for the Oscar for best song: if “The Man that Got Away” performed by Judy Garland does not win in 1954, Barbra Streisand will win the statuette for “Ever green” in 1976, then Lady Gaga for “Shallow” in 2018.
This also means that the musical biopics have almost no chance of being named, since we will use as much as possible of the songs known by the artist at the center of the plot. Except for Elton John, who managed to compose an original song for his own biopic, “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again”, which won the Oscar in 2019.
With four statuettes, the big winners in this category are, unsurprisingly, the composers and lyricists of musicals from the 1940s to the 1970s, such as Sammy Cahn, Johnny Mercer Where Jimmy Van Heusenand the one who chained the victories with Disney from 1989 to 1995, Alan Menken. This tends to confirm the domination of films where music has an important, even fundamental place in the story.
These names probably don’t mean much to you, and it’s not so much that these old-time references have been forgotten by time, but rather the fact that, from the beginning, it’s been the performers who carry the song. Stars of musical films who affirm and confirm themselves, like bing crosby in the 1940s, Doris Day or Frank Sinatra the following decade, and later Barbra Streisand or Irene Cara. At the same time, several non-actress singers have become competition specialists such as Maureen McGovern and Jennifer Warnes.
For forty years, pop music artists have been more and more present (Stevie Wonder, Phil Collins, Bob Dylan, Annie Lennox…), and now almost always co-credited, a means of highlighting their interpretation and play totally on the star system. When Adele or John Legend come to pick up their prize, it is necessarily more significant for the spectators than unknown composers.
And we can notice that certain recipes particularly appeal to the Academy. A little in the same way that we often hear about “Oscar roles”, for ambitious acting performances (with, if possible, a physical transformation and a counter-intuitive, even historical character), there are models of “reward pieces”: sentimental ballads, full of emotion and arrangements (think of the violins!), which start gently and go up in intensity, with an epic finale if possible. It works as much for cartoons as it does for social dramas, documentaries or James Bond.
The limits of the formula
The trouble is that over time, the “best song” always seems to stray further from its source. As soon as we leave the intradiegetic piece in a musical or cartoon style, many choose the ease of the music on the end credits. Which is certainly a striking conclusion, but may also have no aesthetic connection with the film. The piece may have been created completely independently of the work, and even of its soundtrack.
For The RingerNoah Gintell analyzed in 2021 that “The underlying pattern is clear: The Academy consistently overlooks tracks that fit meaningfully into the film’s narrative, and instead chooses superstar-driven titles played over the end credits. Only thematically tied to the film, these songs are meant to be performed at the Oscars, not to contribute to the art of storytelling in any way.” He also proposed to modify the selection method, that the jury no longer be satisfied with just a 3-minute clip of the song, but listen to the piece again in its context. Because right now it’s a bit “as if the whole Academy were voting for the Oscar for best picture based solely on the trailer of each nominee”.
We can be optimistic and tell ourselves that things will improve: the Oscars have been rightly criticized for their inability to evolve, and we have recently seen major changes in both the selection process than in the results. Or consider that the Oscar for best song is secondary, and interests the average spectator as much as the technical Oscars. We have already seen in the past that certain named pieces fell by the wayside during the ceremony, stuck in medleys, or even completely absent, for lack of time or notoriety of the performer.
However, there is a bigger problem: the Oscars are no longer a major event, at least in terms of TV show. The ceremony attracts less and less spectators: the 40 million Americans who gathered each year in front of the event less than ten years ago are half as many now. The hearings even sank to 10.5 million in 2021. The context is very particular, whether for the distribution of films or the conditions of the ceremony, but nothing guarantees that the evening will regain all its prestige.
The Academy has already started to reduce the number of awards given out live: eight awards will not be broadcast in March 2022 but just added to the edit, including that of best soundtrack. The best song remains on the main program, but perhaps only because Billie Eilish, Beyoncé and Lin-Manuel Miranda are in competition.
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Should we finish with the Oscar for best song?