Steve Pond on Oscar’s “broken” song category

Posted by · 4:42 pm · January 12th, 2010

Kate Hudson in NineThe Best Original Song race gets an awful lot of stick for its wonky voting system and sometimes questionable musical judgment — problems that have lately converged to scupper the hopes of many well-regarded contenders, with last year’s snub of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Wrestler” raising particularly widespread ire.

I’ll start, however, by saying a few words in the category’s favor. The odd egregious snub aside, the standard of competition has improved notably in recent years — some have complained that the Academy no longer recognizes familiar chart hits with the regularity that they did in the 1980s, but their musical range has expanded. The last decade has seen them embrace hip-hop, world music and folk, including several numbers that were imaginatively integrated into the cinematic fabric of certain films.

Do they still nominate the occasional stinker? Sure. But by and large, we’re in a better, more adventurous place than we were 10 years ago, when dreary MOR balladeering from the likes of Phil Collins, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston ruled the race.

That’s the good news. The bad news, as The Wrap’s Steve Pond (a former rock critic himself) correctly diagnoses in an extended critique of the category, is that the Academy still hasn’t found a voting system that fairly reflects all the contenders in a given year. The procedure they’ve used to determine the nominees for the last four years — and which will once more take place tonight — is to screen three-minute clips of all the contending songs as featured in their respective films for the music branch voters, who will then score each one one a scale of six to 10. (Why not one to 10, or even one to five, you ask? So do I.)

The new(ish) system is well-intentioned, and does at least encourage voters to think of it as a cinematic award. However, as we know, it all but kills the chances of any song featured without visual accompaniment in a film — closing credit tracks, in particular. And as Pond explains so well, visuals are not always essential to a song’s cinematic relevance. The obvious example he uses to support his statement is last year’s snubbed Springsteen track:

Anybody who saw Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” knows that Bruce Springsteen’s title song was enormously important punctuation to the end of the movie. The song begins playing a couple of seconds after Mickey Rourke takes a flying leap that will likely kill him; Rourke jumps, the screen goes black, there’s a pause … and then Springsteen’s mournful lament starts. Not only does it cue the audience as to what has happened, it sums up the film emotionally in a way that was as affecting, and as effective, as any song from any movie that year.

If the song had been used in a montage half an hour earlier, it would have hurt the film – but it sure would have boosted Springsteen’s Oscar chances, which were essentially killed by the fact that voters who hadn’t seen the film saw nothing but the song playing over a roll of credits.

The heart of the problem, then, is that songs with a more interpretive connection to the content of their films are essentially lost on viewers who haven’t seen the film at hand — and there’s little a decontextualized three-minute clip can do to remedy that. As such, Best Original Song can be lumped in with any number of categories plagued by the same fundamental problem: voters aren’t seeing enough of the worthy films.

It’ll be interesting to see how the system holds up this year, when a number of songs in contention could be affected by sentiment towards the films housing them. “Cinema Italiano” from “Nine,” for example, is a widely criticized composition from an increasingly unpopular film — though in terms of cinematic integration, it ticks all the branch’s boxes.

On the other hand, I’m curious to see whether the overwhelming momentum for “Avatar” can pull its Leona Lewis theme “I See You” into the race — like nominees from “Slumdog Millionaire” and “WALL-E” last year, it’s a closing-credit track that has some visual accompaniment, but nonetheless doesn’t feel particularly essential to the film as a whole. The fate of songs like these could be an interesting litmus test for the flexibility — and discernment — of the current voting system.

→ 29 Comments Tags: , , , , | Filed in: Daily

29 responses so far

  • 1 1-12-2010 at 4:47 pm

    Baxter said...

    This category is such an impossible joke. I don’t hate the nominees from last year, but I agree completely about “The Wrestler.” I will never be able to understand how it was omitted.

    There are some great contenders this year: “The Weary Kind,” “You’ve Got Me Wrapped Around Your Little Finger,” and “Help Yourself,” and if any of those are left out in favor of that dreck “Cinema Italiano,” I might lose my mind.

  • 2 1-12-2010 at 4:48 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    “Help Yourself” was ruled ineligible months ago, I’m afraid.

  • 3 1-12-2010 at 4:55 pm

    Nigel Bridgeman said...

    It’s always struck me as odd why certain categories have different rules regarding how the nominations are determined. Does the Academy really think it’s the best way to go about it, or are the various branches just very protective? I’m thinking, of course, about the Foreign Language, Original Song and Documentary categories.

    Shameless plug – I reviewed every Oscar-winning song. It was a soul-shattering experience.

  • 4 1-12-2010 at 4:56 pm

    Baxter said...

    Oh, I completely forgot about that. I hate this category.

  • 5 1-12-2010 at 5:03 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I’ve been saying that over and over and over again on the placement of Springsteen’s song. Glad to see I’m not crazy.

  • 6 1-12-2010 at 5:11 pm

    adelutza said...

    I’m sorry, but music is music, film is film. I don’t think there should even be a “best song” category at the Oscars. It belongs to a different genre. Music industry has its own ways to reward itself. What is exactly the purpose of this award? And how are the Academy members qualified to reward music? There isn’t a Music Guild Awards or anything like that.

  • 7 1-12-2010 at 5:43 pm

    Steve Pond said...

    “…who will then score each one one a scale of six to 10. (Why not one to 10, or even one to five, you ask? So do I.)”

    Here’s why: because if you restrict the scoring to 6-to-10, you limit the damage a small group of voters can do by giving their favorites 10s and everything else 0s.

    That’s how Hoop Dreams got cheated out of a nomination, and ever since then they’ve scored everything 6-to-10. A smaller spread means those low scores don’t hurt as much, and weakens the power of a little cabal.

    Oh, and thanks for the plug.

  • 8 1-12-2010 at 5:48 pm

    cineJAB said...

    Cinema Italiano was the dumbest part of a really dumb movie. I’d rather see Take It All get a nomination.

  • 9 1-12-2010 at 5:50 pm

    Benito Delicias said...

    Fine, let the category exist.

    BUT! When somebody says this:

    “voters who hadn’t seen the film saw nothing but the song playing over a roll of credits”

    it means that if this were not the system, then people who hadn’t seen the film would’ve still voted for a song that didn’t mean anything for them and did vote for it because the music and lyrics were great (not a reason for this category to exist at film awards)….or even worse, would’ve voted for Springsteen’s name automatically.

    Sure in Wrestler/Springsteen’s case it would’ve ended up great because the song is actually deserving and those of us who saw it can know what it means….

    But what happens when super popular Diane Warren writes a non-related song for Michael Bay’s next movie? Or when Phil Collins and Sting write the next song that adds zero to the movie and it’s just a typical song from them? And pe0ple don’t get to see if it fits or not because this is not the system and we get Phill Collins a second Oscar because he has a name and writes a pretty song?

    This is why this discussion and this category are such contradictions. Lose Yourself was a perfect win. I think Travelin’ Thru was perfect and better than Pimp, but when you think it through and think about the purpose of the category, how does Three Six Mafia not deserve that Oscar?

  • 10 1-12-2010 at 6:29 pm

    david said...

    The Best Song, Best Score, and Best Foreign Film categories will continue to always be a complete farce at the Oscars until they change up the rules that eliminate so many of the best potential nominees each year. The present system is definitely broken, and badly in need of a complete overhaul. I don’t hold out much hope though. Sometimes I wonder if the Oscars would be better off just keeping the Best Picture, Best Actor/Actress, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor/Actress, and Best Original/Adapted Screenplay categories, and eliminating all the other categories completely.
    Maybe just throw in a Best Ensemble category and call it good.

  • 11 1-12-2010 at 6:32 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    I’m sure the industry’s legions of talented craftsmen love that idea, David.

  • 12 1-12-2010 at 6:40 pm

    david said...

    It’s just that if your going to do something, then you shouldn’t do it half ass (and that’s exactly what the Academy does in so many of the craft categories). I love these categories, but I’d rather not have them at all, then fuck them up every damn year.

  • 13 1-12-2010 at 6:43 pm

    Georgie said...

    I don’t understand why Cinema Italiano is getting so much recognition but Take It All isn’t.

  • 14 1-12-2010 at 6:46 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    David: By that token, I’d ditch the Oscars altogether. It’s not like they get the top categories right any more often than the technical ones ;)

  • 15 1-12-2010 at 6:51 pm

    david said...

    I think they do a fairly good job with the top categories most of the time. At least as far as nominating the most deserving individuals. Who they actually award the Oscar too is often another story, but I can live with that. I think getting the right nominees in the first place is the most important thing, and they don’t do that in the tech categories, because half of the most deserving nominees are eliminated from being considered in the first place. I blame Ernest Borgnine completely. He’s at the heart of all this. I just know it. He always is.

  • 16 1-12-2010 at 8:05 pm

    Maxim said...

    “Do they still nominate the occasional stinker? Sure. But by and large, we’re in a better, more adventurous place than we were 10 years ago, when dreary MOR balladeering from the likes of Phil Collins, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston ruled the race.”

    That’s purely a matter of taste. Personally, I’d take a good power ballad over a autotune heavy hip hop track any day of the week. And say what you want about Diane Warren, when her stuff works, it really works.

    I am all for embracing world music but from where I am standing being adventurous doesn’t equate with automatically nominating and awarding anything that sounds remotely foreign or exotic as Academy has been doing for the past decade. And it’s not like something like Alladin didn’t have a very distinct eastern european flavor to it’s music.

    In any case, I really find little evidence that overall quality of either nominees or winners has gone up. I can honestly say that the winners in the past decade were stronger. A certain number of them may have had a similar sound but all of them were very good songs.

    I am a huge fan of Menken’s work but when he got 3 nods for “Enchantent” I was quite suprised. They simply weren’t up to par. On the other hand, Before Sunset didn’t even get a nomination for a song that is not only great but plays a crucial roll within the movie.

  • 17 1-12-2010 at 8:14 pm

    A.J said...

    It’s 6 to 10 and not 1 to 10 to avoid vote skewing. Or the “imdb effect” where a bunch of people vote a film to a 1 just to knock it’s place on the top 250 down. Making the lowest score a 6 attempts to avoid that problem

  • 18 1-12-2010 at 9:02 pm

    Adam M. said...

    @adelutza – Perfectly worded, and I agree 100%. The Oscars are about recognizing achievement in FILM– not achievement in MUSIC.

  • 19 1-12-2010 at 9:32 pm

    Maxim said...

    That’s actually not an invalid point but there are certain instances where songs work so well they become an essential part of the experience and contribute to a movie’s effect in the same way a score would. In those cases, rewarding a song would not necessarily be just about recognizing an achievement in music.

    As for the, 6 to a 1, I understand why it is done but I disagree with it. If someone really thinks something is a 1 they should be allowed to have their negative vore count as much as a positive one. Especially since Award voters on average are less prone to abuse than your typical IMDb (at least I would like to believe so).

  • 20 1-12-2010 at 9:33 pm

    Maxim said...

    And didn’t the vote on ‘Hoop Dreams’ involve flashlights?

  • 21 1-12-2010 at 9:37 pm

    The Other James D. said...

    I still hope that one of the soulful An Education tunes could sneak in. Duffy’s a recent Grammy winner and well-known for “Mercy”, so that helps, although I guess Beth Rowley singing her own song in the film would be a rare opportunity worth taking. Either/or works for me, particularly if it means one less meh nod for you-kn0w-what.

  • 22 1-12-2010 at 9:46 pm

    Andy said...

    I’m thinking the nominees will be down to…

    “All is Love” from Where the Wild Things Are
    “Almost There” from The Princess and the Frog
    “Cinema Italiano” from Nine *
    “Down In New Orleans” from The Princess and the Frog *
    “I See You” from Avatar *
    “Take It All” from Nine *
    “Trust Me” from The Informant
    “The Weary Kind” from Crazy Heart *
    “You’ve Got Me Wrapped Around Your Little Finger” from An Education

    My predictions in *

  • 23 1-12-2010 at 11:20 pm

    Molly said...

    I’m STILL pissed that Eddie Vedder didn’t get in for any of the beautiful songs he had eligible for Into the Wild. Every single piece of that score/soundtrack enhanced the scene it was featured in and Penn made great use of it.

    But anyways, while this method does suck in some ways, I’m hoping it will help out “You’ve Got Me Wrapped Around Your Little Finger” from An Education, which was both a lovely period tune and nailed it thematically.

    I wouldn’t mind a boost for “Stu’s Song” from The Hangover either… If you want to talk about a song enhancing the experience, that’s your song. I nearly had to leave the theatre I was laughing so hard the first time I saw it.

  • 24 1-13-2010 at 12:28 am

    SHAAAARK said...

    Cinema Italiano and I See You are absolutely terrible songs, though I’ll admit, I haven’t seen either in the context of the film. Still, a person that would consider Cinema Italiano better than Hideaway or All is Love has oatmeal-for-brains.

  • 25 1-13-2010 at 3:36 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Paul McCartney’s “I Want To Come Home” is a truly magnificent song on itself. I haven’t seen the film so I don’t know how it functions within there, but I do know on itself the song is very hard to be topped and would sure make for a great moment at the Oscars.

  • 26 1-13-2010 at 5:25 am

    Lance said...

    I think they should delete this category and somehow combine it with the score. How many of these songs were really written for the film and not just a song they had laying around somewhere? Why should this category exist and they don’t have a category for stunt performers and voice-over artists?

  • 27 1-13-2010 at 6:45 am

    Tom said...

    I love the song category because a great song that’s well integrated into a movie can be magical. I understand why they want to avoid having songs playing over the credits be nominated: you can stick any song over the credits of the movie and have it work. Like with the visual effects category, songs need to be judged not just on how good they are, but on how well they work within the film.
    I also feel like a lot of great songs get ignored, and I don’t know why. Last year my nominees would have been
    Once in a Lifetime: Cadillac Records
    The Story: My Blueberry Nights
    Little Person: Synecdoche, New York
    Down to Earth: Wall-E
    Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?: Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?
    Each of these songs were not only great, but made the movie better, no matter where they played during the film.

  • 28 1-13-2010 at 7:15 am

    Matt said...

    Down to Earth from WALL-E wasn’t essential to the film? That just proves you didn’t understand the film. Down to Earth not only summarizes the film, not only plays over a visual accompaniment that is an essential exploration of the history and evolution of art, but also plays over a sequence that wraps up and explores the future world of the film after the movie is over.

  • 29 1-13-2010 at 11:12 am

    Adam said...

    Oh please.

    I liked it when the Hollywood actually wrote songs that were memorabled long after you left the theater. Songs that are memorable even today. The 80s and 90s were great for the category.

    Now all that gets nominated is artsy fartsy s*** that no one has even hear before and that will be forgettable weeks after the ceremont.