Greetings, music lovers! Last month was a bit rough, but… I can’t promise that this month will be any better. I choose to take this category’s regular run of mediocrity as a kind of comfort, as an island of stability in an unstable world. You don’t come to the Best Original Songs for brilliance, you come for the warm embrace of banality.
That said, the span from mid-80s to late-90s is probably the hardest for me to treat with any pretend objectivity or distance: these songs, and especially the songs in this month’s installment, were the soundtrack to parts of my life I’m least interested in revisiting. Our first three entries were all soft-rock hits that constituted the soundtrack to every dentist’s waiting area, mall changing room, and soul-crushing job I’d rather forget. They fill me with the cold shock of anti-nostalgia.
Undoubtedly the biggest of the three came from perennial Oscar bridesmaid Diane Warren, with the second of her (currently) 11 nominations. That puts her one behind non-winner Fellini and few more behind record-holder Greg P. Russell (16, plus an additional nomination that was revoked when it turned out he was calling voters. Susan Lucci could never.) “Because You Loved Me” from the Robert Redford/Michelle Pfeiffer romance Up Close and Personal is a big, bleating ballad. Of course it helped to have Céline Dion’s pipes.
Hard to say much about a song that’s this transparent at what it does. It has one unusual structural element, in that the verses and the chorus are nearly identical until their final measures: the verses end in the dominant key to prep our return to tonic, while the chorus foreshortens the progression so it can end on the tonic instead, and thus give us a sense of “completeness.” It’s not a great song, but the simple progression makes it an excellent karaoke option.
With your second nominee, you’d have sixteen nominations if you add together the songwriters of “I Finally Found Someone” from The Mirror Has Two Faces: Marvin Hamlisch (8), Barbra Streisand (5) and Bryan Adams (3), with the caveat that Hamlisch and Streisand actually won some, too. That’s a lot of cooks in such an anodyne kitchen, and if there’s anything interesting about “IFFS”, it’s that the song really does sound like two strangers who just met at a karaoke-bar duet stubbornly refusing to meet each other on the same page. Adams is trying to rasp-rock his way through it, Streisand’s just kinda la-la-LA-laing through the dead air, and then they sorta meet for the chorus. This is it!, I guess.
One odd detail about the song that I can’t shake: Streisand’s la-la-LA-la is identical to a motif from the third (slow waltz) movement of Prokofiev’s sixth piano sonata (first heard at the 12:34 mark here). I don’t know what to do with that information, but now you know it, too.
Finally, we get Kenny Loggins soft-rockin’ his way through another Michelle Pfeiffer film, One Fine Day. “For the First Time” is one of eight-time nominee (zero-time winner) James Newton Howard’s few forays into songwriting: he’s much, much better known as a prolific composer of scores. Howard had gotten his start as a session musician for some big acts (Diana Ross, Elton John, etc.) and Kenny Loggins was the prince of 80s soundtracks, but somehow they produce something like anti-magic here. It’s both recognizably of the same species as the two previous songs and yet, somehow, even sleepier.
Moving along! Here’s a quick tip for all you would-be Oscar winners out there: the surest way to an Academy Award is 1) be a venerable old Broadway composer, and 2) write a song for Madonna to sing in a movie. You really need both parts of that equation to work (sorry, Mirwais!), but it’s currently batting a thousand, so there are worse bets to take.
That’s about the only thing Sondheim’s win has in common with Andrew Lloyd Weber’s. Sondheim was writing a fully original soundtrack to an original film; ALW and lyricist Tim Rice were adding an appendage to their adaptation of his Broadway smash. I’ve already said my piece on Weber as a composer — the short version: I’m against it! — but there’s also very little to recommend Evita’s “You Must Love Me” on its own. To damn it with faint praise, it’s a fairly understated piece from a composer not exactly known for understatement.
Such a sleepy slate of nominees this year, but at least the fifth gives us a jolt of sunshine — and it’s also really great, the best of the batch by a country mile. The recently departed Adam Schlesinger (fuck you, COVID) wrote the title track for That Thing You Do! as an “exercise” in using songwriting devices that would suggest “Please Please Me”-era Beatles without being Beatles, per se. Thankfully, it’s not just a slavish copy of period-appropriate tics: Schlesinger merges them with a zippy modern sensibility, and the result is magical, one of my favorite songs we’ve covered in this series.
What else could have been nominated?
If you’re placing bets on who won the Best Song Oscar during any given year in the 1990s, you’ll almost always win with Disney… almost. 1996 proved an outlier. The Mouseocracy didn’t exactly set the charts on fire with any of their pieces from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, despite two-hit wonder All-4-One with the halfhearted ballad “Someday” (the official video is the most hilariously 90s thing you’ll see today, I promise you won’t regret it.) Hunchback was one of Disney’s only 90s features not to score a nomination in this category (along with Mulan), which is too bad: not all of Menken and Schwartz’s choices are great, but there are some bold swings, most notably “Hellfire,” the G-rated film’s ode to self-flagellating horniness.
Besides, if they were going to toss a nominee to an animated feature, it almost certainly would have gone to the one that had the monster hit, R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly,” a Space Jam original. Though it never actually managed to hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100, it was the ubiquitous inspirational song of the decade, and its absence here is a genuine surprise to me. Maybe it was the secondhand embarrassment of Academy voters having to hear the words “Academy Award nominee… Space Jam,” but either way, they really dodged a bullet with this one in retrospect, eh?
Finally, there’s the song I’d have given the gold to, if I had my way: Radiohead’s appropriately named “Exit Music (for a film)” from Baz Luhrmann’s highly caffeinated riff on Romeo and Juliet… sorry, Romeo “+” Juliet. The song has a weird history, since it is the actual exit music, but was not selected to be on the movie’s official soundtrack (though another non-original song by Radiohead, “Talk Show Host,” did make the cut). It is unequivocally one of the band’s best songs, a haunting ballad that lingers in spare loneliness before exploding in sour, enraged teenage angst. Instead of Oscar glory, it’d have to settle for being a crown jewel in one of the most critically beloved albums of all time. Thems the breaks.
Next month: Nothing! The category didn’t exist in 1930. Go home, go spend time with your family.
Previous installments: 1934, 1936, 1940, 1941, 1950, 1954, 1961, 1965, 1966, 1972, 1974, 1982, 1984, 1990, 2004, 2007