Greetings, music-loving Soluters! (and music haters, as well) This year, as a change of pace, I promised to write about the Best Original Song category before the award is given out, and like too many of my promises lately, I’m just barely getting this one in under the wire… As is probably evident from my “let’s find whatever clip art is appropriate for a header”. So let’s do a quick recap of the five nominees, including the likely winner, and a few of the also-rans that made this year interesting.
Did I say interesting? Haha, of course it won’t be. Like most of the last few decades, this year is dominated by mid-tempo ballads over the closing credits, i.e. songs that were created specifically to win awards and whose artistic quality largely reflects that intent. Take, for example, the latest entry by perpetual also-ran Diane Warren, “Applause,” from Tell It Like a Woman. Outside her honorary Oscar given last year, Warren has the distinction of being the woman with the most Academy Award nominations and zero competitive wins — which I find greatly unfair, i.e. that she has fourteen nominations in the first place. Warren is the Thomas Kinkade of the Best Original Song category, churning out reliably forgettable, corny power ballads year after year, and somehow appealing to some contingent of voters that gets her shortlisted every time. The one thing the gratingly self-congratulatory “Applause” accomplishes is bringing Warren one step closer to overtaking the man with the most nominations and zero wins, Greg P. Russell. Anyway, here’s “Applause”:
Did you make it all the way through the song? If so, give yourself some applause: you deserve it.
I’m not quite as down on Lady Gaga in general — her win for “Shallow” was at least a solid entry for a typically pathetic category — but Gaga’s Top Gun contribution to the closing-credits balladapalooza is, well, more Diane Warren in spirit than Gaga. It’d be bad enough if it were merely forgettable, which it very much is (I’ve listened to it half a dozen times and keep forgetting which song it is!) but the Top Gun connection does her no favors, the original film having won for an all-timer of an Oscar tune, Giorgio Moroder’s strangely sultry, synthy “Take My Breath Away.” I’d love to talk about Moroder’s writing and Berlin’s performance… Gaga gives me nothing to work with, though. Anyway, here’s “Hold My Hand“:
Of the three conventional closing-credits ballads, the best of the lot — and the song most likely to pull off an underdog victory on Sunday — is Rihanna’s “Lift Me Up“, from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Though I wouldn’t call it top-tier Rihanna (a singer I otherwise like very much), her entry has a couple of factors working in its favor: first, it’s Rihanna, a popular first-time nominee whose fans have been clamoring for new music for the better part of a decade while she ran her makeup empire. Not only is Rihanna just coming off a much-publicized superbowl performance, “Lift Me Up” is the only of the five nominees to get something like regular radio play (Does anyone listen to the radio anymore?) And of course, it comes with one of those sentimental stories the Academy loves — the song is something of a eulogy for Chadwick Boseman — that will no doubt resonate with a lot of voters on its own terms, and may serve for others as a way of rectifying the Academy’s embarrassing finale two years ago. The refrain is very simple, but there’s also a lovely, quasi-hemiola motif in the song that I swear I’ve heard somewhere before, and if I weren’t writing this at 2am a few days before, might have time to track down, but no matter: it wouldn’t be my pick but it wouldn’t make me mad, either. It’s fine, if a little sleepy. Anyway, here’s “Lift Me Up”:
At the other end of the voting odds, the song least likely to win is the last of our closing-credits entries, “This is a Life,” from Everything Everywhere All at Once, written by Ryan Lott (of Son Lux), Mitski, and David Byrne… Three people who have never been in my kitchen! The good people at GoldDerby had this song ranked 12th on their list of likely nominees — tying for the lowest-ranked prediction to make it into the final five — and it’s not hard to guess why: this is a weird little song, especially for a category so tied to the most numbing of conventions. Every now and then a bit of indie quirk slips its way into the Best Original Song category, with folks like Karen O., Anohni, and Sufjan Stevens providing their signature, baffling little digressions from the usual fare. But all of those were, structurally and musically, fairly conventional even in indie terms, while this song, like the film it comes from, is both sappy and off kilter, from the lovely and unexpected key change to the unusual meter (try counting it out). I too am surprised this made the final cut over some more likely competitors, but I’m happy it did: I know some Soluters have an allergy to this kind of twee-adjacent quirkiness (as with the film!) but it’s a very well-crafted and unusual entry in a category that rarely showcases both. Anyway, here’s “This is a Life”:
Of course the biggest surprise this year is that we have a frontrunner that looks nothing like a traditional frontrunner in this category: it is 1) not a closing-credits song, nor a ballad, it’s 2) had no radio play and very little promotion outside of (albeit passionate) word-of-mouth, and it is 3) in Telugu, a language that has never before scored an Oscar nomination in any category (only one Telugu film has ever been submitted for foreign film, and was not chosen). And yet here we are, with a live performance of “Naatu Naatu” from RRR being, for so many of us, the most anticipated moment of Sunday’s broadcast. Expect them to bring the house down.
Here’s a painful admission, though: “Naatu Naatu” is not a particularly great song; I love RRR, but it’s maybe the third or fourth best song that M.M. Keeravani wrote for the movie. So why all the love? Well, it’s a supremely satisfying moment in the film (the heroes get to stick it to the stuck-up British men), and the dance choreo is really astounding. At a Q&A after the live screening I attended, the actors noted that director Rajamouli would play back the takes in slow motion to criticize the almost imperceptible moments they were out of sync: it took weeks of filming (in Ukraine!) to get the steps just right. If you haven’t seen RRR yet… First, what’s wrong with you? and second, there’s no fear of spoilers here, so please enjoy all the fancy footwork. My own favorite bit is the woman in the far left of the screen at the one-minute mark giving great shoulder.
What else could have been nominated?
I’m a little sore that the team behind RRR — who threw the movie into every possible category it could — didn’t advance any of its other, superior songs, though if they end up taking the statuette home, it was probably the smart, strategic thing to do. Still, I’d have loved to see “Dosti” taking home the prize: it’s superior in every way. As the theme song for RRR‘s main plot complication (think of The Departed if Matt and Leo had inadvertently become buds), “Dosti” is a song about a strong but potentially volatile friendship: yes, they’re becoming the best of bros, but what happens when the dual charade ends? The music builds from its earworm of a bass chant to a full-on orchestral climax, while the movie gives us a montage of homoerotic bonding punctuated with scenes where each of the bros very nearly ends up discovering the other’s secret identity. It’s a thrilling sequence, and before “Naatu Naatu” made inexplicably large waves on this side of the pond, it was “Dosti” that was understandably released as the lead single from the movie soundtrack. Enjoy!
Even so, my heart belongs to yet another song from RRR, and this one comes with major spoilers, so skip this section and video if you haven’t seen the movie yet. “Komuram Bheemudo” belongs to the very tiny category of songs set during torture sequences (??) It’s a supremely odd choice for a song sequence, but the proof of the pudding is in the taste, and this song serves as the critical turning point of the film. Structurally the song is really a dialogue, albeit between the solo singer and the accompaniment: as Bheem’s voice falters, the accompaniment becomes more intense, the musical equivalent to what’s happening dramatically and politically in the scene itself, as Bheem’s torture drives the crowd to rage and changes the entire trajectory of the movie. This is really Keeravani’s crowning achievement, and if this sequence doesn’t make you want to burn shit down, you’re made of sterner stuff than I. Granted, that might have created problems with live performance on Oscar night, though I’d like to imagine Meryl Streep storming the barricades.
Back in the world of possible nominees, the original shortlist had such heavy pop-music hitters as Taylor Swift and the Weekend alongside less traditional heavy hitters like LCD Soundsystem and, uh, Rita Wilson. I’d have been especially delighted if the pitch-perfect boy-band parody “Nobody Like U” from Turning Red (written by Billie Eilish!) had made the cut. But the biggest “snub” in the category was likely against “Ciao Papa,” the cloying ditty by Alexander Desplat and co. from Guillermo Del Toro’s interminable Pinocchio. I don’t mind Desplat’s music-box waltz so much, but despite a wide-ranging melodic line, the song itself is like nails-on-chalkboard. It took three writers — Roeban Katz, Patrick McHale, and del Toro himself — to produce those dogshit lyrics, and they don’t even scan. “Ciao Papa” was widely expected to fill the slot that went either to Dianne Warren or the Son Lux trio, but for once I’m thoroughly pleased to see a song snubbed.
Still, everyone knows there’s only one song from 2022 that deserves to be on constant rotation. Give all the Oscars to “Apartment for Sale” and shut down the category for good.