The Academy’s Best Song Problem

Between the shrugs over Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and the giggles over Real Steel, a good chunk of this week’s Oscar talk has been on the Best Song category. For the first time in Oscar history, only two songs were nominated (The Muppets‘s “Man or Muppet” and Rio‘s “Real in Rio”), leaving behind expected favorites “Life’s a Happy Song” and “The Living Proof,” among others.

Man or Muppet - photo via Muppet Wiki

Part of this is a good thing – the music branch’s voting rules, though complex to a somewhat absurd degree, are designed to ensure each nominee is genuinely well-liked and not just “that’ll do because we need to round out the category” filler. (A complete list of the rules can be found here; a clarified discussion of the process can be found here.) It makes sense, finding a comfortable common ground in that sticky realm between individual favorite and group consensus.

And yet. The real problem is the music branch’s unwritten rule that a qualifying song should be integral to the story of the film itself and not just some tune slapped over the closing credits (even though the written rule states the first song to play over the credits is indeed eligible). It’s a bit of snobbery at play here, a knee-jerk reaction to seeing big pop hits win over smaller works – much like how the documentary branch embarrassed themselves in the 1980s and early 90s by snubbing acclaimed titles simply because they were popular – and it comes off as a bit whiny in its outdated view of movie music, which ranks songs written for musicals (you know, by professionals who have to work with the score and everything) above something as crass as a closing credits theme (you know, which any random kid with a guitar can do, and where’s the talent in that?).

To help enforce this sentiment, the written rules of award submission state that Academy members will only consider songs via film clips. This means voters are watching, not listening, meaning any song playing over a scroll of names won’t dazzle as much as, say, something accompanied by dancing cartoon birds or a Jason Segel-sized Muppet. This is why we’ve had so many nominees lately that don’t play well when removed from their movies, and so few that do.

This doesn’t account for every notable snub of the past decade; the omission of songs from Walk Hard and Team America is Just One of Those Things. (Similarly, one must wonder if “Happy Song” and “Star Spangled Man,” two songs wholly integrated into their visually whiz-bang scenes, just didn’t play well with voters when removed from their films as a whole.) But it does explain how something like Mary J. Blige’s theme from The Help, with a sweeping melody that’s tailor made for the Oscars, got snubbed. Same with such recent works as Bruce Springsteen’s “The Wrestler,” Rob Thomas’ “Little Wonders,” Eddie Vedder’s “Guaranteed,” etc., etc. This even applies to songs that aren’t very good but seemed destined for a nomination, like Leona Lewis’ Avatar theme.

It would also, curiously enough, leave a large pile of past winners out to dry as well, had they been up for consideration in recent years. Would today’s voters give any attention to the songs-over-credits of “Things Have Changed,” “Into the West,” “Streets of Philadelphia,” or (dare I say it?) “My Heart Will Go On”?

(Some secondary damage done here: the Oscar telecasts themselves suffer by snubbing bigger artists, whom many viewers would otherwise tune in to see perform. By stubbornly taking an insular approach to the category, the music branch has forced the show’s producers to struggle to make the Best Song category interesting television – which in recent years led first to a “let’s shorten the songs” approach, then a “let’s not have the songs at all” one. I’m not saying nominees should be picked based on how well they’ll play on TV, but if you’re constantly being told your picks are too lame for an Academy Awards broadcast, you might want to take note.)

What the music branch seems to be resisting is the fact that the musical as a genre will never return to the level of popularity – or permeation – of its heyday. But why now? It’s not as if the rise of the closing credits theme is a new thing. Can it be these modern voting habits are an overly belated reaction to the nominees of the last four decades, when there were far more pop themes than musicals? For most of my life I’ve heard complaints that a closing credits theme was somehow less substantial, but the folks making those complaints are also now making the rules. Is this a permanent change, or will the backlash of the past few years be enough to shift attitudes?

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