Now that a full third of the categories for this year’s Oscars have been relegated to a pre-show ceremony that will be easily leaked before they can be edited into the broadcast, we must take stock of the relative value that exists for the five artistic and technical categories that ABC has deigned to allow the world to see unspoiled. One of those categories is Original Song, which if my hunch is correct, only survived the purge because the Disney overlords who made this decision have a more than decent shot of getting to celebrate a win.
This is a category that has given me a lot of consternation over the years, mostly due to the Music Branch’s utterly baffling choices. After the backlash against Dreamgirls and Enchanted getting three nominations each (none of which won), the branch officially changed the rules to limit each film to two submissions, but they also made an unofficial plea to their membership to consider a submitted song within the context of its accompanying film. The intent was to discourage future situations where original songs were just tacked on during the credits to get a nomination, and by extension, false prestige. The idea was to eliminate this particular brand of cynicism and reliance on marketing campaigns rather than watching the actual movies. It’s impossible to make an ironclad rule to this effect, because it stymies creativity and could limit the category in such a way that we may not have enough eligible submissions to fill it out. It was only 10 years ago that the category was reduced to the bare minimum of two nominees (“Man or Muppet” beating out “Real in Rio”), and I can easily see it happening again.
But there definitely needs to be a reckoning or some kind of overhaul for this field, because whatever good intentions the Music Branch (and the rest of the Academy by extension) might have had, the changes they tried to encourage have all but fizzled out, with the exception of the hard limit of two songs per film.
One need only look at this year’s nominees for proof. Of the five, only one has a direct context inside of its film. And just like the creative nadirs of the category over the last 15 years, several entries seem like the result of a concerted marketing campaign rather than any statement of quality. Finally, the list continues a recent trend where it just feels like the branch is pandering to the people who don’t watch the show by nominating and promoting performers they think we want to see (a problem the entire Academy can’t seem to get its head around, mostly because it’s firmly ensconced in its own rectum) instead of highlighting actual musical achievement.
However, I still believe in some semblance of integrity. Because of that, even though the actual people nominating and voting on this category won’t act in good faith, I will. As I judge the following five songs, I will be considering two key factors: the quality of the song and its context within the movie. That is how I will make my decision regarding what is a relatively subpar set of tracks for the year.
This year’s nominees for Original Song are…
“Be Alive” from King Richard – Music and Lyrics by DIXSON and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter
Song Quality: Pretty good. There’s a hard, deliberate pace to the rhythm of the song, but not as much of an onslaught as some of Beyoncé’s other hits like “Run the World (Girls)” and “Formation.” It’s not as militant. Also, she focuses much more on singing a melody rather than talk-shouting her message. That’s always a plus, as she has one of the better singing voices of her generation. While the chorus and verses are repetitive (the only notable difference being that the word “family” is changed to “sisters” and “tribe” during subsequent reprisals of the chorus), the lyrics themselves are simple yet strong, particularly the bigotry-defying line, “Couldn’t wipe this black off if I tried.” Not the best Beyoncé song ever written, but far from the worst.
Context: It plays during the credits, which includes some film and sound bites from the real-life Richard Williams. This not only shows how close Will Smith got to getting the voice and mannerisms right, but it also gives some actual content for the beginning of the song, which at least from a thematical standpoint puts a tidy bow on the movie. It’s not much, but I’ll take it. It’s at least one step up from just a standard credit roll play.
“Dos Oruguitas” from Encanto – Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Song Quality: Fantastic! Performed by Sebastián Yatra, the song is brilliant in its heartwarming simplicity. Led by a gentle guitar, Yatra’s voice rises and falls in direct proportion to the sheer emotion of the lyrics, occasionally cracking under the sentimentality. It’s a tender, aching love song about facing the uncertainties of the world without fear because of the care and commitment two people can have for each other. And using that pure love, they can withstand anything and change the lives of so many others.
Context: This is the only nominee that is part of the main body of its film, taking place at the critical turning point of the movie. Mirabel and her Abuela Alma are at opposing sides of a reckoning regarding the miracle that formed their magical Casita and gave everyone in the Madrigal family (sans Mirabel) a superhuman gift. The family discord is tearing the house apart, literally and figuratively, and Mirabel feels more and more alone as Abuela struggles to put a positive spin on her world coming down yet again. The song happens as Mirabel, in her quest to help everyone in her family, gets to see the tragic history that led to their miracle, understanding her grandmother on a level she never could before, while Abuela realizes the error of her ways for prioritizing the house over its people, especially Mirabel.
More importantly, having the song be a critical part of the story gives the viewer a crucial bit of visual assistance. As I mentioned when reviewing Encanto, my knowledge of Spanish is extremely lacking, but what I don’t possess in comprehension the film makes up with the visuals, so it doesn’t hinder my ability to understand the song. I know a few words here and there, including “mariposa,” which means “butterfly,” a word mentioned repeatedly late in the song. I personally knew that because of a trivia question I once saw relating this to the eponymous county here in California. But even if I didn’t have that foreknowledge, I’d still be able to get this.
For better or worse, one of the major points of Encanto is that the visual representation of the musical numbers is very literal, even when illustrating a metaphor. As such, the song begins with Alma as a young woman, meeting and falling in love with her eventual husband, represented by two butterflies fluttering near their faces, just as Yatra sings his first notes. So when you hear the words “Dos oruguitas,” you see two butterflies, giving you that crucial cue to sense the meaning of the song. Yes, technically “origuitas” means “caterpillars,” so it’s not an exact analogy, but the song and the animation make it work because the butterfly becomes a key symbol for the Madrigal family. It inscribes itself onto the magic candle that gives them their miracle. When the song ends, you see a swarm of butterflies surrounding Alma and Mirabel before flying off into the larger world. Because of this, “oruguitas” takes on a different connotation, referring to Alma and her husband as younger butterflies rather than literal caterpillars, creating a community that eventually becomes ready to see more of what life has to offer. Because of this commitment to visual storytelling to accompany the song, I can understand the true beauteous intent without knowing but a few of the actual words. That is an accomplishment.
“Down to Joy” from Belfast – Music and Lyrics by Van Morrison
Song Quality: Pure nostalgia in the best way possible! This is very much a Van Morrison song. It’s in the same style of smooth, jazz-infused rock he’s been performing for the last 60 years. This particular track feels in line with not just his own catalog, but with those of his contemporaries like Jackson Browne, the Spencer Davis Group, and early Bruce Springsteen. There’s a folksy, brass-heavy rhythm to go along with Morrison’s distinct, intentionally strained voice and lingering guitar licks. The lyrics are inspirational and aspirational, about making a new start and living a life filled with happiness and gratitude. The song is catchy and hummable, and the charming backup singers provide an easy outlet for anyone to join in.
Context: Like every song except “Dos Oruguitas,” this plays during the credits. But unlike some of the others, there are good reasons for it. First and foremost, the film takes place in 1969, so inserting a new song during the actual proceedings would be an anachronism and feel largely out of place. Second, since Van Morrison composed the orchestral score (criminally not nominated or even shortlisted), it only makes sense to wrap up the proceedings with a new song of his own. This is also fitting, given that the non-ambient soundtrack is also largely his, which is appropriate, as Morrison himself is a son of Belfast, and it’s very likely his music would have been played in heavy rotation during the Troubles.
But more importantly, Belfast is a movie about trying to find the small moments of happiness in one of Ireland’s darkest times. Even more, it’s about trying to protect an innocent child from having to face the trauma of the moment beyond what he can handle. As such, a large part of that process is done through music and pop culture, allowing Buddy to filter his experience through media that he can understand, whether it’s Star Trek, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, or the music of Van Morrison. This extends to the rest of the family, who do know what’s going on, and provides a sense of escapism and catharsis. Hell, the best scene of the film is when Buddy’s parents reconcile and reaffirm their commitment to one another, capped off with Jamie Dornan singing, “Everlasting Love.” Because of all this, “Down to Joy” represents a thematic resolution to the story, so while I wish there was a better way to play it than during the credits, it is at least done in an appropriate manner.
“No Time to Die” from No Time to Die – Music and Lyrics by Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell
Song Quality: Meh. If you’ve ever read this blog, you know my feelings on Billie Eilish, so you might be expecting me to completely tear this song apart. But I will at least try to be kind, because in a lot of ways, this might be her best track yet. Now, this is mostly because she actually attempts to sing, and she does so clear enough that the lyrics are at least mostly audible and intelligible, a far cry from her normal repertoire. The bar to clear is quite low. She even tries to belt a little bit right at the end, something that she notes in the awful documentary about her (that somehow got shortlisted) that she absolutely hates and thinks anyone who does it is stupid. Finally, there’s some decent instrumentation here, but I’m guessing this was at studio insistence, to give the song the feel of a “Bond theme,” with that distinctive low-register guitar and sweeping strings, something Billie and Finneas largely eschew in their normal output. Instruments are for nerds. They have computers and drum machines if you want some background noise.
But all that said, this is still mediocre at best. The lyrics are insipid with entry-level rhymes, Billie’s singing, while functional, is nowhere near the quality of the rest of the nominees, and the overall number feels largely derivative. If you saw the documentary, you know why this is. There’s a sequence devoted to this song, where studio and record execs pitch the O’Connells on doing it, and they all agree that they want to do what Sam Smith did, referring to the previous Bond theme, the utterly horrid and nonsensical (but still somehow Oscar-winning) “The Writing’s On the Wall.” This can mean one of three things. Either they meant to copy his song, copy his Academy success, or both. And as much as I don’t like that previous track, it was at least his own, and you can definitely hear shades of it in this one. The chorus is melodically very similar, right down to ending both songs with the title, following a nearly identical note progression, just with a different cadence. It’s not nearly as large of a steal as when Smith himself stole from Tom Petty, but it’s a steal nonetheless.
Context: It’s a Bond theme. It plays during the opening credits. That’s it. It’s a credits song, with the only difference being that since it’s the opening – and a James Bond film – some creative effort is put into the visual and artistic style. Otherwise it’s completely unrelated to the film, and honestly, the title is shoehorned into the lyrics without any connective tissue to the rest of the song.
More importantly, this represents the cynicism of the Music Branch and the Academy’s recent behavioral patterns. This is a middling song at best, yet it was a presumed nominee – and favorite – from the moment it was announced. Not released, announced, all the way back in January of 2020. From that point on, the campaign was in full force to get Billie Eilish an Oscar because she’s “oh so talented” and THE pop princess of the moment. Never mind that she could end up just as flash-in-the-pan-y as Sam Smith himself has become (an inherent risk when you opt for a monthly flavor rather than a firmly established and credible artist), everyone knew this just HAD to happen to get the kids to watch the Oscars again! Even though they didn’t tune in when she was booked to perform the In Memoriam segment that same year. It got to the point that the COVID-necessitated delays to the film’s release became a frustration not for any anticipation of the movie, but for the moment that they could shower this talentless teenager with more praise she doesn’t deserve in hopes of drawing a youth audience that could not give two shits.
In that same segment from her documentary, Eilish makes it clear that she doesn’t like the song or the writing process. She hated doing any kind of singing instead of her normal incoherent, goth poser mumbling. Remember when I said she thinks “belting” is stupid? If you watch the documentary, when they’re recording the song, she considers herself belting when she sings above a whisper. So what any other normal person would recognize as just, well, SINGING, she thinks is stupid, along with anyone who does it. So why are we falling over ourselves to award this ungrateful, judgmental, musically clueless brat the highest honor in film? Explain it to me!
“Somehow You Do” from Four Good Days – Music and Lyrics by Diane Warren
Song Quality: There is none.
“Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”
“Because You Loved Me”
“How Do I Live?”
“I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”
“Music of My Heart”
“There You’ll Be”
“Til it Happens to You”
“Stand Up for Something”
“I’m Standing With You”
If I were to upload a video of nearly any of those songs and simply change the title to “Somehow You Do,” there’s a strong chance you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Almost every single one of these tracks follows the same pattern: soft pop chord progression, quasi-uplifting lyrics about overcoming… something, a power ballad chorus, and an upward key change for the last few repetitions of said chorus. Literally, out of that list, maybe three of them (“I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” “Til it Happens to You,” and “Stand Up for Something”) offer anything to distinguish themselves from the pack, and in all three cases, it’s the performers (Aerosmith, Common, and Lady Gaga) who are responsible, two of whom co-wrote their songs.
Everything else is the same copy/paste schlock that Diane Warren has been churning out as a songwriter for the past 35 years. “Somehow You Do” is no different. Reba McEntire is the inspirational avatar this time, phoning in meaningless, basic lyrics about thinking that “the ocean’s too wide” and how “there’s better days up ahead.” It’s essentially a “Hang in there, baby” poster turned into a song, with just enough country twang and Christian undertones to make McEntire willing to sing it. It’s just maudlin, manipulative garbage that sadly, we’re all used to by now.
Context: Again, there is none. It plays during the credits of Four Good Days, but it has no link to the film whatsoever. Diane Warren could have been commissioned to write this song to play over the credits of The Paw Patrol Movie and it would have had just as much relevance. The actual film, Four Good Days, is about a drug addict trying to detox enough to be able to get a medical injection that will block her ability to get high from opiates and heroin, thus curbing her addiction, the title referring to the amount of time she needs to stay clean. And while Glenn Close and Mila Kunis give really good performances as a reconciling mother and daughter in this fight, the film kind of glosses over how the main character is actually able to make her recovery stick this time. This is the closest thing to connective tissue we get between the song and the movie. Because after a climactic turn from Kunis late in the film that puts her life in danger… somehow she succeeds, completely offscreen. I’ve had to stretch so much to give this song ANY credit that I can now join Cirque du Soleil.
But again, this is a symptom of a much larger problem at play here, and that’s the fact that just like with Billie Eilish, the wheels were already in motion for this nomination long before the movie came out. This is Warren’s 13th nomination, her fifth in a row, and her seventh in the last eight years. Clearly there is some caucus within the Music Branch that is dedicated against all logic and reason to make sure she wins, even though all evidence would suggest that the Academy writ large does not care for her work. Last year was arguably her best shot, as it was a very down year thanks to the pandemic and three of the other four nominees were thematically similar. It was the perfect opportunity to split votes and have her win with the slimmest of pluralities, and it STILL didn’t work. But because a whole bunch of people owe her favors, money, or blackmail, she gets nominated every year. I had originally planned to watch Four Good Days months ago when it first came out, because I was able to check Warren’s Wikipedia page to see that she had been commissioned for the song. I made plans to see a movie I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about because I knew this was going to happen, and that is a VERY BIG PROBLEM. As of right now, she doesn’t have anything listed for this year, but you best believe I’m going to be regularly checking that page just so I know what random nonsense I’m going to have to sit through just to clear her off the list, because whatever attempts at objectivity and credibility the Music Branch has tried over the years have clearly not worked. When the corruption is this transparent, falling ratings are the least of your problems.
1) “Dos Oruguitas”
2) “Down to Joy”
3) “Be Alive”
4) “No Time to Die”
5) “Somehow You Do”
Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!
Up next, there are two opportunities for multiple Oscar wins for the same role this year, both of which would be the first for a female role! It’s Best Supporting Actress!
Join the conversation in the comments below! What are your musical tastes? Should the context within the film matter, or just how good the song is? Seriously, can we hire someone to see what dirt Diane Warren has on the rest of the branch? Let me know!