If you know me, you know I’m sort of a stickler when it comes to rules and organization. Hell, on some of the shows I work on in real life, I literally write them. I’m not completely anal about things, but I do believe that when regulations are made in good faith, they should be followed, at least until a better idea comes along that improves upon or fixes what came before. I think that’s reasonable and ensures fairness.
As such, you’ll probably not be in the least bit surprised when I basically call “SHENANIGANS!” on the bulk of this year’s Original Song category. The most recent changes to the Academy’s rules for music came after films like Dreamgirls and Enchanted somehow wound up with three of the five nomination slots, and still losing. That led to the newest limit of two songs per film being considered. A production company, studio, or filmmaker can submit as many songs as they want from a given movie, but when creating the shortlist, only the top two vote-getters will advance, with both being eligible for the final ballot if they make it.
But here’s the thing. While that’s a hard, ironclad law, pretty much everything else is either so open to interpretation as to be meaningless, or is just conveniently ignored by the Music Branch membership in favor of whatever campaign they want to support or agenda they wish to promote. No better is this exemplified than in the continued annual nomination of Diane Warren.
Many of her nods have been dubious or egregious before (seriously, try to name the actual films where her nominated songs have featured), but this one just shows the system is broken. Because even though she’s not going to win this year (or likely ever), and the Academy gave her an honorary Oscar in December, it’s still not enough for whatever voting bloc she appears to control, and she’s up for the sixth year in a row, eighth of the last nine, and 14th time overall. She holds the record for most nominations without a win, and second place isn’t even close (the late Mack David with eight nods; John Williams is the closest living competitor with five, and obviously he has plenty of wins in Original Score to make up for it).
This sends a terrible message to songwriters the world over, because it gives off the impression that the game is rigged, at least at the preliminary level. The rest of the Academy doesn’t like her stuff enough to give her the damn trophy, but clearly there’s some sort of internal bias within the branch, a caucus strong enough to ensure that she makes the finals every time out, and what that tells everyone else is that no matter what they do, if Warren writes a song for a movie in a given year, no matter the context, they’re fighting for one of only four available spots. I’ve gotten into the habit of checking her Wikipedia page every year to see if there’s a mediocre (or worse) picture that I have to track down for the Blitz just to keep up with this annual appeasement. The reason I didn’t see Tell it Like a Woman until its VOD release a few weeks ago was because Warren’s page hadn’t been updated to include it. As of this posting, it still hasn’t, and she’s already getting press about the song she wrote for 80 for Brady, which means I may be doomed to watching that piece of shit as well.
But this isn’t just about me venting my spleen about schlocky ballads that even Easy Listening stations think are lame. There is something corrupt going on here. As evidence, let’s look at the actual rules the Academy sets for music, which can be found here, to break this chicanery down. These are the regulations as of the 93rd Oscars, so it’s possible that they’ve since been changed again, but I doubt it would matter all that much.
The first rule is as follows: “An original song consists of words and music, both of which are original and written specifically for the motion picture. There must be a clearly audible, intelligible, substantive rendition (not necessarily visually presented) of both lyric and melody, used in the body of the motion picture or as the first music cue in the end credits.”
Warren’s track this time, “Applause,” fits part of this criteria, but I’d argue it’s only 1/3 of the way to clearing the bar. Nothing in this song is “original.” If you’ve heard one ballad from Warren, you’ve heard them all. This is the same objection I had to Billie Eilish’s win for No Time to Die, as she’s on camera in her own documentary admitting that she’s cribbing from Sam Smith. It may not be an exact copy, but in my mind, intentional and obvious derivation is enough to disqualify, and that accounts for Warren’s entire catalog. Second, “Applause” wasn’t written for the film, Tell it Like a Woman. It’s the opposite. If you look at the production’s own website, as well as their press clippings from when it was announced back in July, it’s clear that Tell it Like a Woman, an anthology of short films, was assembled and marketed as such to justify the song. There’s a disturbing degree of transparency with the producers flat out admitting that the collection only exists to campaign for this award with this song. If you need more proof that the movie itself just doesn’t matter, it only had the bare minimum one-week qualifying release in October (same week as To Leslie, for whatever that’s worth) before being pulled from theatres entirely. Clearly the campaign and name recognition was all they cared about. The only part of this rule that has been abided is the last clause, and for once, I’ll give Warren the benefit of the doubt. Typically, her songs only play during the credits, and it does so here as well (it actually plays TWICE, once in the main form and then again as a dance remix), but it is also in the main body of the movie, as a background track at the end of the sixth short of the series, Sharing a Ride. It’s not much, but I’ll take it.
When it comes to submission, this point also stands out: “[The song shall be accompanied by] A digital video clip of no more than three minutes of each song, showing how the song is used in the motion picture.” Again, just this once, Warren passes (barely), but then how do you explain every other nomination? Yes, a song is eligible if it’s the first to play over the credits, but how is that in any way satisfying? How are you demonstrating its use in the movie, if it only comes on after the movie is finished? This is part of an earlier rule change (I want to say after Chicago) where there were too many entries that had no context within the stories of their associated films. It was created to encourage voters to truly consider the impact the song has on the movie, and while this year is an exception, Warren’s continued presence is proof positive that this rule is just completely ignored. More importantly, three minutes isn’t enough time for a lot of songs. Of this year’s nominees, only “This is a Life” comes in under that time limit, which means if a member of the Music Branch is trying to judge a submission legitimately, they can’t consistently get the full effect of it. Though it would probably explain why the performances on Oscar Night are truncated to about 90 seconds most of the time. The membership probably thinks that’s how long the songs actually are!
Finally, we have the voting rule which effectively eliminates not only Warren, but the vast majority of nominees year in and year out: “Works shall be judged on their effectiveness, craftsmanship, creative substance, and relevance to the dramatic whole, and only as presented within the motion picture.” Bull. Shit. If this rule mattered, there are so many songs that would be rendered ineligible, including at least 10 of Warren’s 14 nominations, to say nothing of all the tracks that get released months ahead of the film’s theatrical debut so that they can be “hits” and get radio airplay. As for our purposes here, there is no effect because Warren’s songs mostly play over the credits, or in this particular case, was commissioned solely as a marketing tool. There is no craftsmanship or creative substance because it’s the exact same song she’s been writing for the last 40 years. There is no relevance to the dramatic whole, because the songs are produced wholly separate from the film itself.
So tell me again how this is allowed. As I said, it’s not just that I don’t like her music. We all have our tastes, and if her stuff does it for you, awesome. Go with God and be happy. A whole lot of other entries each year fail to meet even these basic requirements, but Warren is by far the worst offender, and she keeps getting rewarded for it. What is the point of even having rules if you’re not going to enforce them? People bitched and moaned about Andrea Riseborough, but this is far more pernicious, and the viewers notice. You want to know why people don’t tune in? It’s nonsense like this.
This year’s nominees for Original Song are…
“Applause” from Tell it Like a Woman – Music and Lyrics by Diane Warren
See above for why this shouldn’t even have been allowed to compete, but from here on out, I’ll purely be judging the merits of the nominated songs themselves. This one sucks.
Performed by Sofia Carson, because I guess she was the next pop star to come up in rotation for this gig, the lyrics are simplistic and patronizing, with lines like, “You’re a supernova superstar,” “They can’t stop you, you’re unstoppable,” and “Give yourself some respect, ’cause you’ve earned it.” The entire song is filled with these empty platitudes that basically boil down to – if we’re to attempt any contextual relevance to the movie – hey, you have a vagina, so you’re automatically better than the world.
An even more devious interpretation would be to see this as Diane Warren herself telegraphing her intentions to the Academy voters. Just change “Give yourself some applause, you deserve it” to “Give me a fucking Oscar, I deserve it.” The song, just like its associated movie, is a participation trophy masquerading as substance, and the fact that I can instantly name six songs from the shortlist (“Time,” “Til You’re Home,” “Stand Up,” “New Body Rhumba,” “Ciao Papa,” and yes, even Taylor Swift’s “Carolina”) that deserve to be here in its place is a testament to how far this category has fallen.
“Hold My Hand” from Top Gun: Maverick – Music and Lyrics by Lady Gaga and BloodPop
If you wish to dispute my arguments about the complete disregard for the rules, this entry may be your best shot, but even then it’s just confirmation that the entire system is fucked, as this entry also fails a basic reading of the eligibility requirements. Taken within the context of Top Gun: Maverick, Lady Gaga’s latest notice that she’ll perform at the ceremony if asked actually contradicts the movie. The one plot thread in the film that doesn’t repeat bits from the original Top Gun is the idea of letting go. Maverick needs to let go of his guilt over Goose’s death. Rooster needs to let go of his resentment and trust himself. Hangman needs to let go of his ego and be a team player. Iceman has to let go of life.
So what’s this song about? It’s right there in the title. This is a song about co-dependency, with such empowering lyrics as “Cry tonight, but don’t you let go of my hand,” “Look into my wishful eyes,” and the completely tone deaf, “Tell me you need me.” The song itself isn’t bad, though I’d argue it’s a touch basic for a talent such as Gaga (honestly it feels like something Warren would write), but it’s completely antithetical to the actual message of the movie. This is where the context rules either need to be enforced or rewritten, because if you watch this movie, and then hear this song, you’re left with nothing but confusion. But if you just listen to it on its own, and don’t give a fuck about relevance, then it’s fine. Decide what matters, AMPAS!
“Lift Me Up” from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever – Music by Tems, Rihanna, Ryan Coogler, and Ludwig Göransson; Lyrics by Tems and Ryan Coogler
This is in the same spirit as “Hold My Hand,” in that it’s a song about support and love. But crucially, this one is actually relevant to the accompanying movie. All of Wakanda is in mourning after T’Challa’s death, and they face existential threats from Talokan and the espionage units of world powers seeking their Vibranium. In times of collective sadness, a powerful yet soothing hymn is wholly appropriate, providing catharsis and echoing the tone of the overall film.
As for the content of the song, I absolutely love the gentle strings, the simplicity of the lyrics that express an easy idea without pandering to anything, and credit where it’s due, Rihanna fucking KILLS it with the vocals. I’m always hit and miss with her, mostly because I know she’s an immensely talented singer with a gorgeous voice, but half of her hits are club tracks where she basically just talk-sings into Auto-Tune, squandering her greatest asset. Here, she’s allowed to carry the admittedly basic melody and sell it for all it’s worth, and I’m here for it!
“Naatu Naatu” from RRR – Music by M.M. Keeravani, Lyrics by Chandrabose
This is not only the best song in the set by a country mile, its inclusion in RRR is one of the five best scenes of all of 2022 cinema! This is what the category of Original Song is SUPPOSED to be about! It’s a perfectly-realized piece of the narrative, as the two leads stand up to their imperial overlords, asserting their worth and their humanity by demonstrating an advanced example of their culture that those who would dismiss them as inferior couldn’t possibly replicate.
But more importantly, the entire sequence is an exercise in unbridled energy and joy. The choreography for Raju and Bheem is off the charts, with the actors turning in a dance number (blending Indian and English styles with the adrenaline kicked up to 11) that has to be seen multiple times to be believed. And through it all, we still get crucial character moments, like when Raju realizes how much Bheem wants to impress Jenny and fakes an injury to bow out of the impromptu contest, giving him the win and adoration of the assembled masses. It’s a testament to just how great of a movie RRR is on the whole that you can watch this entire sequence and completely understand the point without knowing a single word of the Telugu lyrics.
This is pure cinematic passion and bliss laid bare before the world, and seeing it again now as I’m writing this nearly brought tears to me eyes as I remembered how blown away I was watching this in the theatre last summer. God I hope the Oscars producers give this the space it needs to be performed properly. If so, we could have the best musical number since Robin Williams led a full-stage rendition of “Blame Canada!”
“This is a Life” from Everything Everywhere All at Once – Music by Ryan Lott, David Byrne, and Mitski; Lyrics by Ryan Lott and David Byrne
Much more calm, but no less inspired, is the encapsulating theme from the best movie of the year. And true to the film itself, there’s a wonderful balance of chaos and order throughout the orchestration.
The main line is carried by Mitski, using her trademark artistic indie sound to assert what is essentially Joy/Jobu Tupaki’s mantra, that she is “a life, free from destiny.” After the opening verse, she’s joined by David Byrne of the Talking Heads, inserting a separate melody in his new wave style with call-and-answer lines that evoke the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home” without ripping it off. Finally, Ryan Lott and the rest of Son Lux join in with a third, experimental line that intentionally plays off tempo from the other two. The minimalist lyrics directly reference the themes of the movie, and tonally, all three sections rise to a climax before settling on a new peace, which echoes the storyline of the picture itself in ideal fashion.
Of all the entries that aren’t performed in the main body, this is the one that hews closest to the complete film, playing out in two and a half minutes as the movie does in two and a half hours. It’s a literal microcosm of Everything Everywhere All at Once, a redux coda for all the well-controlled insanity that unfolds on the screen. It’s the perfect way to decompress from the maelstrom that you witness in this unique work of cinematic art.
1) “Naatu Naatu”
2) “This is a Life”
3) “Lift Me Up”
4) “Hold My Hand”
5) “Applause” (it gets none from me)
Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!
Up Next, we’re coming down to the wire, with only two categories left, and tomorrow it’s the one I had to put off the longest in order to give myself as much time as possible to track down a nominee that might have never been released. It’s Documentary Feature!
Join the conversation in the comments below! Which song is your favorite? How much should context in the film matter? When will we have to just give up and let Diane Warren win so that she’ll leave us alone? Let me know!
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