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OSCAR SONGS: LET THE CAMPAIGNS BEGIN

The Motion Picture Academy reached far across the calendar in selecting its Original Song nominees for the 88th annual Academy Awards, and in doing so created a list of pop star nominees that resembles the class of 2013. The Weekend, Lady Gaga, Sam Smith and Antony of Antony and the Johnsons will be vying for the Oscar, though with the Academy’s recent rule changes it’s unlikely the campaigns will match the last year of hitmakers— U2, Pharell, Karen O and “Let it Go”— in the category.

The Academy, which tends to honor films released between October and the end of December, went back to January of 2015 when the Gaga-Diane Warren track, “Til It Happens to You,” was first heard at The Hunting Ground’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, and The Weeknd’s “Earned It” was used to promote Fifty Shades of Grey early in its set-up. Republic Records, which released the soundtrack, used the single to feed into a series off song releases preceding The Weeknd’s chart-topper Beauty Behind the Madness. (The last time a song from a film older than a year won the Oscar was Bob Dylan’s “Things Have Changed” from 2000’s Wonder Boys.)

Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall” was released day-and-date in September with its film, Spectre, and went on to become the first Bond song to hit No. 1 in the U.K. Highly anticipated as the first new music from the British singer whom the Grammys honored with three major awards in February 2015, Smith’s song has the bonus of winning the song Golden Globe on Sunday. In three of the previous six years, Academy voters have gone with the Globe winner—last year with Common and John Legend’s “Glory” and previously with Adele and Paul Epworth’s “Skyfall” and Ryan Bingham and T Bone Burnett’s “The Weary Kind.”

Racing Extinction, a documentary on sea life from filmmakers behind Oscar winner The Cove, also premiered at Sundance, but without the song contributions of Sia and Oscar nominee Antony Hegarty. The songs, co-written by the film’s composer, documentary specialist and recording artist J. Ralph, were added prior to its short theatrical run in September. The film has since played on the Discovery channel, which financed the film.

“Simple Song #3” from Youth, the longshot in the category, was first screened at Cannes in May, and its writer, David Lang, a Pulitzer-winning classical composer, lacks any pop music or pop culture profile. While Oscar does open its doors to outsiders on occasion, the last nominee from the classical world was Tan Dun for 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

This year’s class marks the first time in Academy Award history that two songs from documentaries are nominated. Beyond that, though, it looks remarkably similar to 2013, the first year that many involved in Oscar campaigning have cited as the first time efforts were put into winning the category. While ballots were out, Disney staged a concert version of Frozen to an invited audience; U2 secured a Palm Springs Film Festival honor and a Tonight Show performance; Karen O. went viral with taped KCRW concert; and “Happy” became simply unavoidable as it dominated pop culture.

Last year saw the Grammy Awards secure a coup—the television premiere of Common and Legend’s Glory, which provided a stunning close to the telecast—that helped push it past the well-promoted Begin Again’s “Lost Stars,” the Glen Campbell swan song “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” the Lego Movie’s anthem “Everything is Awesome” and Warren’s tune from Beyond the Lights, “Grateful.”

Intriguingly, the songs by The Weekend, Gaga and Smith play in the body of the film as opposed to end credits. The Gaga tune appears just after a shocking revelation that takes the air out of the room; “Writing’s on the Wall” melancholic mood provides a counterpoint to the adrenalin rush on the onscreen action; and “Earned It,” which appears twice in Fifty Shades of Grey, is there to play up the sexy. J. Ralph and Hegarty’s “Manta Ray” proves a thoughtful and pensive reaction to the thoughtless slaughter of sea creatures. The Academy opted last year to go with the song that made a statement. Will they do it two years in a row or opt for libidinous or make “Writing’s on the Wall” the second Bond theme to win an Oscar?

Campaigning for the song trophy in early 2015 led to the Academy adding eight more rules to practices, the most important being that Music Branch members cannot be invited to live performances of eligible songs unless performed at the same time and venue as a screening of the entire film. That rule cut down the number of performances at gatherings, but it will be interesting to see how studios promote music that is past its prime at radio. And will Republic, Capitol and/or Interscope get involved in giving their artists an edge to take home an Oscar in what may very well be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?

 

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