The nominations for the 2012 Academy Awards were announced yesterday. Most film buffs are rejoicing/cursing about who and what is in (Gary Oldman!) and out (Albert Brooks??), but what I thought most startling is the fact that there are only two nominees this year for Best Original Song. According to news outlets, 39 songs were eligible for the Best Original Song nod – but we ended up with two. Since I haven’t seen The Muppets or Rio, I can’t pass judgment on these two songs. Though I like Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie, so I’m rooting for him to win for his Muppets song, “Man Or Muppet”.
How could we end up with just two nominees? Perhaps the strict voting process is to blame here. According to the Washington Post, “Members of the music branch can rank songs using 10, 9.5, 9, 8.5, 8, 7.5, 7, 6.5 or 6, and a song must have at least an average score of 8.25 to be nominated. If only one song gets that score, it and the song receiving the next highest score will be the two nominees.” The Best Original Song list keeps coming up short in recent years. In 2011, there were only four nominees, the winner being Randy Newman’s “We Belong Together” from Toy Story 3. In 2008, there were a slim three nominees – two of which came from Slumdog Millionaire, including winner “Jai Ho”. (The category tends to get dominated by songs from just one film, which begs the question if five nominees are really necessary. In 2007, three of the five Best Original Song nominees came from Enchanted. The same thing happened the year prior, when Dreamgirls snagged three song nominations.) Only three songs nominated in 2005, as well. You know 2005’s winner; we all still chuckle when we say “Academy Award Winners Three Six Mafia“.
The paltry two nominations are even more of a surprise when you consider all the talent involved in movie music in the past year. Elton John seemed like a good, bold-faced name for the ballot, for his work on Gnomeo & Juliet. Ditto Mary J. Blige, for her ballad “The Living Proof” from The Help. Quantity of nominations doesn’t necessarily cast a shadow on the songs’ quality. It’s not that movie music these days is BAD. Recent years have yielded some classics, like 2010’s “The Weary Kind” from Crazy Heart and 2007’s little song that could, “Falling Slowly” from Once. (In your face, Enchanted!) But it is true that original songs don’t appear to be as prominent in movies anymore, perhaps victims of over-zealous music supervisors looking for nostalgia with golden oldies, or looking to break the next big thing (ie, grab an up-and-coming artist’s song on the cheap).. Original songs are mostly confined to the end of the movie, right before the credits roll – the last spot a tune can appear in a movie before it’s ineligible for Oscar consideration. During the musical adaptation boomlet of the last decade, a new song would typically get penned for the stage-to-screen conversion, and it was always Oscar bait (hence those nominations for three new Dreamgirls songs in 2006), but the songs couldn’t help but feel tacked on.
Not to mention that songs from films are no longer the juggernauts of the pop charts. Think back to the 80s for a moment, and all the soundtracks and singles from them that dominated at the time. Flashdance. Purple Rain. Footloose. Top Gun. Dirty Dancing. The 90s brought their own heavy hitters, like The Bodyguard, Singles, Waiting To Exhale, Trainspotting and the unavoidable “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic – which debuted at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and won four Grammys, in addition to 1997’s Best Original Song Oscar. But think back over the last decade: how many movie songs tore up the charts? The only one I can think of is Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” from 2002’s 8 Mile, the first rap song to win Best Original Song. Many soundtracks are sold as digital-only these days (like the great 80s-centric compilation from Adventureland), if they’re sold at all (you can purchase the score to Zombieland, but not the soundtrack).
With the diminished influence of original songs in film, and therefore their diminished popularity in general, perhaps the time has come to retire the Best Original Song Academy Award. At the very least, I’d imagine that this year’s showing will force a revamp of the voting rules for the category.