Just how far, culturally and creatively, is the distance between the Academy award-winning songs "Baby It's Cold Outside" (1949) and "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" (2005)? One's a clever dialogue between a guy on the make and a girl politely declining his attentions ("...I really can't stay; I've got to go 'way...Well, maybe just half a drink more...") and the other's about, well, pimping in Memphis ("...just trying to get the money for the rent...").
In the 82 years they've been handing out Oscar awards for 'Best Song from a Motion Picture' it seems as though there have been three types of winners: (a) novelty songs like the two we've mentioned, honored mainly for their attention-getting value; (b) really bland clichéd love songs like "Sweet Leilani" (1937), "You Light Up My Life"(1977), "Take My Breath Away" (1986) or (c) a few genuinely original, charismatic and honorable songs like Jerome Kern's "The Way You Look Tonight" (1936), Harold Arlen's "Over the Rainbow" (1939) or, say, David Shire's "It Goes Like It Goes" (1979).
The ways in which these songs get into films in the first place, and how they get noticed for nomination, have changed over the years. Although the Academy Awards were instituted in 1927, the award for Best Song was only offered in 1934. In those days and for the first dozen years, songs were easy to notice in films because the majority of those movies were musicals – the ideal showcase for new tunes being sung and danced. Indeed, the first winner, "The Continental" from The Gay Divorcee, was heard over-and-over throughout the fifteen minute Astaire/Rogers dance number; the next year's winner, Harry Warren's "Lullaby of Broadway," was soundtrack for an even more extravagant ballet sequence by Busby Berkeley. Musicals like those, starring the big pop stars of those days, account for all the Best Song winners right through the war years: Dick Haymes crooning "You'll Never Know," Judy Garland swooning "Over the Rainbow," Bing Crosby reassuring everyone with "White Christmas". Even the Disney films in those days were basically musicals and produced award winning songs like "When You Wish Upon a Star" and "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah".
Directly after the war years, the winning songs all seemed to be gently rhythmic, rustic, nostalgic pleasers and teasers -- file these in the novelty category: Johnny Mercer's "On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe" and Hoagy Carmichael's "In the Cool, Cool of the Evening," Livingston & Evans's "Que Sera Sera" and "Buttons and Bows". In a way, 1952's winner, the Tex Ritter cowboy tune "High Noon" (actually written by a Russian ex-pat) could be called a novelty song too for the way they spread its melody throughout the film and used its lyric as a running commentary to help tell the story on screen.
And yet that decade of the 1950s more often stayed loyal to its conservative political reputation, rewarding mostly bland conventional love songs with the Oscar: over-lush, rather soupy and concerto-like torch songs such as "Love is a Many Splendored Thing," "All the Way," "Three Coins in the Fountain". But then came the decade of the 1960s and it, too, had its own political agenda – Change. The Best Song winner that year was three-ways provocative: it was written by a foreign composer (Manos Hadjidakis), it was from a film by a politically-blacklisted director (Jules Dassin), and it was not originally written for its film but only adopted into it. We're speaking of "Never on Sunday". As a song, it won with its English title but originally it was just a non-film tune called "Ta Pedia Tou Pirea". American arranger Don Costa made a hit record out of it and from there it copped the Oscar, beating that year's more traditional nominees Johnny Mercer and Andre Previn. A few hot-heads protested about the break with Oscar tradition but others just took the news as a refreshing start to a new era.
The real news was elsewhere, though: the fact that, apart from one or two exceptions, there hadn't been a winning song from a musical film, not for a long while. (We don't think of Mary Poppins and Doctor Doolittle as musicals per se but as kid-films with occasional songs.) During this period song Oscars weren't going to full-fledged musicals anymore but to one-offs – single, isolated songs created for a specific scene in an otherwise dramatic or comedic picture: remember Audrey Hepburn strumming Henry Mancini's "Moon River" while day-dreaming on her fire-escape in Breakfast at Tiffany's, or Jackie Gleason in Papa's Delicate Condition apologizing for his booze-habits through the song "Call Me Irresponsible" or Burton/Taylor reflecting on how happy their love affair should have been via the Johnny Mandel song "The Shadow of Your Smile". All of those winning tunes turned into hit records, too, apart from their films, and have stood the test of time as original, charismatic, honorable pieces of song craft.
But, once again, change was on the way -- a new decade, the 1970s. And this being Hollywood, could more hysteria be far behind? Some folks still weren't entirely over their prejudice about that foreign-intruder song, "Never on Sunday". Now they were in for a real learning experience. 1971 was when rocker and pre-rapper Isaac Hayes submitted his down-and-dirty funk anthem from the film Shaft ("...Who's the Black private dick who's a sex machine to all the chicks?...") and won the Best Song Oscar. As a film song, as a #1 single record, Hayes's composition was a combination of a slick rhythm track, brass licks, hip female backup singers, and Hayes's own sort of chanted/crooned/spoken vocal. Was this a legitimate song when compared with Marvin Hamlisch's "Life is What You Make It" which had been predicted to win? Hard to say. It probably should be called a shrewd and effective piece of dramatic scoring rather than a song per se.
But anyway, the dam had been breached. Clearly anything could win a music Oscar from now on. Total freedom. Bring on your best funky or jazzy or avant garde or ethnic songs and let them compete in the new Hollywood. That's what the new open door seemed to promise. But what did we get instead? Twenty subsequent years of the most boring, banal, boiler-plate, and nasally annoying love songs and beat-box dance tunes imaginable – and those were the winners! Welcome to the '70s/'80s. It is discouraging to rehash their names: "We May Never Love Like This Again" (1974), "Up Where We Belong" (1982)...there were many others. Even grand talents like Stevie Wonder and decent writers like Lionel Ritchie won Oscars in the 1980s for only throw-away works. And the synth-and-strobe club songs that won Oscars ("Fame," "Flashdance," "The Last Dance") were equally generic. (If 2008's winner from Slumdog Millionaire "Jai-Ho" is technically a beat-box tune, it was way more compelling than that 80s stuff.) Indeed, maybe only three winners from the whole '80s era rise to the criterion of honorable that we set earlier: the aforementioned "It Goes Like It Goes" from the film Norma Rae, Keith Carradine's gently folksy "I'm Easy" from Nashville, and Steve Sondheim's vamp parody from Dick Tracy, "Sooner or Later". Honorable and original.
But then an even stranger thing, a more hysterical thing, happened. Without warning, at the start of the 1990s suddenly the big screen musical made a huge comeback! No one saw it coming. Animated musicals suddenly became all the rage, producing one Oscar-winning song after another-- first in 1989, then again in 1991, 1992, 1994, 1995, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2010, 2013 – all Best Song winners from animated films, some from Disney studios, some from the new digital studios at Pixar – The Little Mermaid, The Lion King,, Frozen, Tarzan, etc. Composer Alan Menken copped four of those awards; pianist and eccentric vocalist Randy Newman two; pop stars Elton John and Phil Collins wrote one winner each. None of these songs had a life, or even logic, outside their film contexts – i.e. there weren't best selling cover versions of any of them in stores, on the radio or on the web. (Reportedly, only 41 Oscar songs have ever made it onto Billboard Magazine's Hot 100 charts; the rest had their one night of fame at the awards telecast and thereafter have had to stay buried in their films.)
In a sense, maybe the dependence of these cartoon songs on their films qualifies them as novelty songs. Still, you can have a novelty song which is also honorable and charismatic. "Swinging on a Star" (1944) is one of those. And we've always been partial to cartoon songs like the sweeping "Color of the Wind" from Pocahontas (1995), Randy Newman's charming "If I Didn't Have You" from Monsters, Inc. (2001), and the dramatic Hebraic choral anthem "When You Believe" from Prince of Egypt (1998). All we've ever asked of Best Song winners or nominees or neglecteds was heart and soul – and craft. But those are rare commodities. Perhaps the only winner in the last twenty years we've taken-to-heart has been the 2005 gorgeous Latin ballad by the Uruguayan Jorge Drexler, "Al Otro Lado Del Rio" (from The Motorcycle Diaries).
But what about this year, the film songs of 2016? It has been reported that fully 55% of the American public have not seen any of the Best Picture nominees this year. So there's not much hope that any of the Best Song nominees will have long enough lives to equal Oscar's past classics. It's been a tough road for this music category all along, though; and lately the Academy has even had a hard time coming up with the standard five nominees – in the 1940s some years listed fourteen nominees; 2013 and 2010 could only muster four; 2011 only two nominees; and the year of "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" offered only three. And who remembers the winners anymore, anyway? Who even recalls that big stars like Bob Dylan, Eminem, John Legend, Adele each have shiny Best Song Oscar statues in their dens?
But again, what about this year? Well, another strange and hysterical thing has happened: Of the five nominees for 2016 Best Song, two are from the much-nominated hit film La La Land. And what is that film?? It's a full-blown, nostalgic, conservative, song-filled Hollywood musical! So we have come full circle. But how do we describe this year's winning song by Justin Hurwitz from La La Land, "City of Stars"? It's not a novelty song; it's better than bland, even if it's not especially original, being almost an old fashioned stride-piano piece. Honorable, though. Yes, it is that. As only one tune in a multi-song score, it probably won't ever enjoy its own hit record. It'll just have to join all those past Best Song winners whose futures depend on the rising/falling fame of their films. One thing certain: it is hard out here for a song, even a winner.
For various reasons, a lot of classic songs over the years were rejected by Oscar: Harold Arlen's "Blues in the Night," George Gershwin's "They Can't Take That Away from Me," Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin," Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek," Burt Bacharach's "Alfie" and "The Look of Love," Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again," Henry Mancini's "Whistling Away the Dark" and "Charade," Marvin Hamlisch's "Nobody Does It Better," even Kermit the Frog's "The Rainbow Connection".