10 outstanding oscar-nominated songs, from björk to three 6 mafia
Ahead of Sunday’s Oscars, press play on Best Original Song contenders from years past.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences first introduced the Best Original Song category at the seventh Academy Awards, presented in 1934. Since then, over 400 songs have been nominated. Some — Titanic’s “My Heart Will Go On,” 8 Mile’s “Lose Yourself” — rank among the most iconic tunes, well, ever. Spin estimated that 1939’s winner, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” is as widely familiar as “Happy Birthday.”
The prize celebrates the songwriters and composers who have created an original song for a contemporary film, rather than the artists who perform it. So when Prince of Egypt’s “When You Believe” — a duet of dreams between Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston — took the trophy in 1998, neither diva got any closer to an EGOT. (That prize went to writer-composer Stephen Schwartz). If the performing artist contributes to the song’s lyrics or production, they’re honored as well.
This year, I’m pulling for Sufjan Stevens’ thrilling “Mystery of Love.” It’s one of three Sufjan tracks that appear on Call Me By Your Name’s outstanding soundtrack, an evocative blend of 80s Europop and piano pieces. “There’s a physicality to [director Luca Guadagnino’s] work that’s really profound, and there’s an emotional experience that’s occurring as well, and they have this divine interaction,” Sufjan told Vulture. “So that’s really what I was working on, this idea of first love being really irrational and sensational, and feeling boundless in its experience.” He nailed it.
Ahead of Sunday’s ceremony, here is a wildly incomplete, wholly subjective list of other knockout original tunes that once competed for an Oscar.
Three 6 Mafia, "Hard Out Here for a Pimp": The legendary Memphis outfit took home the trophy in 2006 for their contribution to Hustle & Flow. DJ Paul recounted the evening in an amazing Hollywood Reporter story that traces his discovery of what an Oscar is, his acceptance speech shout-out to George Clooney, and his reaction to being denied entry to Prince’s after-party. (“You better go in there and tell that short little purple-wearing thing how many Purple Rain albums I bought, OK?")
Dolly Parton, “Nine To Five”: Another highlight from Paul’s trip down memory lane: a letter of congratulations from fellow nominee (and Tennessee native) Dolly Parton. “We're proud of you guys,” the country icon wrote, “and I'm just glad that the Oscar came back to Tennessee one way or another.” (“She's real cool,” Paul added). That year, Parton was up for her Transamerica composition “Travelin’ Thru.” She’d been nominated almost three decades earlier, too, for her beloved theme from Nine to Five. Parton leads the workplace comedy alongside Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. Oh to be a fly on the wall of that joint-smoking scene.
Henry Mancini, “Moon River”: Henry Mancini was nominated for 11 Best Original Song gongs over 25 years. His two wins came back-to-back, though. The first, in 1961, was for Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ “Moon River” — perhaps Mancini’s most iconic composition. It’s been covered by everyone from Judy Garland, Louis Armstrong, and Elton John to Morrissey, and, most recently, Frank Ocean. A 16-year-old Amy Winehouse’s performance of the tune with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra opens the biopic Amy.
Isaac Hayes, "Theme from Shaft": In 1971, Isaac Hayes became the first African American musician to win the Oscar for Best Original Song with soul-funk opus “Theme from Shaft.” This win made Hayes the first African American artist to win an Oscar in any non-acting category. Directed by photographer Gordon Parks, Shaft is one of the first Blaxploitation movies. The song opens with a barrage of instantly recognizable hi-hat hits. It’s been parioded extensively, sometimes with Hayes’s participation (he did two Burger King commercials starring Mr. Potato Head and Shaq). A personal favorite is the early Simpsons episode in which Bart and Lisa perform the song at a karaoke bar. Honorable mention is extended to Sesame Street, when Cookie Monster adapts the track and performs it dressed as Hayes.
Donna Summer, “Last Dance”: Anyone who’s read Tim Lawrence’s exceptional disco history Love Saves the Day is familiar with the positively seismic impact the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever made on popular music and American culture. The following year, L.A.-based disco label Casablanca Records sought to cash in on the resulting craze, and produced its own disco film Thank God It’s Friday. This film flopped — hard. (It currently boasts a 33% on Rotten Tomatoes). But Oscar voters had apparently come down with disco fever, and in spite of the film’s ludicrous series of interconnected plots, awarded “Last Dance” — an objectively epic soundtrack cut by dancefloor deity Donna Summer — the Original Song trophy. Which earned Thank God It’s Friday a unique distinction from critic Leonard Maltin: “Perhaps the worst film ever to have won some kind of Academy Award.”
Shel Silverstein, “I’m Checkin’ Out”: Postcards from the Edge stars Meryl MF’ing Streep as an out-of-work actress, recovering Percodan addict, and daughter of Shirley Gotdamn MacLaine. A third queen, Carly Simon, wrote an original score for the 1990 film, which is based on Carrie Fisher’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. Somehow included in this #iconic #feminist #moment is beloved children’s poet and illustrator Shel Silverstein. He composed the music and lyrics for “I’m Checkin’ Out,” which was nominated for an Oscar that year. Meryl herself performs this country number at the film’s close, serving Patsy Cline realness with a slight Cher inflection. Literally what more could you ask for.
Björk , "I've Seen it All": Last summer, I attended a Q&A with Chloë Sevigny at the Provincetown International Film Festival. John Waters was in the audience, and asked Sevigny about her work with director Lars Von Trier on Dogville. “I hope you had a better experience than Björk,” said Waters, alluding to the controversy surrounding 2000’s Dancer in the Dark. The iconoclastic Icelandic artist starred in the musical drama film, the story of a factory worker attempting to save money so that her son might have an operation correcting the degenerative eye condition she suffers from. Although it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Dancer proved quite polarizing. Björk reported that production was extremely emotionally taxing, and as a result, she would never act again. (Last year, she revisited the experience in a Facebook post in the wake of the #metoo movement, stating a “Danish director,” later identified as Von Trier, had sexually harassed her on set). In spite of these harrowing experiences, she composed a positively exquisite song, which she performed at the 2001 Oscars in the swan dress.
A.R. Rahman and M.I.A., “O...Saya”: Unsurprisingly, Slumdog Millionaire’s finale number “Jai Ho” took home the gong in 2008. (The original A.R. Rahman vocal version, not the gratuitous Pussycat Dolls radio remix masterminded by Jimmy Iovine, lol). I was rooting for “O...Saya,” though, Rahman’s banger of a collaboration with M.I.A. Rahman had been a fan of the Sri Lankan-born British artist since listening to her knockout debut album. At the suggestion of director Danny Boyle, the pair teamed up on an original track, which was composed through emails between the pair. The shape-shifting song captures the frenetic energy, rich texture, and thrilling pace that define the film — not just its happy ending.
Elliott Smith, “Miss Misery”: Gus Van Sant’s unexpected box office smash Good Will Hunting features several of Smith’s songs, including an original track, “Miss Misery,” which played in the closing credits. Smith performed a shortened version of the track at the 1998 Oscars, accompanied by the house orchestra. (Predictably, he didn’t intend to, but agreed when the Academy told him they’d play it whether he sang or not). A stone-faced Madonna presented the award following Smith’s performance, cracking a smile only when announcing his name. Ultimately, “My Heart Will Go On” took the trophy (“What a shocker,” Madge chuckled sarcastically before reading the result). “It was kind of ridiculous,” Smith said later. “But at a certain point I threw myself into it because it seemed to make my friends happy.”
Alan Menken, "Kiss the Girl": Sebastian the crab’s calypso ballad lost out to another Little Mermaid number, “Under the Sea,” at the 1989 Oscars. Which is fine with me. In a fable about the power of superficiality and binarized gender performance, here’s an anthem about the opposite of affirmative consent! “Kiss the Girl” is on this list because I sort of believe it was “inspired” (in the Diet Prada application of the term) by The Creatures’ “Miss the Girl.” The duo — comprised of Siouxsie Sioux and Banshees drummer Budgie — recorded their debut album (1983’s excellent Feast) in Hawaii after randomly selecting it on a map of the world. “Miss the Girl” collides evocative exotica-style percussion with disturbing lyricism inspired by J.G. Ballard’s controversial novel Crash. I know what you’re thinking: it’s pretty unlikely that Disney takes cues from post-punk icons for children’s movies. I wouldn’t be so sure, considering Dreamlander drag superstar Divine was, in fact, the muse behind Ursula the Sea Witch.