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NPR Arts & Life

Best Original Song, Least Original Category

Randy Newman performs "We Belong Together," his Academy-Award-winning entry in the Best Original Song category from the 83rd Annual Academy Awards. Newman has been nominated 15 times for the award.
Randy Newman performs "We Belong Together," his Academy-Award-winning entry in the Best Original Song category from the 83rd Annual Academy Awards. Newman has been nominated 15 times for the award.

If you only read the cheery, overly optimistic press releases from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences on its upcoming musical throw-down this Sunday – Adele will be performing! And Norah Jones! And Barbara Streisand! And there's going to be some kind of tribute to musicals of the last 10 years (but not all of them)! – you might think that the Academy loves and understands music.

But you would be wrong. In the 80 years since the Best Original Song category was introduced to the annual celebration of cinematic excellence, the Academy has rarely rewarded the most original songmakers, instead presenting the award as an afterthought or add-on to an already gigantic awards haul (see, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King).

For proof, look at the live performances of the two Academy Award-nominated original songs in last year's telecast. Don't remember them? That's because there weren't any live performances. The Academy missed the chance to see Flight of the Conchords singer Bret McKenzie and some Muppets rock out to their award-winning song, "Man or Muppet."

As the Academy struggles to regain Sunday night audience share among a rapidly splintering public, truly great original songs have the basic ingredients to help revive the Academy's fortunes. By tweaking the rules, spicing up performances and opening up nominations to more popular and relevant songs, the Best Original Song could very well be the first goalpost on the road to renewed telecast glory.

The bizarre, arcane rules of the category – one of the oldest – contribute to some of the core conflict. In order to qualify as an original song nominee, a piece:

Must be original and written specifically for the motion picture...and 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.

What this translates to is that a song may be nominated even if it has nothing to do with the movie it is attached to, and that a catchy tune inserted in the credits can allow a distributor to affix an "Oscar Nominee" sticker on a DVD package even if the nominated portion of the film won't show up until the credits start rolling.

The Academy also lacks specific rules or regulations regarding performance. An artist isn't required to perform a song they performed in a film or during the credits, leaving telecast viewers of years like 1962 the awkward misfortune of seeing Robert Goulet perform all of that year's nominees, including "Days of Wine And Roses."

Songwriters – and Oscar viewers – deserve better. If the Academy doesn't want to roll out show-stopping musical numbers for all the nominated songs, so be it. But the least the good people of the Academy could do is be consistent. A holdover tribute to the musical heritage of cinema's golden age, the Best Original Song is rarely a chart-topper or memorable humdinger.

While I happen to be a fan of Norah Jones, Adele, Barbara Streisand and movie musicals of the last decade, respectively, there are many out there who lack my omnivorous musical tastes. Still, in tapping three big name performers – some of whom actually performed the song in question – who span different generations and genres, the Academy's presenters are on the right track. So, too, does host Seth MacFarlane (himself an obvious fan of extravagant musical productions) present a promising path forward.

There are other ways the Academy can learn how to draw in fans with music. They could start by giving nominations to some of the great songs of the previous year of film music. For all their moody, vampire-fueled feelings of doom and teenage angst, the Twilightfilms have some fantastic original pieces of music, including a haunting new number from Feist and a song by popular techno-rockers Passion Pit that were prominently featured in last summer's Twilight: Breaking Dawn: Part 2. Neither of these songs appears on this year's Best Original Song list.

Nor do the comic, catchy songs from Quentin Tarantino's Civil War Spaghetti Western tribute Django Unchained,all of which do more for plot development than does the dirge-like "Before My Time" that runs through the credits of the documentary, Chasing Ice. The Academy should focus on music that contributes to the story or theme of the associated movie, avoiding the obvious credit-sequence boosters and instead award music that means something to the filmmaker.

The Academy should also throw out the Best Original Musical category, a holdover from Movie Land's early days that hasn't been awarded since 1984's win for Purple Rain. By even suggesting that there is more than one movie out there each year with a series of relevant and plot-worthy songs is a disservice to all the great song-makers out there contributing to film development for movies (like Matthew McConaughey, who co-wrote the raucous and un-nominated "Ladies of Tampa," featured in the male stripper dramedy, Magic Mike).

There's also something to be said to limitations on the number of songs per film that can be nominated. Yes, movies like 2006's Dreamgirls do have many lovely original pieces of sung-through music. But even cutting down to two songs per film doesn't properly allow for a broad range of musical contributions to the category.

The Academy telecast will still be widely viewed, regardless of the musical talent on hand. People will gather to gawk at the red carpet and eagerly wait to see if their favorite movie of 2012 proved equally outstanding to the secretive members of the Academy.

By either embracing music as a key component of the telecast or leaving the category on the trash heap of cinematic history, the Academy can also boost its ratings and throw a few bones to hungry music fans who also happen to like movies.

And remember: without "Best Original Song," there would be no Bjork Swan Dress.

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