Much ink both online and in print will be spilled today bemoaning the snubs (Idris Elba!) and celebrating the underdogs (Her!) named by the Academy as this year’s Oscar nominees. And as justifiable as that may be, it also makes it even more difficult to spot an extreme inefficiency in the already plodding Academy Award ceremony machine: the profound lack of surprise in the least exciting of categories, Best Original Song.
That’s right! It’s another year, another slate of nominees that are just there for a good time, not a long time, because they’ll invariably cede to the predictable winner everyone expects in the long Oscar lead-up. This year’s obvious victor? Demi Lovato’s much-lauded Let It Go, from Frozen, which is even more unsurprising because it came from the Best Original Song powerhouse, the Miami Heat of this particular charade, Disney. If this were a sports league, Disney would be the Miami Heat (and Randy Newman, this extended metaphor’s Lebron James), spitting out championships with embarrassing ease, and the league would have folded up years and years ago because no one cares about an easy winner.
That’s not to say the other songs in this category aren’t any good, on a musical level. Maybe Pharrell Williams’s bubbly Happy will somehow pull off an improbable upset, because it’s not like he can do any wrong these days. Or perhaps U2’s song from Mandela will wrongly swipe it, because Academy voters are around the same age as U2’s target demographic. Or maybe the Academy will reconsider their five choices and, at the very least, put in an actual competitor to Let It Go by announcing it forgot to add Lana Del Rey’s Young and Beautiful from The Great Gatsby, a four-minute track that nimbly captures the edgy retro appeal of a movie that failed to do that itself in its two-hour runtime.
But it’s time to acknowledge that there hasn’t been a surprise victor in this category since 2006, when a song from An Inconvenient Truth beat out three submissions from the criminally underrated musical Dreamgirls. The winning songs since then read out like a who’s-who of duh-doy: Falling Slowly from earnest musical Once, Jai Ho from Slumdog Millionaire, Adele’s chart-topping Skyfall, and songs from Toy Story 3 and music biopic Crazy Heart. In 2011, there weren’t even enough entries to fill all five nominee slots, with the Academy finding just one song from the otherwise forgotten Rio to compete with the eventual winner, Man or Muppet from The Muppets, of course. In last 20 years, only 2003, 2004, and that 2006 pick really register as questionable choices; the rest were all obvious picks, clear to us now and clear in the Oscar lead-up at the time.
It seems some films are just making songs for the sake of filling the nominee list, in an effort to claim another category for the DVD fronts. After all, can anyone who watched the film adaptation of Les Miserables honestly say that Suddenly, the new song penned by the original creators of the musical, was a worthwhile, necessary addition?
This isn’t entirely the Academy’s fault. There’s no doubt that the long Oscar ceremony needs to be broken up with more than just acceptance speeches and video tributes, and having the winning song performed is an ideal intermission in the sometimes tedious affair. And the Academy for Motion Picture Arts and Sciences probably isn’t the best ultimate arbiter of winning songs—it does tend toward big-name artists—nor should they be expected to, really. I mean, would you trust Pizza Hut’s list of the best burgers? Besides, it’s also a long-standing tradition: the category’s been around since 1934 and the performance has been televised since 1946. If nothing else, the Academy adheres fiercely to traditions.
But the awards ceremony is distended as it is. No one likes to watch the show because they’re on the hunt for a slick, concise, not-at-all-indulgent exercise. They’re watching because they’ve got horses in the races at hand and there’s meaningful competition between some very wonderful pieces of art, and the winners will—despite our changing modern times—still remain something of a bellwether in how we view culture. And that bloat takes place despite the fact that half the affair isn’t televised: important, career-making industry prizes in technical work don’t make the cut, but a low-stakes triumph for an expected winner is worth listing the nominees for?
There’s an easy fix, of course: simply announce the winner of the category, and allow that winner to perform for the televised portion of the ceremony. Or, switch up the format: give us some covers from famous artists, as the ceremony did long ago with artists like Frank Sinatra. (I’d certainly watch HAIM mash-up Let It Go with their song Let Me Go). Either one would be a simple win-win, not that the Academy is necessarily a believer in simplicity. But it will help fix a category that is fundamentally broken, and has been that way since the golden years of the category where (seriously) Robert Goulet performed all five nominees by himself.