SoundTreks | The 2016 Oscar-Nominated Songs

The songs that are typically nominated for Best Song at the Academy Awards tend to be – not to put too fine a point on it – a complete jumble. The bulk of nominees in this category tend to be boring, slow love songs with vaguely inspiring lyrics, and I can list off numerous Best Song nominees – and winners – that no one remembers, perhaps not even the original songwriters (like, what was that one Sting wrote for Kate & Leopold? Do you even remember Kate & Leopold?).

But for every four or five dull-as-dishwater lover songs, the Academy will blindside us by nominating something bonkers, fun, or even – very occasionally – truly great. The notable Best Song nominees remain frustratingly inconsistent, but thanks to the periodic “Blame Canada,” “Lose Yourself,” “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” “Everything is Awesome,” “Falling Slowly,” and, going back a bit, “That Thing You Do!,” the category cannot be dismissed outright. 

Did you know Beethoven’s 2nd was nominated for an Oscar in this category? I had forgotten. 

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This year’s crop of nominees, sadly, illustrates the former point more strongly. The five Oscar-nominated songs are – for the most part – slow, somber, soulful, and largely forgettable. Mere months after its release, I’ve even already forgotten about the theme song from 2015’s James Bond movie. This may be related to the fact that SPECTRE was – shall we say it? – not a very good film. 

We here at SoundTreks pay attention to these songs, and we offer the following reviews of the five Best Song nominees from 2015. 

“Earned It” from Fifty Shades of Grey

Music and Lyric by Abel Tesfaye, Ahmad Balshe, Jason Daheala Quenneville and Stephan Moccio

SoundTreks previously reviewed The Weeknd’s “Earned It” several weeks ago, and we declared that the song had a sexy grind whose sultriness was largely undone by Tesfaye’s high-pitched vocals. But now we have to consider it as one of the better songs of the year.

The verdict is easy: It is not. The sexy musical grind is still there, but the actual romance of the song is astonishingly paltry. When one takes a look at the lyrics “‘Cause, girl, you’re perfect/You’re always worth it/And you deserve it/The way you work it,” one can be forgiven for snickering. The lyrics are only distantly evocative as best, and outright deliberately vague at worst. The pounding orchestral stabs are the only fun part, and that’s not enough to deserve an Oscar in my book.

“Manta Ray” from Racing Extinction

Music by J. Ralph; Lyric by Antony Hegarty

There have been several documentary films in recent years that use studies, scientific theory, sociology, and the messy result of evolution to pretty much spell out – in no uncertain terms – that the Earth and/or mankind is pretty much fucked. Racing Extinction is about the recent mass extinction of innumerable species, and how people are going about efforts to combat the loss of biodiversity on this great green ball of ours.

“Manta Ray” (not to be confused with The Pixies song) is a dirge about, well, extinction. It’s a song sun from the perspective of Mother Earth, and she laments that she is dying. It’s not an urgent song. It’s not a call to action. It’s just sad. It’s a song of mourning. I have no problems with songs of mourning, but they should sound like songs of lamentation, rather than dull pop hits. 

“Simple Song #3” from Youth

Music and Lyric by David Lang

This is the only song nominated this year that springs directly from the drama within the film it’s from. In Youth, Michael Caine plays an aging composer who has staunchly refused to work for many years, all for reasons that he reveals only at the film’s end. The song that he teases us with throughout the film, and the one we finally hear performed in the finale, is this piece, “Simple Song #3.”

It’s no more upbeat than the other songs on this list, but it does have a distinct sound. It’s a complex classical piece that feels up-to-the-moment modern and impossibly old at the same time. It’s not a song, but an aria. The lyrics are distant and spare, but that is appropriate for the song and for the film. I also dig the Boccherini-like violin break. 

“Til It Happens To You” from The Hunting Ground

Music and Lyric by Diane Warren and Lady Gaga

The Hunting Ground was another of 2015’s documentaries, this one directed by confrontational documentarian bad-boy Kirby Dick. The film was about the all-too-common phenomenon of unenforced college campus rape, and the song matches all the horror, tragedy, misunderstanding, frustration, and outright rage that accompanies such an act. The song is sung from the perspective of a rape victim, and the lyrics combat an unheard accuser who is clearly dismissing or misunderstanding him/her. You don’t know how I feel, because you haven’t been through this, the song declares. Some lyrics:

“You tell me hold your head up, hold your head up and be strong
Cause when you fall you gotta get up, you gotta get up and move on
Tell me how the hell could you talk, how could you talk?
Cause until you walk where I walk, this is no joke.”

The song deals directly with serious things, and doesn’t make light of anything. It’s a song about pain and hurt and, most awfully, the refusal of others to empathize. I dig the song a lot, and I admire how in-your-face it gets; why sugarcoat or obfuscate such strong emotions? Of course, Academy voters – and indeed most people – may be put off by just how tragic it is. Tragedy can be handled. Aggressive tragedy can be off-putting. 

“Writing’s On The Wall” from SPECTRE

Music and Lyric by Sam Smith and Jimmy Napes

“Writing’s on the Wall,” as I have once commented before, sounds like something about 20 years old that would have fallen through the cracks of ’90s college radio collages. I am frustrated that so many male pop stars of the current pop epoch sound so high-pitched, thin, and reedy. Where are the bold, brassy, deep, gutteral voices in pop music? Oh yeah. They’re making underground metal records that don’t sell.

Sam Smith is most certainly no exception, and his James Bond song is pretty forgettable. As with many Jame Bond songs, the lyrics allude to action and survival, but eventually somehow equate those things to aching romance. “Writing’s on the Wall” is a snore. 

Who Will Win?

Fox Searchlight

Fox Searchlight

While many Academy voters will likely vote for the “message” song in this category – Lady Gaga’s song is guilt-inducing and accusatory – my prediction will be that “Simple Song #3” will win the Academy Award. I think that it is the more musically accomplished song, strikes more chords emotionally, and is more varied, textured, and interesting. It’s a song about age and longing, but with all the cobwebs, humor, and ambivalence that implies. It’s a true opera; a song told not through lyrics, but through emotions. It also requires a hugely accomplished operatic vocalist to perform, aesthetically elevating it into a realm of greatness that the other songs don’t approach. 

What will actually win? We’ll find out during the telecast.

Top Image: ABC

Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. He also contributes to Legion of Leia, and Blumhouse. You can follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.