There’s no category of the Academy Awards that isn’t without its share of disappointments, even the smaller ones. I’m still perplexed by how the generation-spanning Watchmen didn’t even get a Best Costume Design nomination (let alone in a year that saw The Young Victoria emerge victorious). Yet one category that consistently hits false notes is, ironically, the Best Original Song.
Every few years, a song from a movie becomes a genuine hit. In 1997, nothing was going to beat Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic – not even Elliott Smith’s far more poignant and powerful “Miss Misery” from Good Will Hunting. The quasi-throwback “Skyfall” reflected Skyfall‘s return to a classier Bond that made it a franchise changer. And Frozen‘s “Let It Go” was and still is a legitimate phenomenon.
But generally? Not really. Was Slumdog Millionaire‘s “Jai Ho” really that memorable? (And that was a year where Jon Brion’s beautiful ode to loneliness and the desperation to form a personal connection, “Little Person” from Synecdoche, New York, didn’t even get a nomination.) Sure, this year “Everything is Awesome” from The LEGO Movie is the given winner (that is, if it can beat out the combined powers of John Legend and Common), but it hardly rose the level of mass recognition.
However, one area of this category that the Academy Awards regularly shies away from is what I call “satire songs.” These aren’t “parody” songs, in a “Weird Al” Yankovic vein. Nor are they generally funny songs, as in they usually don’t intend to make the listener laugh. But neither are they entirely “serious.” They exist somewhere in a middle ground, but are just as deserving of recognition, and some (like me) might even argue more so, as their cinematic contemporaries.
One of the most notable recent “satire” songs was “Please Mr. Kennedy” from Inside Llewyn Davis. Although not even eligible for Oscar consideration, it’s one of the best examples of this genre. It expertly apes the style of 1950’s/1960’s novelty songs rather than mocking them or acting superior to them. It does it so well that it could easily fit in the canon of “The Purple People Eater” and “Witch Doctor.” Is it a “good” song? Short answer: no, but yes. It’s style/era appropriate (which is exceedingly difficult to do without injecting any postmodern cynicism) while also being one of the most memorable parts of a truly great film.
Although Inside Llewyn Davis had one such song amidst a bevy of folk classics, others playing the satire song game accomplish the even more remarkable feat of doing this across an entire soundtrack. South Park‘s Trey Parker and Matt Stone pulled this off twice. First with the bonafide musical South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, which earned a nomination for “Blame Canada” (presumably because the attention-grabbing “Uncle Fucker” couldn’t be performed at the ceremony). Then with Team America: World Police, which got zero attention from the Oscars. But over a decade later, it’s safe to say that “America: Fuck Yeah” and “Freedom Isn’t Free” have more of a legacy than “Al otro lado del río” from The Motorcycle Diaries.
While satirical songs might not have the emotional resonance of an Aimee Mann tune, they are still truly great pieces of music and truly great components to a film. A wholly original soundtrack done well is as impressive as a fantastic screenplay. These songs play a more important role in their respective films than whatever is played over the closing credits; they are integral to that movie’s DNA. And there are entire albums of them. But in the same way that the Best Movie Oscar won’t change your favorite movie of the year, a Best Original Song Oscar won’t change the songs that stick with you or the soundtracks you still listen to. It would just be nice for the Academy to recognize the artistry that goes into them.