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Oscars' Best Song race: Out of tune?

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Pop quiz, with an emphasis on pop: Which of the Oscar nominees for Best Original Song 25 years ago — ”Ghostbusters,” ”Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now),” ”Footloose,” ”Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” and ultimate winner ”I Just Called to Say I Love You” — topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart? The answer: all of them. Back in 1985, you really had to be a cave dweller — or a resident of the rock & roll-free town in Footloose — not to have heard that year’s Oscar hopefuls. This year’s crop, however, is hit-free — and that’s par for the course these days. In fact, you have to go back to 2005, and the Counting Crows’ Shrek 2 track ”Accidentally in Love,” to find a nominee that even cracked the Top 40. ”Music’s become totally fractured,” says ”Footloose” co-writer Kenny Loggins. ”And some of the [recently nominated] songs have been really horrible. But of course, that’s just my opinion.”

Actually, a lot of people have been underwhelmed by recent nominees. Last summer, the music branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences even announced that it would eliminate the category altogether in years when branch members decide there aren’t enough eligible songs of sufficient quality. It’s not impossible to imagine Best Original Song joining such Oscar dinosaurs as Best Assistant Director and Best Dance Direction.

It wasn’t always like this. In the early days of the Academy Awards, the Best Song prize was regularly bestowed on such standards-in-the-making as ”Over the Rainbow,” ”White Christmas,” and ”Moon River,” which was co-penned for Breakfast at Tiffany’s by songwriting giant and four-time Best Song winner Johnny Mercer. The Academy may have been slow to get its collective head around rock, but it did reward Isaac Hayes’ funk-tastic ”Theme From Shaft” in 1972 and the disco hit ”Last Dance” from 1978’s Thank God It’s Friday.

Even when the Academy nodded to popular taste, though, it still found ways to alienate contemporary music artists. In 1985, organizers bizarrely tapped All That Jazz star Ann Reinking to perform ”Against All Odds” instead of Phil Collins, who had written and recorded the track and was up for the award. According to Gregory Peck, one of the show’s producers that year, they wanted to ”use as many film people as possible.” (Maybe they were unaware that as a child, Collins was an extra on A Hard Day’s Night — another classic rock movie that failed to generate a single Best Song nom.)

But by the 1980s, the Oscar song nominees were mostly in tune with the record-buying public. By that time, there were a lot of movie hits to choose from, as studios and record labels worked closely to repeat the enormous late-’70s success of the Grease and Saturday Night Fever soundtrack albums. ”The record labels went, ‘Whoa, we can have this great vehicle to sell singles and soundtracks,”’ says Footloose music supervisor Becky Mancuso-Winding. ”And the studios went, ‘Whoa, we can use the labels to promote our film.’ It was a pretty magical time to be a music supervisor.”

That golden age came to an end around 1990. ”The greed factor came in,” says Mancuso-Winding. ”It got so expensive [to get songs], just crazy prices.” Meanwhile, the emergence of Disney animated musicals like Beauty and the Beast, with their more classically crafted songs, led to a brief cartoon dominance in the category. Still, there was the occasional exception, like the Celine Dion ballad and No. 1 hit ”My Heart Will Go On” from the Titanic soundtrack, a blockbuster album that was certified platinum 11 times.

Since 2000, sales of soundtracks, like all albums, have fallen — and the effect on movie music has been significant. ”Studios are less concerned with packing movies with music,” says James Horner, who co-wrote ”My Heart Will Go On.” At the same time, labels have discovered that TV shows such as Grey’s Anatomy can be a more effective store window for their product. The result: The pool of Oscar-eligible hit songs has shrunk dramatically.

But the Academy’s music branch must also accept blame for some obscure selections. For most members considering Oscar nominees, a song’s popularity matters less than how well it’s integrated into the film’s plot. That may explain the surprising 2006 victory for a rap song, Hustle & Flow‘s ”It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” — as well as last year’s snub of Bruce Springsteen’s title track for The Wrestler, which only played over the film’s closing credits. ”We get lots of comments about the quality of the songs,” notes music-branch chairman Bruce Broughton. ”What people are [harking back to] are these great songs from the ’40 and ’50s, like the song from Casablanca. There are very few songs in the last 20 years that would have that kind of enduring power.” (And actually, ”As Time Goes By” wasn’t eligible for a nomination.)

Not everyone waxes nostalgic for a bygone age, be it of ”White Christmas” or ”Let’s Hear It for the Boy.” In recent years, indie movies like Hustle & Flow and 2007’s Once have raised their public profiles with Oscar song nominations, much as studios did when they loaded mainstream movies with potential pop hits. This year, the low-budget Crazy Heart, starring Jeff Bridges as a down-and-out country singer, hopes to get a lift from its nominated song, ”The Weary Kind.” ”My main interest in all of this is to have Crazy Heart seen by people,” says music producer T Bone Burnett, who co-wrote the tune. ”I hope people get to see the movie, and the Academy Awards could help with that.”

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