Remember when Elliot Smith performed at the Oscars in 1998 and everyone was all, “WTF?” His fans were all, “Dude, so is he like mainstream now? Oh. Man. I dunno. Let's start a grad program at Evergreen State to study this phenomenon.” And the rest of America was all, “Elliot who? Nice suit, weirdo.”
And that was the first time that anything but utter crap was performed during an Oscar broadcast. Even though Celine Dion's “My Heart Will Go On” — rather than Smith's “Miss Misery” — predictably won best original song that year, Smith's performance gave us a glimmer of hope that a brighter future might be on the way movie music. But aside from Three 6 Mafia's pimptastic victory in 2006, little has changed. Ahead of the awards ceremony on Sunday, Oscar music continues to be dominated by milquetoast commercial ballads and Randy Fucking Newman.
For the most part, that is. Let's parse this a bit more. After all, there are two music related Oscars, best original song, and best original score.
Film scores are generally their own beast. Experimental adventures are hardly ever recognized and this category is usually the same race-to-the-middle as the other. Classic scores like Ry Cooder's Paris Texas, Goblin's Suspiria, Tangerine Dream's Sorcerer, and even Lalo Schifrin's Bullet were all mind-blowing, but, of course, not victorious.
Instead over the years we've gotten boatloads of nominations for John “Quaalude” Williams, whose scores are the musical equivalents of mayonnaise-smeared Wonder bread with vanilla sprinkles. He has 48, and has won five.
Not that there haven't been some bright spots. Gustavo Santaolalla's brilliant classical and folk guitar driven scores have nailed Oscars twice for Babel and Brokeback Mountain, and deservedly so. A. R. Rahman's electro-world beats, while not our favorite, are still a welcome departure from full-orchestral snoozing. And last year, thankfully, Trent Reznor's sparse industrial tracks for The Social Network put something genuinely interesting before the Academy — and also won.
But the best original songs have been almost universally lackluster. Let's start with fucking Starship.
Seriously? Of all the music in films in 1987, that was the best you guys could come up with? (See also: Bryan Adams, and Phil motherfucking Collins.)
What's even worse is the pervasive trend of throwing a bunch of people together and having them write some hastily cobbled over-the-credits track. Completely out of the context, Bono has a fucking Oscar nom for merely being inspired enough by The Gangs of New York and related historical suffering to write a rock ballad. One that has little to do with the actual film.
Missing are an astonishing range of musical styles. Never has a punk or metal musician graced the Academy's stage. Only twice has hip hop been involved in any capacity. And until Elliot Smith, no honestly independent musician had ever been involved in the ceremony.
We're not saying we expect reggae, hardcore, screamo, grindcore, sludge, and EDM any time soon. But is it a just world where Nick Cave has zero Oscars and Randy Newman has three? No it isn't.