The Oscars And Pop Music Have Fallen Out Of Touch

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The Oscars And Pop Music Have Fallen Out Of Touch

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Movie music is pop music. Maybe the cinema and the stereo aren’t connected like they used to be, but two months into 2018, blockbuster soundtracks have topped the Billboard 200 albums chart four times — two weeks for The Greatest Showman, two weeks for Black Panther. The Fifty Shades Freed soundtrack has been a top-10 mainstay as well. And with the Academy Awards looming this weekend — 8PM Sunday on ABC, to be exact — we’re probably going to see a few more songs from films blowing up.

An Oscar nomination for Best Original Song can launch a musician into the public consciousness to a radical new extent: Think Elliott Smith sharing air time with Celine Dion’s ubiquitous “My Heart Will Go On” thanks to Good Will Hunting in 1998 or Three 6 Mafia bum-rushing the podium when Hustle & Flow’s “It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp” beat Dolly Parton in 2006. The general public’s impressions of some career artists are largely shaped by their big Oscar moments; maybe that just means Aimee Mann’s Magnolia track “Save Me” and Glen Hansard’s Once ballad “Falling Slowly” becoming their respective most-played songs on Spotify, or maybe it means Björk becoming known as the lady with the swan dress. And there’s probably somebody out there who only knows Tegan And Sara for this:

For the likes of John Legend, Common, and Bond-theme singers Adele and Sam Smith (possibly the same person), an Oscar win has been an official seal of already-implied prestige. Ditto Lady Gaga, the Weeknd, and Dreamgirls costars Beyoncé and Jennifer Hudson, even though they didn’t win. For Eminem, Pharrell, and Justin Timberlake, the Oscars have signal-boosted smash hits that had already been percolating long before the ceremony. Songwriter Diane Warren, currently on her ninth nomination without a win, has penned some of the biggest hits in movie-soundtrack history, among them Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing,” Trisha Yearwood’s “How Do I Live,” and Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.”

The Disney songs history remembers as actual hits are almost always up for Oscars: Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson’s “Beauty And The Beast,” Bryson and Regina Belle’s “A Whole New World,” and Elton John’s “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” comprised a dominant run in the ’90s, claiming Best Original Song in three out of four years and each charting in the top 10. More recently, Frozen power ballad “Let It Go,” sung by Rent and Wicked star Adele Dazeem Idina Menzel, won the statuette in 2014, helping it rise to #5. (Let’s not dwell too long on the injustice of “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana losing to some La La Land bullshit last year, a temporarily setback on the road toward Lin-Manuel Miranda’s inevitable EGOT.)

Writing for movies has long been a way for aging stars, old white rock guys in particular, to maintain some semblance of vitality in the mainstream. Just ask Peter Gabriel, Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, and Pauls Simon and McCartney, all of whom have gotten a Best Original Song nod this century. Especially ask Sting, U2, and Randy Newman, each of them owners of multiple nominations in this category. (Newman, who by now is better known for his movie music than his own subversive classic albums, has scored a whopping 11 nominations and two wins.) And if the Oscars can extend careers, they can also destroy them. Grease producer Allan Carr basically never worked in Hollywood again after this extended bit featuring a tone-deaf Rob Lowe duetting with Snow White bombed in 1989:

Despite the long relationship between movie soundtracks and the pop charts, the overlap between Academy Award nominees and smash hits has decreased significantly over the years. This is the category that in the ’80s gave us “Fame,” “Flashdance … What A Feeling,” “Maniac,” “Endless Love,” “Up Where We Belong,” “On The Road Again,” “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now),” “The Power Of Love,” “Eye Of The Tiger,” “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” “Nine To Five,” “Take My Breath Away,” “Shakedown,” “Say You, Say Me,” “Somewhere Out There,” “Footloose,” “Let’s Hear It For The Boy,” “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do),” “Separate Lives,” “Glory Of Love,” “Ghostbusters,” and “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life.”

You probably know most of those songs. Almost all of them went to #1. And that’s not even including movie-soundtrack mega-hits ignored by the Academy, such as Phil Collins’ “Two Hearts,” Los Lobos’ “La Bamba,” Madonna’s “Crazy For You,” Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings,” Blondie’s “Call Me,” John Parr’s “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man In Motion),” UB40’s remake of “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” Olivia Newton-John’s “Magic,” and Prince’s “When Doves Cry” and “Kiss.”

Whereas since 2000 only three Oscar-nominated songs have topped the chart — the aforementioned “Lose Yourself,” “Happy,” and “Can’t Stop The Feeling!” — and only three other soundtrack singles have done it: Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth’s “See You Again,” Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women Part I,” and the epochal pop posse cut “Lady Marmalade.” (Beyoncé’s “Check On It,” we should note, was originally intended for the soundtrack to Steve Martin’s The Pink Panther remake but was ultimately excluded.)

With all that in mind, let’s examine this year’s Best Original Song nominees. How do they interact with pop music at large? What chance do they have to win? Could they be hits? Most importantly, are they any good?

Andra Day – “Stand Up For Something” (Feat. Common)

From Marshall, written by Diane Warren & Common
There are several good reasons to think “Stand Up For Something” could take home the Oscar:

1. Common already reigned victorious in this category with “Glory,” his John Legend duet from Selma.

2. Andra Day is just the sort of throwback artist awards shows love to reward.

3. Diane Warren, the Susan Lucci of movie-soundtrack songwriters, is campaigning to finally obtain the Oscar that has eluded her for more than three decades.

4. In a year when social justice movements are in danger of crossing over from a grassroots phenomenon to a corporate-hijacked cliché, how could the self-important Academy voters resist rewarding a song called “Stand Up For Something” when it allows them to look woke and zeitgeisty?

As for the song itself, it’s a decent retro soul slow jam that has no chance of cracking pop radio or racing up the singles chart unless Meghan Trainor records a cover. (Hey, I don’t make the toxic societal trends, I just report on them.)

Keala Settle – “This Is Me”

From The Greatest Showman, written by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul
On the other hand, “This Is Me” won the corresponding award at this year’s Golden Globes, so maybe we should consider it the frontrunner? The Greatest Showman’s soundtrack was the biggest album of 2018 until Justin Timberlake and Black Panther came along — and it might still be the biggest; I haven’t crunched the numbers — so “This Is Me” is probably the populist choice.

It’s a big Broadway number, which the Academy loves. To be more specific, a few weeks ago I described it as “one of those inspirational basic bangers designed for a triumphant coming-of-age montage.” Furthermore, it actually cracked the Hot 100 (with a #58 peak), so it’s not impossible to imagine it making a run at the top 10 with a win or even a powerhouse performance at the Oscars — just like “Let It Go,” a recent winner from a hit musical with a dominant soundtrack.

Speaking of which, Keala Settle, who plays the bearded lady in the movie, will perform at the ceremony — not Kesha, who recorded an alternate pop version of “This Is Me.” (Much like Menzel performed at the Oscars instead of Demi Lovato, who also recorded “Let It Go.”) So if “This Is Me” does become a big hit, expect Settle’s version to be the one that proliferates at radio. That would be OK, I guess? The song is corny and prone to the dreaded “whoa-oh” disorder, but it’s hard to deny that chorus or the way the gospel choir wells up throughout the second verse. It’s also hard to deny that “This Is Me” will win Best Original Song.

Mary J. Blige – “Mighty River”

From Mudbound, written by Mary J. Blige, Raphael Saadiq & Taura Stinson
Mary J. Blige is also up for Best Supporting Actress this year, and if she had a chance of winning that one I could see the Academy deciding to turn this into Her Year and pile on with a trophy for “Mighty River” too. But those in the know are billing the Supporting Actress race as a fight between Laurie Metcalf and Allison Janney, and I’m guessing Blige’s performance in Mudbound is a lot more compelling than “Mighty River.”

So there’s basically no chance this song is winning the Oscar, and frankly, it has very little chance of becoming a hit either. It’s too slow-moving, and with not enough payoff. (I know you said no more drama, Mary, but please: Bring back the drama!) Plus when was the last time a straightforward gospel song like this set the world on fire?

Miguel & Natalia Lafourcade – “Remember Me”

From Coco, written by Robert Lopez & Kristen Anderson-Lopez
This one’s fascinating. It was written by Robert Lopez & Kristen Anderson-Lopez, the duo responsible for all those family-friendly jams on the Frozen soundtrack, which means it was created by people with an Oscar pedigree and a pop hit-making pedigree. And it recurs throughout Coco in multiple formats, sung by several different performers, which is why actor Gael García Bernal will join Miguel and Natalia Lafourcade to perform it at Sunday’s ceremony.

Is it going to win? Despite the aforementioned Lopez-plus-Disney precedent, that’s doubtful. Hard to imagine a slow-drifting mariachi track rising up to defeat “Stand Up For Something” or “This Is Me,” even with Miguel’s striking vocal presence gliding across those lightly strummed guitar chords. Similarly, despite his undeniable talent, Miguel barely manages hits when he’s riding whatever wave happens to be rippling through rap and R&B at the moment, so don’t expect this song to catch fire here in the states. But maybe, given Lafourcade’s popularity in Mexico, it will make some noise down there?

Sufjan Stevens – “Mystery Of Love”

From Call Me By Your Name, written by Sufjan Stevens
Here he is: this year’s Critically Acclaimed Underdog. Unlike spiritual forebear Elliott Smith, Sufjan isn’t competing against a predestined winner like commercial behemoth “My Heart Will Go On.” That doesn’t mean he’s going to nab a surprise statuette, but it’s something. How wild would it be if Sufjan Stevens and Jonny Greenwood took home this year’s musical Oscars?

It’s crazy to think that “Mystery Of Love” isn’t even the best Sufjan Stevens song from Call Me By Your Name (that’d be “Visions Of Gideon”), nor are either of those songs as good as his would-be I, Tonya anthem “Tonya Harding.” Still, “Mystery” is a typically gorgeous Carrie & Lowell-era melancholy mirage. It’s also — if you’ll pardon my cliché white hipster music critic pose — the best song nominated this year by a long shot. Other than rooting for Saoirse Ronan to win Best Actress, watching Sufjan perform this is my main draw for tuning in Sunday.

Is it pop music? Only in the loosest sense. “Mystery Of Love” is a fine example of the Best Original Song category’s transformation this century: Like the films themselves, the music nominees are largely prestige creations designed to win awards and appeal to a sophisticated cosmopolitan audience. The few honest-to-God pop hits nominated in recent years (“Earned It,” “Happy,” “Can’t Stop The Feeling!”) haven’t even won. It will be interesting to see whether the Black Panther soundtrack bucks that trend next year with Kendrick Lamar and SZA taking home statuettes. (A boy can dream!)

Although Black Panther is not eligible until next year, its prevalence — at the box office, on the charts, in culture at large — is our clearest indicator that movie music can still be pop music when it wants to be, and not just in the Broadway sense á la La La Land and Frozen. But can pop music still be Oscar music? Only if that pop music happens to originate from a hit movie musical, it seems. The Oscars and pop have become almost entirely separate circuses, but the circus musical happens to exist in the overlap. So expect The Greatest Showman to have a big night Sunday and start bracing yourself for another stodgy old awards show to snub Kendrick Lamar next year.


In a year when many of us thought he might fade into irrelevance, Drake is having one of his biggest moments. “God’s Plan” is putting up historic streaming numbers and may be on its way to eclipsing “One Dance” as his biggest hit; meanwhile he’s got a second song in the top five this week thanks to his BlocBoy JB collab “Look Alive.”

As Billboard points out, this week “God’s Plan” becomes only the second song to record more than 100 million streams in a week. Its 101.7 million total is second only to the 103.1 million put up by Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” on the 3/2/13 chart — and many of those were culled from viral videos incorporating Baauer’s song, meme-style. “God’s Plan” now boasts five of the eight largest weekly streaming totals in history.

It goes without saying that the song remains #1 on the Hot 100 singles chart for a fifth straight week. In fact, while calling it one of the most dominant #1 singles ever — lumping it together with such timeless anthems as “I Will Always Love You,” “I’ll Make Love To You,” “Crossroads,” and “My Heart Will Go On” as well as more recent smashes by Adele, Ed Sheeran, Justin Timberlake, et al — Billboard reported “God’s Plan” is statistically twice as popular as the week’s #2 song.

Speaking of which, holding steady at 2-3-4 are Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect,” Bruno Mars and Cardi B’s “Finesse,” and Camila Cabello and Young Thug’s “Havana.” Then comes “Look Alive” at a new #5 peak, which obviously doubles as BlocBoy’s career best chart placement. Post Malone and 21 Savage’s “Rockstar” falls out of the top five for the first time in its 22-week run, landing at #6. Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line’s “Meant To Be” is at #8, while Migos’ “Stir Fry” is at #10. And two Kendrick Lamar songs from the chart-topping Black Panther soundtrack fill out the rest of the top 10: the SZA collab “All The Stars” at #7 and the Weeknd duet “Pray For Me” at #9.

With 131,000 equivalent album units and 40,000 in traditional sales, Kendrick and friends’ Black Panther: The Album spends a second week atop the Billboard 200 album chart this week. As alluded to above, its continued success marks 2018 as a big year for soundtracks already; The Greatest Showman’s soundtrack also spent two weeks at #1.

After Migos at #2 and The Greatest Showman at #3 comes the week’s top debut, Nipsey Hussle’s Victory Lap, on the strength of 53,000 units. It’s the longtime mixtape staple’s first official album and first release to chart. Also scoring a career high is Brandi Carlile, whose By The Way, I Forgive You enters at #5 with 43,000 units, all but 2,000 of them via traditional sales. Spots 6-10: Justin Timberlake, Ed Sheeran, Kendrick Lamar, Post Malone, and Fifty Shades Freed.


Meghan Trainor – “No Excuses”
Meghan Trainor SZN approaching? (Gulp.) Disappointed to learn this was not an Alice In Chains cover, but it could have been so much worse. Not even mad about the prospect of hearing this song all summer.

Post Malone – “Psycho” (Feat. Ty Dolla $ign)
It’s not at all hard to imagine this following “Rockstar” to #1. Post has that amniotic singsong vibe down to a science, and as always Ty Dolla $ign’s voice is a revelation upon impact. Drake’s current historic streaming numbers with “God’s Plan” vs. Post Malone’s proven streaming muscle might prove to be an entertaining chart battle. Come to think of it, maybe we’re headed for a three-way showdown between Drake, Post Malone, and Meghan Trainor. Could get bloody.

5 Seconds Of Summer – “Want You Back”
This Australian boy band with instruments once did for pop-punk what the likes of Poison and Def Leppard did for arena rock. For one song, at least — “She Looks So Perfect” — it worked really well for them. Now they’re out here sounding completely indistinct, rocking the adult-contemporary monogenre sound common to Maroon 5, Charlie Puth, and the like. It’s catchy, but damn, this is the last band I ever thought I’d have to take to task for selling out.

J Balvin – “Ahora”
Fresh off his big crossover moment with “Mi Gente,” J Balvin is back with some loosely swaying reggaeton that sounds designed to become this summer’s “Despacito.” It knocks hard enough, and Balvin’s hook is incessant enough, that I could imagine that happening.

MNEK – “Tongue”
I’ve long been a fan of this young British singer-songwriter-producer, who has worked on lots of great tracks including Beyoncé’s “Hold Up,” Dua Lipa’s “IDGAF,” and Julia Michaels’ “Heaven.” His own work leans toward the sort of early-’90s dance-pop where house and hip-hop collided. “Tongue” will gave you a taste of that.


  • Lorde says she is not dating Jack Antonoff. [Billboard]
  • Taylor Swift has taken up falconry. [The Cut]
  • Troye Sivan says Ariana Grande will be on his new album. [Twitter]
  • Fall Out Boy covered Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” for their Spotify Single. [Spotify]
  • Here’s Pentatonix giving the a cappella treatment to Camila Cabello’s “Havana.” [Billboard]
  • Ed Sheeran’s cousin made a documentary about the pop star’s creative process. [Reuters]
  • Katy Perry made a surprise appearance at the Kick Ash Bash to benefit first responders to wildfires and deadly mudslides in California. [Twitter]
  • Lana Del Rey surprised fans at an LA karaoke bar and sang “Cherry” with them. [High Snobriety]
  • Kylie Minogue and Tove Lo will headline NYC Pride’s Pride Island. [HuffPo]
  • 5 Seconds Of Summer covered Zedd, Maren Morris, & Grey’s “The Middle” for SiriusXM. [YouTube]
  • Iggy Azalea released a video for her Quavo collab “Savior.” [YouTube]
  • Twenty One Pilots’ Blurryface is the first album to have every track certified Gold, Platinum, or multi-Platinum.
  • Why Don’t We released a video for “Trust Fund Baby.” [YouTube]
  • Chris Stapleton leads the Academy of Country Music Awards with eight nominations. [Tennessean]
  • The Spice Girls are performing at the royal wedding on 5/19 … maybe? [Page Six]


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