Listen up, Mary J. Blige, Diane Warren, and all the other artists nominated for best original song this year. One of you will win the award. And to save you the trouble, I’ve already written your acceptance speech.
“I’d like to thank the Academy. I’d like to, but I can’t. You see, the only reason artists want to win awards is to silence our nagging self-doubt. But it’s impossible for me to finally have confidence that I’m a good songwriter when you’ve also given this award to some of the worst songs ever written. Sure, you’ve given it to some legendary compositions, songs that will live forever in our hearts and memories, but you’ve also given it to some heaping piles of audio dung. So no thanks for a statue offering no proof that I’m actually good at my job.”
Of course, whoever wins the award on Sunday night won’t offer up this world-class acceptance speech. But she (it’s Blige) certainly should. In the entire history of awards, the best original song Oscar is the most useless method of measuring an artist’s abilities. As evidence, here are the 8 worst and 8 best Oscar-winning songs.
The Eight Worst
8. I’m Easy (Keith Carradine) – Nashville, 1975
One of the reasons uninspiring songs win Oscars is because Oscar voters want to reward something other than the song itself. Sometimes it’s the political message (Melissa Etheredge’s snooze-inducing climate change anthem, “I Need to Wake Up”). Sometimes it’s because Boomer Academy members need to lay tribute at the feet of their gods (Dylan’s meh-zmerizing “Things Have Changed”).
In the case of “I’m Easy,” it’s because voters wanted to reward the scene in which the song was featured. And it is a great scene when Tom Frank (played by the song’s composer, Keith Carradine) tells the audience he’d like to sing his new song about the need for emotional honesty, a song inspired by “someone special who just might be here tonight” except that “someone special” refers to a handful of women in attendance, each staring doe-eyed at Frank, convinced she’s his one-and-only secret muse.
It’s a great takedown of artistic insincerity, something Oscar voters probably knew a thing or two about, but the song itself is rather forgettable Jim Croce lite. As far as actor-composed pieces go, it’s not Steven Seagal level bad, but since Carradine is supposed to be portraying a world class songwriter, “I’m Easy” comes across as the kind of pseudo-folk nonsense that can only be cured with the full Bluto Blutarsky treatment.
7. High Hopes (James Van Huesen, Sammy Cahn) – A Hole in the Head, 1959
What’s worse than songs written by long hairs trying to pick up easily-swooned women at open mic nights? Songs written for precocious red-heads. That John F. Kennedy used this song on the campaign trail and still won the 1960 presidential election is one of history’s strongest arguments against democracy.
6. The Way We Were (Marvin Hamlisch, Alan and Marilyn Bergman) – The Way We Were, 1973
The more often overzealous girls choose a song for musical auditions, the worse that song is. Call it the Hamlisch Principle, named for the songwriter’s diabetes-inducing schlock bomb that somehow bested Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” on Oscar night.
5. Writing’s On the Wall (Sam Smith, Jimmy Napes) – Spectre, 2015
Speaking of 007, this tune from Sam Smith would have been mediocre on the soundtrack of a Nicholas Sparks movie. As a Bond song, however, it’s atrocious — a stew of mopey, joyless, falsetto-driven sludge. Let’s take it as a sign that it’s time for Daniel “Pouty Bond” Craig to toss Idris Elba the keys to the Aston Martin.
4. You Light Up My Life (Joe Brooks) – You Light Up My Life, 1977
“You Light Up My Life” is a film about a young woman who is torn between her desire to be a singer-songwriter and her father’s desire for her to be a comedian. Despite not winning the award for best “why is there a movie about this,” the film had to settle for best original song — a song so bad even your aunt with a timeshare in Branson pretends not to like it.
3. Can You Feel the Love Tonight (Elton John, Tim Rice) – The Lion King, 1994
When at their best, Elton John and Bernie Taupin are perhaps the only songwriting duo on par with Lennon and McCartney. When Elton John pairs with Tim Rice, however, the results are far more Air Supply than “A Day in the Life.”
(Technically “Colors of the Wind” is the worst Oscar winning 90s Disney ballad, but Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken never wrote anything as brilliant as Madman Across the Water’s opening 1–2 combo, so Elton gets judged more harshly.)
2. Talk to the Animals (Leslie Bricusse) – Doctor Doolittle, 1967
If you’ve ever wanted to know why Quincy Jones says weird things, imagine the emotional pain you’d endure if you didn’t even get a nomination for “In the Heat of the Night” in the same year that the Academy said “let’s give the Oscar to that song that sounds like ‘My Fair Lady’ had a baby with ‘I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.’”
1. I Just Called to Say I Love You (Stevie Wonder) – The Woman in Red, 1984
And yet, somehow, Stevie Wonder wrote “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” a 4 ½ minute blast of sonic torture so heinous that future generations will wonder how it wasn’t a violation of the Geneva convention. This song is to Stevie Wonder what “Wonderful Christmas Time” is to McCartney. It’s what “The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” is to the Indiana Jones franchise. It’s the Red Velvet Oreo of Stevie Wonder’s catalog.
The Eight Best
8. Under the Sea (Alan Menken, Howard Ashman) – The Little Mermaid, 1989
Singing crabs > Singing teacups > Singing lions > Singing Native American avatars for the mid ’90s feminist’s idealized self.
7. Swinging on a Star (Jimmy Van Heusen, Johnny Burke) – Going My Way, 1944
On the one hand, the Bing Crosby version of this song is a bit humdrum. On the other hand, the version from that TV show about the half-alien girl who could freeze time with her fingers was lit.
6. When You Wish Upon a Star (Leigh Harline, Ned Washington), Pinocchio, 1940
The king of all Disney Songs, and for good reason. A soft, floating cumulus melody that sounds like happiness and innocence — feelings you immediately lose when you discover that the original “Adventures of Pinocchio” serial ended with the titular character being lynched.
5. White Christmas (Irving Berlin) – Holiday Inn, 1942
Arguably the best Oscar-winning Christmas song written by a Jewish composer to become the best-selling single of all time and then inspire a film of the same name that my mom likes to watch at least 3 times a week in mid-December.
4. The Way You Look Tonight (Dorothy Fields, Jerome Kern) – Swing Time, 1936
1936 offered perhaps the greatest slate of best original song nominees in Oscar history, with “The Way You Look Tonight” besting Johnson and Burke’s “Pennies from Heaven” and Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” One of the most versatile jazz-pop standards of all time, “The Way You Look Tonight” has been interpreted in countless styles, from Ella Fitzgerald’s starry-eyed take to Frank Sinatra’s light-hearted, bouncier recording to the angry, snarling version I sang at a wedding reception in Evansville, Indiana after learning that they didn’t even have a cash bar.
3. Falling Slowly (Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova) – Once, 2007
Rarely does a song play as pivotal a role in a film as “Falling Slowly” does in Once. Hansard and Irglova’s characters enter a music store. He begins playing the skeleton of a song about clinging to the sinking ship of love in a sea of heartbreak. Irglova’s character puts flesh on the bones and immediately their love story begins radiating. Where Robert Altman went wrong by having actors write their songs in “Nashville,” director John Carney went right by having songwriters act in “Once.” Hansard and Irglova are not great thespians, of course, but the passion they exude in the film’s songs, especially in this haunting ballad, more than compensates for their limitations.
2. Moon River (Henry Mancini, Johnny Mercer) – Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1961
Forget Andy Williams, soaring, vibrato-overloaded cover. Audrey Hepburn, limited range and all, offers the greatest version of “Moon River,” a song written to unveil Holly Golightly’s secret sentimentality towards Moon River, both the source of her confinement to hopeless small town life and the instrument of her escape. A simple, unforgettable song featuring the greatest three-word line ever written: “my huckleberry friend.”
1. Over the Rainbow (Harold Arlen, Yip Harburg) – The Wizard of Oz, 1939
The purest melody of the twentieth century with an original recording that’s yet to be topped. Not only the greatest Oscar-winning song of all time, but quite possibly the greatest pop song of all time, and the only thing that can drive away your sorrow when you remember that “I Just Called to Say I Love You” is the best-selling single of Stevie Wonder’s career.