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The Oscars are getting the best song category all wrong

A still from <em>Aftersun</em>, one of this year's Oscar nominees that truly realizes the narrative power of songs.
Courtesy of A24
A still from Aftersun, one of this year's Oscar nominees that truly realizes the narrative power of songs.

This essay was originally published in the NPR Music newsletter; subscribe here.

Are you ready to hate-watch the Academy Awards? In our time of memeable, marketable outrage, dunking on Hollywood's Biggest Night is as predictable a pastime as questioning Leo di Caprio's dating choices. But just in case you're only feeling partially exercised at the evening's pending legit controversies and fashion disasters, let me give you one more reason to sharpen your hashtags. I'm here to argue the obvious: The Academy is getting its best song category all wrong.

The best score grouping is in great shape, as All Songs jedi Robin Hilton hasrecently shown readers. And our pal Stephen Thompson shed some light on what is decent about the best songs bunch. Stephen's rankings show that it's a typical lineup, with one song — this year it's RRR's instant Tollywood classic"Naatu Naatu" — that resonates both within and beyond its cinematic frame likely to win against four that barely anyone noticed. Oscar-nominated songs that are actual hits or otherwise catch fire have taken the little golden man time and time again, while their competitors fade into oblivion. I know I'll cheering if (when!) India's massive film industry gets its first big nod from Hollywood since Slumdog Millionaire's "Jai Ho" won 15 years ago. But beyond that, when songs come up I'll be throwing microwave popcorn at my TV screen.

Here's why: 2022 was a truly great year for songs in the movies, and I'm not talking about power ballads running over end credits. (Sorry, Diane, Gaga and Rihanna, I still think you're all awesome but this is sleepy stuff.) I'm referring to filmmakers using songs to get at the heart of moviemaking, and of the human experience, in scenes that let the music take over, almost like a character, certainly as a catalyst. Current examples abound, reflecting auteur filmmaking from the 1960s to thepresent day. But today songs in movies go even further in uncovering how listening feels and what experiencing music with others can do. Filmmakers in 2023 are truly realizing the narrative power of songs. These peak musical moments deserve to be recognized.

What's happening is a shift, I think, from the use of songs as mostly background (or as the diversions known as "plot-stoppers") to their integration into cinematic language itself. This isn't wholly new, but its dominance among this year's most notable films heralds a watershed moment. Maybe it's because today's most interesting filmmakers are mostly Xers and millennials who grew up with music videos showing them how songs could work in a visual medium. Maybe, as my colleague Sheldon Pearce once said to me, it's because many great music writers are now working as music supervisors. The influence of streaming television is definitely part of the reason — that more genre-fluid realm offers many examples of how songs and images can meld to tell stories. And probably, music's central presence on screens via TikTok to YouTube is pushing the paradigm too.

Whatever the reason, this year's Oscar contenders capture many ways in which music infuses everyday life, reflecting and even shaping its turning points. Just take a look at the slate of best picture nominees. Two are musicals (Elvis and Tár, which I'm counting because it adheres to the genre's defining requirement that music advance the plot). Two, The Fabelmans and The Banshees of Inisheren, feature main characters for whom music-making is lifeblood. Four (Women Talking, Avatar: The Way of Water, Top Gun: Maverick and All Quiet on the Western Front) include key scenes in which singing together unites characters in pivotal moments — in preparation for battle or escape, at birth and at death. And one, Everything Everywhere All At Once, feels like a musical without being one; it's built around rhythmic pacing and wild choreography, and even features a music-driven sequence starring an animatronic raccoon voiced by Hollywood's favorite songsmith, Randy Newman. With one exception (the "songcord" in Avatar), it's not an original song that defines the moment, but a familiar one within the worlds the characters inhabit — worlds viewers recognize.

I think this is the future of the featured songs in films, not as a means to attach pop stars' names to soundtracks (OK, except for the Bond and MCU franchises) but as a powerful storytelling tool. The Academy could acknowledge that with a new category either augmenting best original song or replacing it altogether. If the industry demands that the ballad-slingers still get their due, just chuck the word "original" and expand what's eligible. Even better, reward the best adapted song the same way best adapted screenplay gets a nod. The wording is not perfect, maybe, but hey, the Academy already fudges on definitions when it comes to slots like supporting actor (did you see Causeway? Brian Tyree Henry is a lead). The point is to acknowledge the art of placing a song in just the right context and letting it cast its spell as an integral aspect of the movie-making process.

Let's prove how much better things could be: Here are five 2023 best adapted song contenders I'd nominate, if I were the one filling the Oscar envelopes.

5. "Morgen Marschieren Wir," All Quiet on the Western Front

I didn't love this highly aestheticized vision of trench warfare, but kudos to director Edward Berger for resurrecting a patriotic march that did, in fact, fill the throats of thousands of soon-to-be-felled German soldiers in the cataclysmic First World War. This scene shows how a song can compel violence, becoming a weapon both deployed by and pointed at the ones who sing it. Points off because Volker Bertelmann's heavy-metal-inspired score encroaches on the young mens' voices as they hotfoot toward their deaths.

4. "Great Balls of Fire," Top Gun: Maverick

Another pre-battle scene, this one in a military academy's local watering hole, is positively Springsteenesque in the way it blends nostalgia and regret using the power of early rock and roll. It's expertly edited to show how even the most overplayed rock and roll chestnuts can still carry personal meaning. As young upstart Rooster (Miles Teller) bangs the piano and his fellow recruits bellow along, our temporarily exiled hero Maverick (Tom Cruise) listens, stunned and bereft, outside the bar window. Images of another man at the piano — the cadet's late father Goose, Maverick's best friend, who was killed in a training accident decades before — flicker through the scene as triggered memories. The agony Cruise projects, breaking through his character's bravado, makes the scene work. His dislocated sadness perfectly communicates the lonely feeling of hearing a song that everyone loves — that you once sang with joy — but which wounds you.

3. "Nearer My God To Thee," Women Talking

Michael Gibson / Michael Gibson
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Michael Gibson

In her adaptation of Miriam Toews' novel of ideas about rape and resistance set in a Mennonite missionary outpost, director Sarah Polley takes pains to show that for devout people, music is not merely an ornamental complement to speech; it is speech transformed into prayer and sustenance, its intensity upholding belief in the face of senseless violence. As the women debate whether they should leave their oppressors or try to reform them -— as they harangue each other, break down and struggle to maintain compassion and strength -— they resort to hymns when spoken words fail. Most powerful is the risky pause they take to sing one of Christianity's most familiar musical balms in the moments before they leave the compound. I've seen some reviewers question whether anyone would interrupt an escape for such a banal reason. Those critics clearly don't understand religious music. That union of voices is what makes their escape possible as they gather strength from a tradition they are about to transport and remake.

2. "Are You Sure," To Leslie

/ Courtesy of Entertainment One
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Courtesy of Entertainment One

If you've ever been a barfly, you know that the song played at closing time can hit hard. This naturalistic portrait of an alcoholic woman sliding around bottom and fighting all the way conjures that last-call feeling and forces the viewer to sit in it long enough to really grasp its tragedy. As Leslie, alone and drooping, nurses the night's final beer and shot in the haven that's turned into her prison, Willie Nelson's desolate drunkard's lament pours out of the jukebox. She scoffs at the painful accuracy of lines like "look at all the lonely used-to-be's," but the scene doesn't end with that moment of recognition. The camera focuses on Riseborough's protean face — angry, crushed, hardened, crumbling — and the scene continues for the whole length of the song. Doing nothing but listening, Riseborough sinks under the music's slow current, her response a form of self-exposure as eloquent as any dramatic monologue.

1. "Losing My Religion," Aftersun

Aftersun deserved many more Oscar nods than the one lead actor Paul Mescal received; its fractured depiction of a fateful father-daughter vacation, through the eyes of the child clinging to its promise and her grown self reconstructing it decades later, realizes the full potential of filmmaking grounded in the personal. Fans have singled out the final scene, in which Mescal's Calum dances to glam classic "Under Pressure" with his kid Sophie (played by the remarkable Frankie Corio), as the film's bittersweet high point. But I was stunned by another song's framing effect.

It's karaoke night at the shabby-ish resort where the pair are holed up, sneaking meals and drinks not on their plan; in past years, mundane activities like singing together have added up to form something like tradition. But not this evening. Sophie has signed them up, and takes the stage when her name is called, but Calum refuses. So there she is, all five-feet-two of her, left to mutter and croon and flat-note her way through "their" R.E.M. ballad alone. What's remarkable about this scene is that it doesn't cut away. Director Charlotte Wells leaves Corio in the lurch for the entire length of the song. It's very hard to watch — my husband and I actually started singing along on our couch, as if we could help Sophie make it.

This completely unprettified scene says so much about the little scars that parents caught in their own crises can inflict upon their children, and about how children strive to overlook and overcome them out of love and fear and innocent pointless optimism. Michael Stipe's lyric, written about a different kindof abandonment, becomes Sophie's testament and plea. She owns it even as it wrecks her, and it says more than she could ever say on her own.

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Ann Powers
Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR.org and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music podcasts.