© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The 2021 Oscars' Best Original Song Nominees, Cruelly Ranked

<em>Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga </em>pushes pageantry over the top while still generating material that would thrive on a real-life Eurovision stage.
John Wilson
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga pushes pageantry over the top while still generating material that would thrive on a real-life Eurovision stage.

It's been an unusual year for... a lot of things, really, so why should the Oscars be any different? But the category of best original song feels especially anomalous, given the way the pandemic forced the postponement of so many blockbusters: We didn't get a Frozen-style animated musical to lock down one of the spots by default (and Christina Aguilera's new song from the live-action Mulan remake didn't make the cut), while Billie Eilish's James Bond theme might have been the frontrunner had No Time to Die actually come out as planned.

That's left more room than usual for somber closing-credits dirges reflecting the themes of dramas about the pursuit of social justice — songs that, over the years, tend to bleed together in our collective memory to form a glum-but-rousing rat king called "I Will Speak and Raise My Voice to Rise and Stand and Fight." These songs, following a path blazed by Common and John Legend's 2014 Selma anthem "Glory," form a subgenre best described as, well, Glorycore. Speak! Rise! Stand! Fight!

Taken collectively, this year's crop could have used a jolt of joy and energy — a "Blame Canada," if you will. But, given that it's probably best that we won't have to watch Sacha Baron Cohen perform "Wuhan Flu" on the Oscars out of context, these are the five songs we're getting. Here they are, cruelly and objectively ranked in ascending order of quality.

5. "Hear My Voice," The Trial of the Chicago 7, performed by Celeste (Daniel Pemberton and Celeste, songwriters)

"Hear My Voice" has a vibrant vocal from soul singer Celeste, a grand string arrangement and a universally accessible message about, you know, having one's voice heard. But a song can be too universal: You could tack "Hear My Voice" onto the closing credits of three dozen different movies from 2020 and make a case that it fits. It's an afterthought in The Trial of the Chicago 7, and it'd be an afterthought just about anywhere else.

Seriously, what reason does "Hear My Voice" have to exist beyond the pursuit of this award? It's a nice boost to Celeste's worthy career, but the song itself might as well be titled "For Your Consideration: Hear My Voice (from The Trial Of The Chicago 7)."

4. "Io sì (Seen)," The Life Ahead, performed by Laura Pausini (Diane Warren and Laura Pausini, songwriters)

Diane Warren has been nominated for Best Original Song an astonishing 12 times, including for indelible hits like "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now," "How Do I Live" and "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" — from the Academy Awards staples Mannequin, Con Air and Armageddon, respectively. But she's never won, and after her 2015 Lady Gaga collaboration "Til It Happens to You" wrongly lost to Sam Smith's "Writing's on the Wall," Warren has settled into a pattern of writing or co-writing a given year's fourth- or fifth-most-powerful Best Original Song nominee, year in and year out.

Though she didn't write Celeste's "Hear My Voice," Warren has become one of the most dedicated and persistent practitioners of Glorycore, contributing "Stand Up for Something" (from Marshall), "I'll Fight" (from RBG) and "I'm Standing With You" (from Breakthrough) to the catalog of Oscars-approved anthems about loyalty and/or defiance. In "Io sì" (from the Italian drama The Life Ahead), she at least mellows her approach a bit, writing in Italian about... well, a kind of defiant loyalty. Translated, the words Laura Pausini sings could have been written by an app programmed to get its user nominated for Best Original Song at the Academy Awards: "If you want me, I'm here / Nobody sees you, but I do."

Still, though it's not a heavy favorite to win, don't be surprised if Warren finally ends her losing streak Sunday night. As a sentimental choice from a pool with no clear frontrunner, she's got a significantly better chance than Celeste — or, say, anyone nominated for Best Actor against Chadwick Boseman.

3. "Speak Now," One Night in Miami..., performed by Leslie Odom Jr. (Sam Ashworth and Leslie Odom Jr., songwriters)

On one hand, "Speak Now" doesn't figure into the plot of One Night in Miami..., Regina King's excellent drama about an eventful evening in the lives of Sam Cooke, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown. Nor does it stretch the boundaries of Oscar-friendly songs about speaking, standing, rising and/or fighting. But it does tie into one of the central tensions of the film, in which Cooke (as played by Odom) wrestles with his responsibility to perform songs that address the moment and challenge white audiences.

The Tony- and Grammy-winning star of Hamilton, Odom was also nominated for best supporting actor, and he's deployed extremely well throughout King's film: In both One Night in Miami... and "Speak Now," he's not imitating Cooke so much as embodying the legend's essence and letting his own talent make up the difference.

2. "Fight for You," Judas and the Black Messiah, performed by H.E.R. (D'Mile, H.E.R. and Tiara Thomas, songwriters)

So if you're keeping track, that's a song about being heard, a song about being seen and another song about being heard. At least H.E.R. is bringing a fight to the mix, right?

Unfortunately, we're now 4-for-4 with best original song nominees whose placement in their respective movies begins riiiiiiiight as the credits begin to roll. Still, "Fight for You" has a brassy period quality to it that suits the sound and tone of Judas and the Black Messiah; it feels like an extension of the film's score and overall messaging. Even better, it raises the stakes from words to actions, complete with a call for revolution befitting the film's subject matter.

If you're attempting to navigate an Oscar pool, this feels like an unusually tricky category to call — a notion reflected in the bunched-up Gold Derby standings. After all, voters could be eager to help Warren break her dry spell, or get Leslie Odom Jr. one letter closer to his inevitable EGOT, or surrender to Netflix's aggressive attempts to promote The Trial of the Chicago 7 at all costs. But "Fight for You" feels like as likely a bet as any: It's timeless and timely and era-appropriate, in ways that help it transcend mere Glorycore award-grubbing. Plus, the Grammys love H.E.R. Why wouldn't the Oscars join them?

1. "Husavik," Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, performed by Molly Sandén, Rachel McAdams and Will Ferrell (Rickard Göransson, Fat Max Gsus and Savan Kotecha, songwriters)

Eurovision Song Contest is hardly what you'd consider Oscar bait: It's a fun but scattershot send-up of a subject that's already parodying itself, led by stars (Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams) whose eternal gameness can't overcome a laggy pace and iffy joke density. But the film succeeds in a crucial area: It largely gets the songs right, pushing the pageantry over the top while still generating material that would thrive on a real-life Eurovision stage.

Lyrically cheesy in a manner befitting its context in the film, the song is built on a soaring melody that ratchets up the orchestral grandeur and provides a strong showcase for both McAdams (in a quiet solo scene) and Swedish singer Molly Sandén, whose tremendous voice viewers hear when McAdams sings onstage. As a best original song nominee, "Husavik" checks all the boxes this category ought to be in the interest of checking: Where all four other nominated songs are tacked onto their films' closing credits, "Husavik" resides at the center of Eurovision Song Contest's climactic scene. It has to absolutely kill for the film's finale to work, and it brings the house down.

Not saying it will win, because it probably won't. But it should.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)