Nouse Devours the Oscars Day 5: Original Song

The Oscar exmination turns musical as reviews the five original song nominees

Editor’s Note: Nouse’s Oscar coverage is running all the way up to the big Oscar night on February 28. We continue by turning to one of the music categories.

youth film image

The Nominees
“Earned It” from Fifty Shades of Grey (music and lyrics by Belly, Stephan Moccio, Jason “Daheala” Quenneville, and The Weeknd)
“Till It Happens to You” from The Hunting Ground (music and lyrics by Diane Warren and Lady Gaga)
“Manta Ray” from Racing Extinction (music by J. Ralph; lyrics by Anthony Hegarty)
“Writing’s on the Wall” from Spectre (music and lyrics by Jimmy Napes and Sam Smith)
“Simple Song #3” from Youth (music and lyrics by David Lang)

Trivia: This is Diane Warren’s eight nomination (she wrote hits like “I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing” and “Because You Loved Me”). The only Each film nominee here is the only nomination for their respective films.

“Manta Ray” is easily the most surprising nominee of the quintet.

Not just for its understatedness production and vocals but for the fact that Racing Extinction is a 2015 documentary no one seems to have remembered, or knew about in the first place. This documentary on Anthropogenic mass extinction (from director of The Cove) is highly informative, if unspectacular in style. The nominated song is an interesting one, though. It takes on the viewpoint of the eponymous manta ray singing to humanity to refrain from destroying nature. It’s a charmingly simple conceit. J. Ralph (who also wrote the music) croons desolately and the song manages to highly affecting, certainly more for its music than its lyrics which though effective do descend into occasional schmaltz. But, it’s a great example that music can run the gamut of everything in a way we typically only expect from literature and film.
Highlight lyric: Without biodiversity / I’m nothing / It’s like I never / Existed

Sam Smith is the latest singer to sing their way to an Oscar nomination by teaming up with James Bond.

However, it’s hard not to see “The Writing’s on the Wall” as a lesser entry when it comes to James Bond theme songs. The last time a male Briton sang the Bond theme was in 1965 and Sam Smith hardly seems a bad choice to take up the mantle, ultimately “The Writing’s on the Wall” emerges as the least impressive of the nominees because of how generic it emerges. It’s a satisfactory pop song (excellently orchestrated), but there’s hardly much specificity in the lyrics or the music to identify from a regular love-ballad even amidst moment of strong lyrics.
Highlight lyric: “A million shards of glass / That haunt me from my past /As the stars begin to gather /And the light begins to fade”


Speaking of pop music, though, The Weeknd is another pop star celebrating an Oscar nomination albeit not for as auspicious a franchise as bond, he’s nominated for his work on the 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack.

“Earned It” enters the race as the most commercially successful song of the nominees (and of Weeknd’s career, thus far). It’s a groovy R&B song with pop hints, but earns significant points for its idiosyncratic arrangement. Lyrically, “Earned It” toes the line between lecherous and attractive as it embodies Grey’s relationship with Anastasia Steele, and the song works with a musical arrangement that is atypical. Certainly, there’s a lack of poetry to the lyrics, but they work less because of their beauty than to the way they work on a dual level of meaning, both to the social and bedroom “earning” of the relationship at the film’s centre. The music is moody and sensual (the strings are a nice touch), and the way his modulation of his voice seems to become an instrument of its own on the chorus tips the song from good into legitimately very good.
Highlight Lyric: “Cause girl, you’re perfect / You’re always worth it / And you deserve it / The way you work it” (Double entendre for days)

On the opposite spectrum of sex and sexuality, The Hunting Ground is a documentary film about allegations of rap made on university campuses across the United States.

The song is from the perspective of a rape victim who is responding to advice on moving on from her assault. The song takes on added significance after Gaga’s own revelation of being a victim of sexual assault in the past. Co-written with Diane Warren (song writer extraordinaire), “Till It Happens to You” manages to pack a gut-punch, although musically it never reaches the emotional catharsis Warren’s best work has. The song earns its effect more from Gaga’s raw performance of it than from the actual song which places it an odd position. It’s hard to criticise something so earnest, and it’s a slight shame something with such a great message isn’t artistically more profound.
Lyric Highlight: ‘Til your world burns and crashes / ‘Til you’re at the end, the end of your rope’ / Til you’re standing in my shoes / I don’t wanna hear a thing from you, from you, from you

And, finally, we reach to “Simple Song #3” from Youth.

Youth‘s song immediately emerges from the other nominees for one essential reason – the film, Youth, climaxes on a song. This song. In the film, Ballinger is a musician who plays this song at a key moment at the film’s end – I shan’t spoil what that key moment is, but even without that context the emotional profundity of this song is so lacerating, we don’t even need it. As the only completely classical entry of the nominees one wonders if “Simple Song #3” will earn more or less appreciation for that. In fact, I can’t think of any intrinsically classic song has ever won an Oscar. There have been songs with classical elements, but I can’t think of one which apes classic and Baroque music in this vein (although a few have been nominated).
Highlight Lyric: I live there / I live for you now / I leave no sense behind / I feel complete

Were it up to me, “Simple Song” would be an easy choice for the win amongst a commendable if not particularly riveting field. One thing about the nominees though, R&B to Alternative to pop to neo-soul to classical – it’s not a homogenous slate of nominees.

Take a listen to the nominees. Who would you prefer to see win?

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