2023 Oscars Guide: Original Song
LINDA HOLMES, HOST:
The Oscar nominees for best original song can be anything from soaring ballads over the credits to toe-tappers that ground musical numbers. This year, they include entries from big artists like Rihanna, Lady Gaga, and, of course, frequent Oscar nominee Diane Warren.
STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:
What will win? What should win? And what makes a great original song anyway? We'll get into all of it. I'm Stephen Thompson.
HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. And today we're talking about this year's Oscar-nominated original songs on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
HOLMES: It's just the two of us today. There are five nominated original songs this year. We're going to go through them. We'll talk about them a little bit, and then we'll get into our picks for what will and should win and into what even makes an Oscar-worthy original song. These songs are all really different. I am excited to dive in. First up is probably the favorite for the Oscar this year if you ask most pundits. It's "Naatu Naatu," written by M.M. Keeravani and Chandrabose. It's the backbone of a super high-energy dance number right in the middle of the super high-energy Indian action film, "RRR," which was hugely expensive, as well as hugely profitable. It stands way out from the field of moody ballads. So let's hit it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NAATU NAATU")
RAHUL SIPLIGUNJ AND KAALA BHAIRAVA: (Singing in Telugu).
HOLMES: Yeah, we were both chair dancing for what I think will be the only time during this recording.
HOLMES: So, Stephen, tell me what you think about "Naatu Naatu."
THOMPSON: Well, when we talk about what makes a great original song in the category of best original song, this song checks every single box. This song does not just roll harmlessly over the closing credits. This song is incorporated deeply into the film that contains it. It is part of this giant dance set piece about an hour into this three-hour epic in which our two protagonists kind of set up this dance competition. And when I watched "RRR" for the first time and it got to this song, I was sitting on my couch. It was late at night. And I involuntarily got up off the couch and started dancing. I don't do that a lot. This song is so grand and exciting and fun and really richly choreographed with those fantastic dance moves. It's truly exhilarating. How you feel about "RRR" may vary. It is a big epic. It is not necessarily for everyone. But to me, this song, the total joy inherent in this performance makes this a runaway winner. I think it will win. I think it definitely should win.
HOLMES: Yeah, this is such an interesting piece to me because this was the moment in this film when I think the film committed to being - and I don't mean this in a negative way, but this film is all vibes in a way. It is about its spectacle. It is not necessarily grounded in any sort of reality, which is true in the fight scenes in a great way, right? Some of the early action sequences, you get that idea. They are ridiculous in a wonderful, wonderful way.
You know, there's been some really good writing. We had a conversation when we had an episode about this about the complicated politics of this film, the fact that it's both anti-colonialist, but it's also Hindu nationalist in some ways. And there's been a lot of good writing about that. So the politics of the actual story here are complicated. But I think that this is the part of the film where it's kind of at its strongest in addition to the action sequences. But it is so exhilarating that this is where I thought, OK, this movie has exited reality fully...
HOLMES: ...Which I really welcomed at that point. And that kind of embraces the natural kinship between a dance number and a super over-the-top action sequence. And I wound up really appreciating that.
THOMPSON: Yeah, I think all of the themes of the film that I enjoyed the most, the friendship between these two guys in particular, is really embodied in the song. And the elements of the film that I didn't appreciate as much, the long torture scenes - you alluded to the ultra-nationalism. That stuff didn't do as much for me. The first half of this film to me was much stronger than the second. But everything that I loved in this film is really embodied in this grand scene. It's my favorite scene from any movie this year.
HOLMES: All right. Fabulous. We both think, I think, that "Naatu Naatu." will probably win. I think it would be our pick, both of us. But the most nominated film of the year is "Everything Everywhere All At Once." It's a sort of a wild ride about a family traveling through multiple realities. And it's nominated in this category also. The song "This Is A Life" was written by Ryan Lott, David Byrne, and Mitski. Lott is the founder of the band Son Lux, which performs the song with Mitski and Byrne. So let's hear this one.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS IS A LIFE")
DAVID BYRNE AND MITSKI: (Singing) We find this life - sucked into a bagel - somehow all right. This is a life.
THOMPSON: Son Lux has been floating around for years and years and years - big NPR Music favorite. They are definitely a sentimental favorite. I am not only in the tank for Son Lux, but I am in the tank for "Everything Everywhere All At Once," which is my favorite movie of the year. It's probably my favorite movie of the last five years. And I want to really commend this particular song for doing an extraordinary amount of work for a track that does roll over the closing credits of the movie. And I complain a lot about songs being nominated for best original song that are merely just tacked onto the end of the film and that don't really tie into the themes of the film, which we'll get to in a couple of the other nominees.
This song is encapsulating and synthesizing a lot of the grand themes of the film. The lyric refers to many lives that could have been, the weight of eternity at the speed of light, a lot of these big, grand themes of the film. These deep, humanistic themes come through in this song, and the emotions inherent in the movie come out in the song. The kind of mix of grandeur and silence that the film captures so well comes through in this song. The music in this film is really crucial to how heavily it lands emotionally. This song captures that beautifully. If it weren't for "Naatu Naatu," this would be my runaway favorite.
HOLMES: Yeah. What I thought when we were listening to that clip is that the song feels like the movie.
HOLMES: You know, when you talk about these songs that play over the closing credits, they often do feel discordant with the film. They feel unconnected from the film. It's not just the lyric, I think, that makes this song feel connected to the film. Musically, it feels like the movie. And because the movie is so rich with imagery, with kind of magical things and mystical things, I think it's really lovely to see music brought in to kind of continue to build and round out that mood and that feeling in a way that might feel less important in a more conventional narrative.
It's a very, very different version of that kind of vibes thing where you want the music to really contribute to that feeling. This is also the one that, maybe, just as a song to listen to, I'm the fondest of and the most likely to kind of go back to it as a song to listen to, unless I am looking to dance around the living room, in which case, yes, I would go to "Naatu Naatu." But I think this is the one that I just have a general sense that I would put it on a playlist and listen to it a lot.
THOMPSON: This is a song that I've listened to independently of the film quite a bit, and that really is one of the criteria I look for, is not just is this great in a movie, but is this great separated out from the movie? And I also want to throw a quick shoutout to Ryan Lott's score from this film because this song is of a piece with the music that runs through the film. And I don't think this song is going to win in this category. I really hope that score wins 'cause I think it's lovely and very different from the other nominated scores.
HOLMES: The next nominee is a little bit more, I think, conventional ending/credits type of song. It comes from "Top Gun: Maverick," the hugely successful sequel starring Tom Cruise. The song "Hold My Hand" was written by Lady Gaga and BloodPop. Lady Gaga won this award in 2019 for "Shallow," the hit that came from "A Star Is Born." Let's hear a little of her performance of "Hold My Hand."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLD MY HAND")
LADY GAGA: (Singing) So cry tonight, but don't you let go of my hand. You can cry every last tear. I won't leave till I understand.
HOLMES: She's a good singer.
THOMPSON: (Laughter) Yeah. You could say that. My initial reaction to this song when it came out was I was a little underwhelmed. I think my anticipation of a new Lady Gaga song, a new song from a new "Top Gun" movie maybe set my expectations a little higher than they should have been. What this is is really a pitch-perfect song for a "Top Gun" movie. If you watch the video for the song, which I do highly recommend, it literally contains images of, like, Lady Gaga writhing on top of a piano on a lonely airstrip interspersed with footage of planes whooshing around, the scene of Tom Cruise throwing a rule book in the trash can. It's a montage-y (ph) kind of song, and for that, I think it serves its purpose really well.
My two kind of central complaints about it, though - I don't think the lyric really speaks to the film. It is a song you could have dropped into a lot of different movies and had basically the same effect. And my other complaint is kind of a larger one about "Top Gun: Maverick." I think "Top Gun: Maverick" does exactly what it's trying to do. It is very, very good at being a sequel to "Top Gun." The one area in that regard where it falls down a little bit is I could have used more original songs. The original "Top Gun" soundtrack is full of just these big, big, big hit songs. And this film - you just get two original songs, and this is the only one that really stands out in any way. For me, this is, like, a right-down-the-middle, worthy nominee for this category but not the winner.
HOLMES: Yeah. This is really a throwback to the soundtrack era of the '80s...
HOLMES: ...When you and I were both teenagers, when every time you had a big movie, whether or not it seemed like it had anything to do with music, it would have a big soundtrack and/or a big radio hit.
HOLMES: I freely admit I'm not as in touch with radio hits as I once was, but I do think it's a bit less stressed that you have to put out that soundtrack album to every major movie.
THOMPSON: For sure.
HOLMES: Like, when you and I were teenagers, every one of these Marvel movies, "Iron Man" and "The Avengers" and all that stuff, would have had a huge radio hit and a huge soundtrack built in and heavily marketed.
HOLMES: And that isn't necessarily a direction that they went in. And this, to me, is very - exactly like you said, there is so much fan service and so much throwback in "Top Gun: Maverick" in general that it's kind of only right that this song feels like a throwback. It's such a kind of reminder of what I think of as a little bit of a bygone era of blockbuster movie soundtracks, even though, obviously, all those things - and when we get to our next nominee, we'll realize that that still exists but, I think, is a little bit less prominent than it once was.
THOMPSON: If you watch the video and you remember the '80s, it does conjure that feeling, which I do appreciate.
HOLMES: Yeah, absolutely. I agree. Music was a big part of the first "Black Panther" movie in 2018. The song "All The Stars" was nominated in this category. I was just talking about Marvel movies and the fact that maybe they haven't had as many radio hits. I think the "Black Panther" movies are kind of the exception, have probably leaned the hardest on their music. "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever," this year's sequel, is nominated for the song "Lift Me Up." The music is from Tems, Rihanna, director Ryan Coogler and Ludwig Goransson, who won an Oscar for the "Black Panther" score in 2019. The lyrics are from Tems and Rihanna. She performs the song. Let's hear it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIFT ME UP")
RIHANNA: (Singing) Lift me up. Hold me down. Keep me close, safe and sound.
HOLMES: I like Rihanna.
THOMPSON: Talk about a song that was dragged down slightly by the weight of expectations. This was the first new Rihanna music in more than six years when it came out. And when it came out, I think the reaction to it was a little bit like, man, this is a beautiful vocal for a very, very sleepy song. And I think that's still kind of where I come down on this song. I'm so glad to hear Rihanna's voice again. I'm very excited to see kind of Rihanna reenter the cultural marketplace a little bit. But the songwriting on this track, particularly the lyric of this track, is really not doing anything. It doesn't really tie in to the really big themes of this film. This film is doing an extraordinary amount of mourning. It's dealing with the death of actor Chadwick Boseman, as well as the death of the character that he plays, Black Panther. I would have expected a song that taps into that a little bit more directly. If you just read down the lyric sheet of this song - lift me up. Hold me down. Keep me close, safe and sound - you're not going any deeper than that. And to me that's really frustrating, especially when you have a singer of this caliber, a film franchise of this caliber and the history of how great that first "Black Panther" soundtrack and score are.
THOMPSON: This song, to me, feels like a little bit of an afterthought in ways that I really, really wish it weren't.
HOLMES: Yeah. You know, I think the interesting thing is that when you read the title "Lift Me Up," that really does sound like, isn't there a song called "Lift Me Up" nominated in this category literally every year?
HOLMES: And there isn't. But it is very true...
HOLMES: ...That in many, many recent years, there have been songs nominated that have this feeling of, like, fight.
HOLMES: Lift up. Stand.
HOLMES: It is a very interesting pattern within original song nominees that they have these kind of inspirational lyrics. And this, I think, is a little different because I think this is not necessarily meant in the, like, rise, fight, win kind of way. I think the lift me up here is, particularly in the context of this film, a bit about grief and the survival of grief and things like that. But it feels - because of the title, it calls back to the sort of rah-rah, fight, win songs that have sometimes been nominated in the past. I do think the song fits the movie a bit because it is a sad song, because it is restrained. But it's interesting to sort of see that contrast between what this "Lift Me Up" is and what lift-me-up songs have traditionally been in this category.
THOMPSON: Yeah. There certainly have been a fair number of generic songs of uplift...
THOMPSON: ...Nominated for the Grammys, which might just lead us to our next pick.
HOLMES: Yep, absolutely true. Finally, we've got "Applause" from the movie "Tell It Like A Woman." Now, maybe you have not heard of "Tell It Like A Woman." This is a pretty off-the-beaten-path movie. It is a set of seven short films that were directed by different women. It features stars like Eva Longoria and Jennifer Hudson. This nomination is certainly, I would say, the most attention that the film has gotten. "Applause" was written by Diane Warren. Also of note, this is Diane Warren's 14th Oscar nomination. She has never won in this category. She does have an honorary Oscar. Her nominations go back to some radio hits including - and I had not thought about this song in a long time - the Starship song "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" in 1988. But the recent songs are less well-known, which is kind of an evolution of what we were talking about with big soundtrack hits versus now. But let's hear a little bit of "Applause" performed by Sofia Carson.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "APPLAUSE")
SOFIA CARSON: (Singing) Give yourself some applause. You deserve it. Give yourself some respect 'cause you've earned it. Give yourself some love 'cause you're worth it. You're worth it. Yeah. Hell yeah.
HOLMES: I have to tell you, Stephen, I have nothing against this song. I certainly have nothing against the towering reputation of Diane Warren. But I will say it feels a little bit like the weighted average of the last 20 years of pop songs performed by women. Do you know what I'm saying?
THOMPSON: Well, and written by Diane Warren.
THOMPSON: This is the sixth year in a row that Diane Warren has been nominated in this category...
THOMPSON: ...For a song with a title like Stand Up For Something, I'll Fight, I'm Standing With You. It's just these songs of kind of affirmation and uplift but with just no deeper commentary than that. When we're trying to explore, why is this happening? - there were a lot of good movie songs that did not get nominated this year. Taylor Swift had a song that was shortlisted for this category. The Weeknd had a song that was shortlisted for this category. Billie Eilish and Finneas wrote these fantastic boy band pastiches for "Turning Red" that didn't get nominated.
You could go in so many different directions for kind of the fifth slot in this award. Why did it go to Diane Warren, especially since - I'm sorry - if anyone else had written this song, it would not have been nominated? I do think Diane Warren, in addition to having, as you say, a towering reputation and a very long history, Diane Warren is a true Hollywood songwriter. She works in LA. She works in the industry. She works on a lot of movies. She sits down at her piano and bangs out songs that are meant to be played in movies. And that's very different.
If you're the academy and you're looking at possible nominees for best original song, you're probably a little frustrated by the trend of, like, big pop stars tossing crumbs out. You know, here's an outtake that you can play over the closing credits. Give me an Oscar - probably does frustrate members of the academy who look at Diane Warren and her very long career and say, I want to give an Oscar to Diane Warren. When you take a step back and think about that, I do think that makes sense. I do understand...
THOMPSON: ...Why the academy favors her so much. But the songs, to my mind, are just so generic, and they're tied into movies - in this case, a movie that virtually no one has seen. This movie is not really - has not really been in circulation. It is very frustrating to me, as somebody who just wants to see the five best original songs nominated in this category.
THOMPSON: I don't necessarily sit and listen to this song with my arms folded like this is the worst thing I've ever heard. It's just completely generic, and I just want to celebrate something I'm excited about.
HOLMES: Yeah. You raise such an interesting point 'cause I had never thought about that, that if you consider that members of the academy probably think of writing a song for a movie as a specific craft...
HOLMES: ...Then she is somebody who has a very long and successful history performing that craft. And a lot of these other folks - they may eventually, right? Lady Gaga has certainly written songs for films before. A lot of big pop stars and famous musicians do write some songs for film. But at her heart, she is a person who writes songs for movies.
HOLMES: And so I can understand, like you say, how, if you want to appreciate that as a specific, independent craft, it might make sense - as well as, like, because people tend to be nominated by their own branch and then voted on by everybody, it sort of makes sense that she would be nominated by her own peers but that maybe that doesn't have the same weight to the academy writ large. So that makes sense to me. I'm glad you brought that up. Well, we want to know what you think about this year's Oscar-nominated original songs. Find us at facebook.com/pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Thank you so much for being here, Stephen.
THOMPSON: Thank you, buddy.
HOLMES: This episode was produced by Mike Katzif and edited by Jessica Reedy. Hello Come In provides our theme music. And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Linda Holmes, and we'll see you all tomorrow.
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