An Oscar-winning best song walks the line between living a longer life than the film it’s being lauded for or working in perfect harmony with a movie’s success.
One of the gold standards of the latter synergy remains James Horner’s best song “My Heart Will Go On” from 1997’s “Titanic,” which assisted in propelling the pic’s soundtrack to go platinum 11 times over.
In the past, the major pop stars who performed their film-dwelling hits were the ones audiences remembered most from the Oscarcast, but recently producers have played with the formula. “Film songs aren’t necessarily performer-driven,” notes Fox music president Robert Kraft. “They could be moody ballads or you could have a singer who isn’t telegenic.”
When it comes to measuring how effective an artist’s turn was on the show nowadays, film music execs observe download sales. Looking at last year’s Oscar perfs, it can be argued that the glitzy musical stylings of the “Dreamgirls” numbers triumphed over winner Melissa Etheridge’s guitar-enhanced “I Need to Wake Up” from “An Inconvenient Truth”: Beyonce’s “Listen” and Jennifer Hudson’s “Love You I Do” triggered 151,000 and 24,000 downloads, respectively, while Etheridge’s message ballad sold 20,000. “If there’s a sales spike after the Oscars for an artist, it’s usually on the artist’s album,” says Village Roadshow Music topper and former Paramount music exec Burt Berman.
Thanks to rap’s mainstream appeal, Three 6 Mafia captured lightning in a bottle after their underdog song win for “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” from 2005’s “Hustle & Flow,” signing a three-year production deal with Warner Bros. Records. The Oscar win also gave Mafia’s album “Most Known Unknown” a huge sales boost toward platinum status. According to Nielsen Soundscan, more than 200,000 units of “Unknown” were sold after Mafia’s Oscar face time.
However, there’s the B side of a best song win. A niche artist like Jorge Drexler, who won for “Al otro lado del rio” from 2004’s “The Motorcycle Diaries,” didn’t extend beyond his base demo. Drexler’s album last February, “12 segundos de oscuridad,” pushed 35,000 copies in Spain, the singer’s biggest market, and barely registered Stateside. The re-release of his album “Eco,” which included the “Rio” single, didn’t fare any better Stateside, with only 10,000 copies sold, according to Soundscan.
But it’s the Oscar nods and wins that pay off in spades for rock legends and Top 40 acts, particularly after an appearance on the show. When Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young performed their singles from the 1993 pic “Philadelphia,” soundtrack sales more than doubled after the Oscars, from 32,000 to 77,000 copies according to Soundscan.
Sometimes songs have either been played out prior to the time the Academy Awards roll around or the broadcast is simply icing on the cake of already stellar sales. A majority of the songs that won during the ’80s, starting with “Fame” from the eponymous pic through “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” from “Dirty Dancing,” were already chartbusters before they arrived at the Oscars. This trend was seen again in 2003 when Jeff Bass, Luis Resto and Eminem grabbed a trophy for their track “Lose Yourself” from the rap artist’s headliner “8 Mile.” “Lose Yourself” hit the No. 1 spot on the Soundscan charts during the late fall; by the time of the Oscars, the “8 Mile” soundtrack had sold close to 4 million copies. The week following the kudocast, the pic’s album jumped 19 spots to No. 10 — and Eminem didn’t even perform the hit on the show.
While the category is responsible for its share of kudocast gaffes, even some of the most offbeat best song appearances have left their crooners unscathed after the Oscars. One of the more notorious incidents occurred at the 57th Academy Awards when Ann Reinking was asked by the show’s producers to give her rendition of song nominee “Against All Odds” in lieu of Phil Collins, who had rearranged his schedule to perform on the show. A humbled Collins sat in the audience while Reinking struggled onstage with his ballad. Nonetheless, the moment didn’t prove to be a career killer for either artist and it can be argued that crowds remember Collins’ song more than the 1984 Taylor Hackford film (the single was a hit).
Typically, the kudocast’s producer will set the annual standard as to how the songs will be staged. Though efforts are made to book the song’s original artist, sometimes creative decisions are made to compensate for cutting the show’s running time or keeping viewership intact.
“The producers treat these musical performances as eating up valuable time; it’s not like a feature appearance at the Grammys,” exclaims one record label exec.
“Everyone is on their best behavior when they’re asked to perform,” adds composer Marc Shaiman, who has served as the musical director for the telecast in the past and whose song “Come So Far” from “Hairspray” is looking for a nod this year. “It’s our country’s version of performing for the queen.”
Bjork’s swan dress during her 2001 performance of “I’ve Seen It All” from “Dancer in the Dark” might have been distracting; however, the moment pales next to Michael Portnoy’s intrusive “Soy Bomb” dance during Bob Dylan’s 1998 Grammy stage time. Historically speaking, it’s the other Oscar categories that have to worry about their fair share of impromptu moments, from nude streakers and Sacheen Littlefeathers. Then again, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
“Anytime you have added awareness for a film from a song, it’s creating buzz,” says Universal film music president Kathy Nelson about Oscar best songs. “The music is advertising the film, and in those cases of a win, it introduces people to the film who haven’t found it.”