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Oscar’s Song Crop Ranges from ‘Simple’ to Complex

This year’s batch of Oscar original song nominees represents quite the motley crew, with an operatic aria on one end of the spectrum and a bumping, post-coital soul track on the other.

“Earned It,” from “Fifty Shades of Grey,” earned first-time nominations for the Weeknd (aka Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, who performs), Ahmad Balshe, Jason Daheala Quenneville and Stephan Moccio.
The slow, sexy waltz plays as Jamie Dornan drives a conflicted Dakota Johnson home after a night of consummation, then reprises at the unresolved close of the film into the credits.

“(Director) Sam Taylor-Johnson wanted a song that had more soul to it, and, more importantly, that was coming from a male perspective,” Moccio says.

The song, which features Moccio on piano, is based on just two chords. Only toward the end does it shift into other harmonic territory, “where the strings kind of go wild,” he says. “That was more the darkness of ‘Fifty Shades.’”

A very different waltz is J. Ralph’s “Manta Ray,” from the doomed-planet documentary “Racing Extinction.” This is Ralph’s second nomination after his song for the 2012 doc “Chasing Ice.”

Ralph collaborated with English singer Antony Hegarty, who wrote the lyrics. This marks Hegarty’s first nomination, and only the second time an openly transgender person has been nominated for an Oscar.
An instrumental version is used throughout the film’s underscore, and the song itself — with lyrics like “and my children are dying now inside me” — debuts over the end credits.

“It’s a wake-up call, and a requiem for these fallen creatures,” says Ralph, who wanted something “arresting and comforting, yet speaks to the infinite sadness with the loss of these species.”

“Simple Song #3” is the consummation of Paolo Sorrentino’s “Youth,” and was written by the film’s composer, David Lang (receiving his first nomination for one of his rare film projects).

Hints about the song, fictionally written by Michael Caine’s Fred Ballinger, are dropped throughout the film — including a boy practicing it on violin. It all leads to a concert for the queen, where the song is performed onscreen (as credits roll) by opera singer Sumi Jo, violinist Viktoria Mullova and the BBC Concert Orchestra.

“The song has to tell the entire story for (Ballinger),” says Lang, who composed it before the script was finished. “And the optimism of his youth has to be tempered with the incredible disappointment and heartbreak and the bittersweetness of having accomplished things when the person you love isn’t there with you.”

“The Hunting Ground,” a doc about America’s campus rape epidemic, has an anthem in Lady Gaga’s “Til It Happens to You.”

It’s the first nomination for Gaga, who wrote the song with eight-time Oscar nominee Diane Warren. Introduced early as punctuation to one victim’s account of post-rape trauma, the song returns over the closing credits.

“I was very concerned that people would not take me seriously,” admits Gaga, “or that I would somehow add a stigma to it.”

Both Gaga and Warren were victims of sexual assaults themselves and channeled their experience into a rallying cry for victims. It’s “making people feel less alone,” says Warren. “I’m getting notes from people: ‘This song has given me strength … I’m not going to go hide in my closet.’”

“Writing’s on the Wall” joins last year’s winning “Skyfall” in the company of Oscar-nominated Bond songs, and garnered the first nomination for Sam Smith (who performs) and Jimmy Napes.

As per tradition, it accompanies the stylish title sequence (here full of octopus imagery and writhing female bodies). An instrumental arrangement later underscores a hot-blooded, post-bloodshed moment between Bond and Léa Seydoux.

“I wanted to add an element of me into it,” Smith says. “I’m a very sensitive, vulnerable person. All my songs are insanely personal. Something about Daniel Craig, and … the films that he’s been in — you see Bond bleed, you see a kind of rough side of Bond. I wanted to add to that, to create a vulnerability.”

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