Pop, R&B and Country Stars Take Center Stage in Oscars’ Song Category

As the year winds down, the race to the Oscars will fill up with contenders from animation and musicals. But right now, the spotlight is on top-flight pop, R&B, and country stars with theme songs for dramas rooted in recent history, including Sara Bareilles, the Roots, Dierks Bentley, and Andra Day with Common.

“Hold the Light”
From the film “Only the Brave”

Music and lyrics by: Dierks Bentley, Sean Carey, Joe Trapanese and Jon Randall
Bentley’s song plays over an end montage of the real firefighters who died in the Arizona forest blaze dramatized in the film. The country star says the film’s creators “agonized over: Do we lift them up as they walk out? Or do we let them sit with the sadness for a bit?” They went with the latter, with Bentley “trying to write what these guys would want to say back to their loved ones who are still here, so you’re kind of crossing the boundaries of time and space. It’s real, it’s heavy, and it’s gonna mess you up,” he says. “But I like getting messed up that way.”

The single and video versions have an artist co-credit for Bon Iver’s S. Carey, who was working on the tune with the score composer, Joseph Trapanese, before Bentley came in. “That vocal sound that Bon Iver has is such a big part of it,” says Bentley, who adds that giving Carey featured credit “was the right thing to do, because it was such a blend, beyond just a background thing. The whole thing was such a collaboration — hell, put everyone’s name on there, as far as I’m concerned.” Prior to getting to work on “Only the Brave,” “I actually wrote a couple songs of my own, but I really couldn’t beat what (Carey and Trapanese) had started, so I just started to add to that one and sing it.”

Bentley was an obvious pick; besides being an Arizona native, he had performed at a benefit for the firefighters’ families three weeks after the tragedy. But today, he hears it in a new light in the wake of the Las Vegas shootings, and “thinking about first responders in general. Maybe it’s just getting older and just being conscious of it, but it seems like there’s been a lot of death this year, with these awful atrocities and natural disasters. It could be a good moment for a song like this.”

“If I Dare”
From the film “Battle of the Sexes

Music and lyrics by: Sara Bareilles and Nicholas Britell
Battle of the Sexes” directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris tasked Bareilles with reworking some of composer Nicholas Britell’s instrumental themes into song. “So musically, I had this awesome launching pad,” Bareilles says. Lyrically, she had a fairly direct inspiration: “I met Billie Jean King at the theater one night when I was in ‘Waitress’ on Broadway… I said, ‘What are your hopes for this song?’ She said, ‘I just want people to feel like they can do anything.’ Well, that’s a tall order! But I just really wanted to make Billie Jean happy.”

Taking off from King’s face-offs with Jack Kramer in the movie, Bareilles focused on the theme of standing up for the most basic rights without ever actually invoking sexism or gender, although, coming at the close of “Battle,” that context is understood. “In the women’s movement, it’s just about claiming what is ours, and the only time it pisses everybody else off is when we’re just daring to ask for what other people have,” she says.

What Bareilles already has: a long track record of nominations for just about everything she could have previously been nominated for, from the Grammys to the Tonys. Would she like to add an Oscar nomination for her first film song to the pile? “I have a perfect record in losing all those nominations, too, so yeah, rack ’em up, baby!” she laughs. But in all seriousness, “I was new to this kind of assignment writing, but to be perfectly frank, sometimes I’m just bored of myself and my own ideas, so it’s really nice to write for something else. And it doesn’t get any more compelling than Billie Jean King.”

“It Ain’t Fair”
From the film “Detroit

Music and lyrics by: Ahmir Thompson and Tariq Trotter
“I know that typically for movies like this, the closing credits offer some soothing resolution,” says the Roots’ Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, who co-wrote “It Ain’t Fair.” But he wasn’t about to try to calm the jangled nerves of anyone who’d just experienced Kathryn Bigelow’s harrowing drama of race and police brutality in 1967. “Unlike films in the past that have dealt with civil-rights issues or injustice, there is no resolution. At least in ‘12 Years a Slave,’ you get somewhat of a breather, because he gets freed. Usually there’s some moment that lets you go on with your day. But you don’t get that at all in ‘Detroit.’ It’s a jarring, unsettling and painful watch that the only thing I could do was write this song just for therapy.”

As the story goes, Bigelow called immediately after he first screened the movie. As Quest recalls: “She said, ‘How do you feel about it?’ I was like, ‘I’m sorry Kathryn; I’m mad as f—.’ She was like, ‘Great. Now go write my song for me.’” What he came up with was three moving pieces, with an a cappella opening leading to a Motown-influenced ballad section, sung by Bilal, which then proceeds to a furious rap by the Roots’ Black Thought, which makes clear the connections between 1967 and 2017. “I agreed to at least give Kathryn 40 seconds of space to make it quiet at the beginning, but I said, ‘Once that music starts, it’s gonna be seven minutes of rage at the end.’”

He recorded it at the Dap-Tones’ studio in Brooklyn with their horn section, shortly after the death of their lead singer, Sharon Jones, which added to the old-Detroit vibe in the song’s gentler sections… even though barbed lines like “Your protector is your predator” never would shown up on on a ’60s Motown record. “Musically, it’s vintage, but the first line of the song definitely lets you know that it’s 2017: ‘People think they’re woke and they’re walking in their sleep.’ The real reason why I felt compelled to write it is . because we’re dealing with the same issues today in 2017 that we were dealing with in 1967.”

“Stand Up for Something”
From the film “Marshall

Music and lyrics by: Common and Diane Warren
Veteran songwriter Warren could see a ninth Academy Award nomination with “Stand Up for Something,” as performed by Andra Day and Common over the end titles of the civil rights-themed “Marshall.” “The timeliness of it is kind of crazy,” says Warren. “Now more than ever we need to stand up, whether it’s civil rights, gay rights, animal rights, human rights, everything’s being stripped away, and we can’t be passive.”

Warren was having lunch with Jackie Fox, the ex-Runaway, whose cousins wrote the screenplay, which led her to director Reginald Hudson, whom she’d met when he was producing the Oscars two years and Lady Gaga performed their song, “Til It Happens to You.” Then she sat next to Common on a flight to Sundance. He’d won an Oscar in 2015 for contributing a rap to “Glory,” from “Selma,” and Warren felt this was a good portent to share her song for another racially charged period drama. “Two days later, I looked at my phone and I had 10 messages from Common. He loved and wanted to be on it.” Warren describes the confluence of meet ups as “weird. I was having a conversation with Andra’s manager and we had talked about Common maybe a week before. And Andra plays a Billie Holiday-type singer in the movie, but when I gave her the song, I didn’t even know she was in the movie. I think there are no accidents.”

Warren describes where she went to get inspiration, the day after reading the script: “I listened to ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ 10 times,” she says. “I wanted to write that for 2017, if you could capture the essence of that uplifting kind of protest song.”

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