It hadn’t been much commented on prior to the Oscars Sunday night, but there was really no category that better represented the inclusion, diversity, and marginalized communities that the Academy wanted to hold up than the Best Original Song category. That felt clearer while watching the performances of the five nominated songs over the course of the telecast; nothing against all the speechifying that touched on the same themes, but sometimes what’s said well is even better sung.
The folks on the other side of the future wall? Right there in “Remember Me,” from “Coco.” Race relations within America’s own borders? Accounted for with both “Stand Up for Something,” from “Marshall,” and “Mighty River,” from “Mudbound.” The LGBT community? That was them — implicitly, at least — in “This is Me,” from “The Greatest Showman.” Meanwhile, “Mystery of Love” came closest to being an indie update on the romantic balladry that has been the category’s stock in trade in decades past, but obviously, a love song is not just a love song when it’s representing for “Call Me By Your Name.”
Whether or not the producers realized just how fully the statements they wanted this year’s show to make were already embodied in the five songs was up for question, because, as usual, the tunes were squeezed into the same tight verse-and-a-chorus format as usual. Sufjan Stevens’ reading of “Call Me By Your Name,” in particular, whizzed by in a mere minute and 40 seconds — barely time enough to try to pick out in the fleeing long shots whether the all-star players in his band (Chris Thile, Moses Sumney, and St. Vincent) had actually shown up as promised.
“Stand Up for Something” was awarded the longest and most effective slot of any of the songs, although not all of the 2 minutes and 50 seconds consisted of the actual song. Common started it off with some up-to-the-moment, Fox News-baiting freestyling, rapping about Haiti, Puerto Rico, and Parkland. “On Oscar night this is the dream we tell,” he said, “a land where dreamers live and freedom swells, immigrants get the benefits, we put up monuments for the feminists, tell the NRA they in God’s way…” Common probably had permission to go off-script with the preamble, but it felt bracing to get something fresh anyway. And the idea of having the remainder of the song he performed with Andra Day visually backed by 10 key activists was a swell one, even if the show shouldn’t have sent viewers off to their computers to try to figure out who all these folks were.
“This is Me” got an even longer slot (just over three minutes!), maybe justified by the unexpected ongoing popularity of the “Showman” soundtrack. This, too, had a large backing cast meant to represent America Now, if a slightly cornier one, with dancers bearing pink Mohawks and hijabs high-stepping together in peace. Keala Settle turned up the drama, breaking into a theatrical sob as the camera did a 360-degree revolution around her. But you could hardly blame her for selling it for all she had — it’s truly an empowerment anthem an H.B. Barnum could get behind.
Mary J. Blige’s performance seemed to suffer from the abbreviated slot, working herself up to an emotional climax in less than two minutes before the a cappella/clap-along coda. It was over so fast the audience didn’t seem quite sure whether they’d really gotten enough of her to justify the standing ovation they were probably all prepared to offer, so they split the difference.
“Remember Me” probably came off least well in this context, even though the Academy may have had it right in awarding the tune Best Song. Its power comes through its repetition in the movie, not any single performance — and neither voice actor Gael Garcia Bernal, whose opening minute was on the timid and slightly shaky side, nor Miguel and Natalia LaFourcade, who followed with the pop duet version, were prepared to do it full justice on their own. Yet there was still some multi-culti fun to the song’s bilingualism, even if it made you mostly want to experience the full animation again instead of the pale fluorescence of that backdrop.
Essentially, it was a collection of unusually top-shelf songs — this is the first time in memory where no one should have had to dread fuller performances of all five tunes — none of which quite delivered a knockout punch in their hurried presentations on the Oscars.
Actually, the show did have a clear musical highlight, although it didn’t come from the Best Song performances. It was Eddie Vedder singing Tom Petty’s “Room at the Top,” with an acoustic guitar and orchestration, at length for the In Memoriam segment Let’s face it: America is running out of appropriate secular death songs to play during these show-biz montages, and “Room at the Top” was an inspired choice for a part of the show that can’t really be about inspiration — both for the song itself and the fact that its writer, too, is recently passed away. With Vedder very quietly doing Petty proud, death became this show.