From Elliott Smith to Sufjan Stevens, Repping Indie Rock at the Oscars

“I’m just thrilled to be nominated and to be there and be witness to it all,” Sufjan Stevens told Variety in a recent interview, expressing gratitude for his Oscar nod for “Mystery of Love,” one of the two original songs he wrote for “Call Me By Your Name.” In taking a happy-just-to-be-there stance, Stevens may be being magnanimous — or just realistic, given how historically impervious Academy voters have proven to indie-rock over the years, especially in the final voting stretch.

Only once, or “Once,” has the Academy awarded Best Song to an artist who might be considered to have come from the indie-rock realm, when Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who formerly shared space in the band the Frames, won a decade ago for “Falling Slowly.” Some might consider their genre to be more in the realm of adult alternative or Americana, but at least they were artists signed to an indie label, and true outliers in the Pixar-favoring division. The same could be sort of be said for alt-country artist Ryan Bingham, who shared his Oscar win with T Bone Burnett for a “Crazy Heart” song, “The Weary Kind,” two years later.

But otherwise, it’s been a series of probably not-so-near misses when indie artists have their brush with Oscar greatness. Does anyone remember that Karen O, from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, was nominated four years ago (along with co-writer director Spike Jonez), for a song from “Her”? Not so much, not least of all because the song felt obscure enough that Ms. O was not invited to reprise her soundtrack performance on the telecast. The Academy Awards’ producers have the prerogative to cut the number of Best Song nominees performed on the show to three, or even none. This year, a public ruckus was raised when the rumor arose that Stevens was not going to be invited to sing “Mystery of Love” on the March 4 telecast — a development that, if true, would have met with much greater revolt than the exclusion of the more obscure Karen O tune.

The first time that an indie-rock type did strum a guitar on the telecast came in 1998, when Elliott Smith sang an abridged version of “Miss Misery,” from “Good Will Hunting,” to close out a montage of nominated songs. Look on YouTube and you can catch a glimpse of the still slightly bizarre sight of a deeply uncomfortable-looking Smith clasping hands and taking a bow with Celine Dion and Trisha Yearwood at the end of their medley. The fact that the late troubadour lost out to “My Heart Will Go On” came as a surprise to exactly nobody, and Smith definitely would have fallen into the happy-just-to-be-there category… if he’d looked remotely happy to be there.

On the other hand, Aimee Mann seemed to have a real shot at it when “Save Me,” from “Magnolia,” was nominated two years later, in 2000. Her music was featured throughout a celebrated indie movie; the nominated tune neatly tied in with the movie’s emotional climax; and she was being seen as a heroine at the time for being one of the first marquee major-label acts to go completely independent with her own label… all factors that counted for diddly with the average Oscar voter at the turn of the century. She was expected to lose to Randy Newman, whose “When She Loved Me” from “Toy Story 2” was predicted to finally end his long shut-out streak. Instead, both of these worthy contenders lost, ignominiously, to Phil Collins “and his cartoon monkey love song” (from “Tarzan”), as she Mann would later jestfully put it. “Of course I’m not angry or bitter or resentful in any way,” she would typically say when introducing the song in concert.

Some other indie-rock losses are less lamentable. Bjork sang “I’ve Seen It All,” from “Dancer in the Dark,” on the 2001 telecast, and she had little reason to feel angry or bitter or resentful in any way when she lost out to Bob Dylan. (One of her nominated co-writers on the track was director Lars Von Trier, and given the allegations of abuse that she’s hurled against the filmmaker in the years since, Bjork might actually be pleased at not having to have her name appear alongside his in the Oscar-win annals.) In that case, anyway, we got a century’s worth of ongoing swan-dress jokes out of her appearance, so everybody won, really.

Oscar was notoriously slow to embrace any kind of rock, of course. The Beatles scored zero nominations for their run of movies in the ’60s, because who needed “A Hard Day’s Night” when they could nominate the title song from “Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte”? The first time that a singer/songwriter of any popular genre was nominated came in 1972, when the Academy, like the rest of the world, succumbed to the charms of “Shaft,” handing Isaac Hayes an R&B win before a rock song had even been put up. Rock got its official first entry when Paul and Linda McCartney were nominated in ’74 for “Live and Let Die.” Pop and country stars like Lionel Richie, Dolly Parton, Stevie Wonder, Irene Cara, Dolly Parton, and Ray Collins Jr. began to dominate the nominations in the ‘80s. But after the McCartneys’ miss in the ‘70s, the only singer/songwriters to be even remotely counted as rockers to get nominated in the ‘80s were Randy Newman, Phil Collins, Kenny Loggins, and Willy DeVille, none of them exactly rocking out with their nominated efforts.

The ’90s brought us the unlikely phrase “Oscar nominee Jon Bon Jovi,” but it wasn’t until 1994 that the rock logjam in the winners’ division was broken when Bruce Springsteen won for “Philadelphia” (beating out a Neil Young tune from the same movie). Things got decidedly hepper after the turn of the century as Dylan and Eminem scored wins. But Oscar voters continue to have little concern about whether their results overlap in any way with the Village Voice rock critics’ poll, and there’s no safer Oscar bet than betting against the rock guy, much less somebody from the independent world.

But to even have Stevens nominated counts as a key victory, particularly after he was worryingly shut out of the Golden Globe nominations in favor of even more celebrity animated-film fare from Mariah Carey and Nick Jonas. There will no Aimee Mann/Phil Collins-style shame if he loses, as he almost certainly will. More than any field of five Best Song nominees inn memory, every tune in this year’s field has a good reason to be there. Stevens was definitely not just being magnanimous when he told Variety that he “really feel(s) blessed and honored to be up there with Mary J. Blige and the songs from ‘Coco.’ I laughed and cried through every single rendition of ‘Remember Me’ in ‘Coco’…” Even an indie-rock favoring soul could wish for a tie… if not actually a “Remember Me By Your Name” mash-up.

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