The Agony, Absurdity and Ecstasy of the Oscar for Best Song

The Agony, Absurdity and Ecstasy of the Oscar for Best Song

This year’s batch of nominations contains names that will be familiar to any Oscar devotee, and the writers of three of the five songs are repeat nominees. But there are first timers other than Mr. Stevens as well: Mary J. Blige, Raphael Saadiq and Taura Stinson are up for “Mighty River,” from “Mudbound.” Also, in what is possibly an Oscars first, one team of writers is up against their former babysitter.

The Bagger asked the songwriters about the impact of the nominations, and how they went about writing songs for the screen.


Mary J Blige in “Mudbound.”


First and foremost, they all said landing an Oscar nomination was obviously a good thing.

“Being in this conversation of course broadens the horizons,” Ms. Blige, who is the first person to earn Oscar nominations for songwriting and acting in the same year, wrote in an email. “Just like a Grammy, it elevates the game.”

Mary J. Blige – “Mighty River” (Lyric Video, Mudbound OST) Video by Milan Records USA

But several of the songwriters noted that an award as the end goal could have a poisoning effect.

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who collected the best song Oscar last year for “City of Stars,” from “La La Land,” have found themselves nominated again this year, for “This Is Me,” a chart topper and Golden Globe winner sung by Keala Settle in “The Greatest Showman.”

Mr. Pasek said the recognition helped counterbalance the often torturous process of songwriting. “There are so many dark, dreary days where you feel incredibly inadequate, and completely lost,” he said. “People you look up to or inspire you, a community of artists that you listen to and draw inspiration from, are saying, ‘keep going.’ ”

But, Mr. Paul added, the pair didn’t necessarily view it as a stamp of “now we’re really good.”


Left, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Right, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez.

Jesse Dittmar for The New York Times; John Francis Peters for The New York Times

“We all know people who have won awards who have gone on to make terrible things, and people who’ve never won an award who’ve done great things,” he said.

Mr. Pasek, as it happened, used to babysit for Kristen Anderson-Lopez and her husband, Robert Lopez, who are up for the tender ballad “Remember Me,” from the Oscar-nominated “Coco,” the Pixar animated film about Mexican family life and folklore (both the film and the song are favorites in their respective categories).

“Such a sweet and warm guy,” Mr. Lopez wrote in a text, of Mr. Pasek. “We’d use him again, though I think he’s busy.”

The Lopezes are Oscar winners, too, having gifted the world with “Let It Go,” one of the most ubiquitous songs of 2014. (The artist who sang that, Idina Menzel, had her name gloriously mangled by John Travolta at that year’s Oscars, where he introduced her as “Adele Dazeem.”)

Ms. Anderson-Lopez said “Remember Me” was born partly out of parental guilt. Working in the music industry often takes her and Mr. Lopez away from their two daughters, so she leaves them with personalized lullabies that she has their babysitters sing. Mr. Lopez also sang it at his mother’s funeral in August. “I don’t know how I made it through,” he said.

Miguel – Remember Me (Dúo) (From “Coco”/Official Lyric Video) ft. Natalia Lafourcade Video by DisneyMusicVEVO

The couple said having their first Oscar nomination, and win, behind them has let them breathe easier this awards season. In 2014, they found themselves “in a constant state of fight or flight,” Ms. Anderson-Lopez said. This year’s ceremony will also be a break from their work in New York, where they are preparing “Frozen” for Broadway. “Writing for the screen, you don’t have to think about applause moments,” Ms. Anderson-Lopez said.

”Remember Me” was also deeply personal for its Grammy-winning singers, Miguel, whose father is Mexican, and the pop star Natalia LaFourcade, who is from Mexico City. “On a political, cultural side, a movie like this has great timing,” Miguel said. Ms. LaFourcade said the movie, and song, gave her country a much-needed boost. “Especially being next to the States, it’s very important, and a reminder of so many good things we have,” she said.

“Stand Up for Something,” from “Marshall,” a film about the first African-American Supreme Court justice, was written by Diane Warren, who’s on her ninth Oscar nomination, and Common, who, along with John Legend, won the category three years ago for “Glory.”

Common said his first round of movie awards attention gave him access to power players he had never before known, like the Starbucks executive Howard Schultz, with whom he ended up partnering on a jobs initiative in Chicago.

Ms. Warren said she had always known she wanted to work with Common on the song, which he performed with the singer Andra Day, but didn’t pop the question until she found herself sitting alongside him on a plane trip to Sundance. “It’s probably the most important song I’ve ever done,” she said.

Andra Day – Stand Up For Something feat. Common [Official Music Video] Video by Andra Day

“People are more likely to call you, any success you have,” Ms. Warren said. “The fact that you’re chosen out of hundreds of nominated songs is quite an honor. That being said, it would be nice to win.”

Mr. Stevens remains a little baffled by his nomination, and the intensity of being part of an awards campaign. A staunchly independent and autonomous songwriter, he’s had little exposure to the entertainment industry complex, and “Call Me by Your Name,” which is also a best picture contender, is distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, a division of Sony Pictures Entertainment. The song he is nominated for also wasn’t even the first one he penned for the film; that was “Visions of Gideon,” which he describes as “entrenched in sorrow, a moment of realizing and resignation, and a bit of a downer when you’re up against Pixar.” So, he said, he understood why “Mystery of Love” was instead used in the film’s awards campaign.

As for the Oscar night tuxedo, Mr. Stevens has a pretty sweet connection. He’ll be wearing Gucci, he said, because “Luca is close with the Gucci people because he lives near Milan.” To be determined: whether he’ll accessorize with wings.

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