Just two years ago, the Academy Awards telecast didn't feature a song performance — perhaps producers thought better of having a furry puppet croon "Man or Muppet." This year, the broadcast will showcase a contest as competitive as any best picture race, and less traditional to boot. How do you top "Frozen"'s soaring, kid-friendly ballad? Sing atop Rockefeller Center on Jimmy Fallon's first "Tonight Show." Or even better: Wear a hat that even Arby's tweets about.
If you're keeping score, the Oscars (airing on March 2) haven't seen this much pop music relevance since 1984, when all five nominees hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 and Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Love You" won. The last time it came close was when Aerosmith's "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" lost to Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey's "When You Believe."
But this year, the "Frozen" frontrunner is from an album that spent four weeks at No. 1, while "Despicable Me 2"'s "Happy" is currently No. 2 on the Hot 100. How did U2, Pharrell Williams, Karen O and composers Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez come to lead the hippest Oscar song pack in decades? The negative attention that the best song category drew two years ago (and which returned this year with the disqualification of "Alone Yet Not Alone" due to campaign rule vio- lations) is part of the answer, and the Academy's music branch has since revised its scoring system to allow in the top five vote-getters from the 240 members who determine the nomi- nees. (All of the nearly 6,000 voting members vote on the song and score.)
That resulted in a field led by Adele's James Bond theme, "Skyfall," which saw a post-win bump of 88 percent the week following. Her performance on the telecast was among the most heavily promoted, and that draw will be upped this year, too, when U2, Karen O and Idina Menzel, singing "Frozen"'s "Let It Go," take the stage. Williams has the most to gain, though, as his album "GIRL" will be released on March 3 "to take advantage of the Oscars' global spotlight," says Columbia Records senior vp marketing Scott Greer.
It's an honor just to be nominated, but one awards strategist asks, "When did winning best song become so meaningful and to whom and why?" The answer, and the stories behind the campaigns to bring home the Oscar gold, are in the pages that follow.
"Happy" from "Despicable Me 2"
Williams’ second go at the "Despicable Me" franchise signaled the movie industry’s faith in the hip-hop star who first gained entry to that world via a key endorsement from composer Hans Zimmer (the perennial nominee recruited Williams, 40, as co-musical consultant for the 2012 Oscars and the two are currently collaborating on May’s "Amazing Spider-Man 2").
But Williams’ ubiquity was undeniable when "Despicable Me 2" opened at No. 1 at the box office on July 4th weekend as he held the top two slots on the Hot 100 — joining Robin Thicke at No. 1 for “Blurred Lines” and with Daft Punk at No. 2 for “Get Lucky.” At the time, Universal Pictures was releasing the soundtrack through its Back Lot label, with no plans to market the film with a single.
“It was sort of off the table,” says Universal’s president of music Mike Knobloch. “We still consider radio crucial for a hit single and it seemed tough to release another Pharrell-branded track. It became clear in November that there was a lot of interest in the song and discovery without the connection to the film.” Driving that was the 24-hour video Pharrell released for “Happy,” which became a viral sensation.
“It was a stroke of genius — and it was all Pharrell’s doing — that in December he got people focused on a song that came out in June,” says Columbia Records executive vp Joel Klaiman. Sales went from 1,000 downloads a week to 9,000, peaking at No. 2 on the Hot 100 chart for the week ending Feb. 16.
Co-director Chris Renaud presented a task: Show Gru, a character known for being evil, in a state of unlimited happiness. It took several attempts to get a feel for what the directors wanted.
“The second and third ideas didn’t work,” says Williams. “I got to the ninth idea and had nowhere else to really turn, but sit quietly and ask myself, ‘Dude, how do I make a song about Gru and being happy and this relentless mood that can’t be changed?’ That’s when I realized the answer was in the question.”
Williams says Renaud and Knobloch pushed him to keep writing. “When he showed up with ‘Happy,’ it was attention-getting with a groove that’s unexpected and the lyrics perfectly crafted without being too blatantly on the nose,” says Knobloch.
Williams, who will be paid his writer’s share of the song while publishing is split between Universal Pictures, EMI April Music and Williams’ More Water From Nazareth (licenses can easily add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars), admits to frustration, but never in a negative way. “I learned so much about songwriting by watching their filmmaking process,” he says. “‘Happy’ doesn’t have the word ‘sweat’ in it or girls booty shaking. It was pure emotion devoted to Chris’ and [codirector] Pierre Coffin’s intention for the scene and the film.”
THE TIPPING POINT
Universal Pictures got the song in a Beats headphones ad, which aired on highly rated live shows, including "Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve," the Golden Globes and the Grammy Awards. While the "Despicable Me" messaging was often present, “As a standalone asset, ‘Happy’ is the ultimate example of licensing and leveraging,” says Knobloch. “It is genuinely coincidental that its success happened [during the awards campaign season].”
FOR IT: The “in” Pharrell has been omnipresent without oversaturating the media.
AGAINST IT: Williams’ name is not on the ballot, and sequels often get the Oscar shaft.