Oscar Song Contenders Take on a More Socially-Conscious Point of View

BB1 2018 - DO NOT REUSE
Shutterstock, Getty Images; Design by Jessica Xie
Clockwise from top right: Cynthia Erivo, Common, Andra Day, Keala Settle & Mary J. Blige

As the Jan. 12 deadline for Oscar nominations voting approaches, expect songs from socially conscious-oriented films and entries from past winners to dominate the best original song category.

This year, 70 tunes are in consideration, down from 91 songs last year. To be eligible, the work must be written specifically for the film and used within the movie or as the first end-title song. Billboard spoke with two Oscar voters, identified as Voter One and Voter Two, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, about what voters may be looking for when it comes to marking their ballots.

"Since Common and John Legend won for [2014's] Selma, there's now an expectation that there's a slot for a song about civil rights or a political song," says Voter One.

"It doesn't hurt to have a song that says something and that resonates in this day and time," agrees Voter Two.

That's good news for the plethora of songs from issue-oriented documentaries and features. Among the top contenders are Marshall's powerful "Stand Up for Something," co-written by Common and Diane Warren, who, with eight previous nominations, is looking for her first win; Mudbound's gospel-tinged "Mighty River," written by Mary J. Blige, Raphael Saadiq and Taura Stinson; Detroit's searing "It Ain't Fair," written by The RootsAn Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power's solemn title track, written by Ryan Tedder & T Bone Burnett; and Step's inspirational "Jump," written by Saadiq, Stinson and Laura Karpman.

"Jump" already snagged a win for best song in a documentary at the Critics' Choice Documentary Awards and the Hollywood Music in Media Awards, but songs from docs have a notoriously hard time claiming the Oscar: although at least one has been nominated the last three years, Melissa Etheridge's "I Need to Wake Up" from 2006's An Inconvenient Truth remains the only winner.

Voter One considers it "inevitable" that a number of past Oscar recipients will get nominated based on their prestige and the strength of their current entries. Voter One cites reigning champs Benj Pasek and Justin Paul -- who won last year with La La Land's "City of Stars" -- for the rousing, self-affirming "This is Me" from The Greatest Showman; "Let It Go" songwriters Kristina Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez (the youngest EGOT winner) for the sentimental "Remember Me" from Coco; and the legendary pairing of eight-time Oscar winner Alan Menken and triple Oscar winner Tim Rice for the romantic "Evermore" from Beauty and the Beast.

Voter Two isn't so sure: "I don't know if anything is automatic. No one gets a free pass. It's about the work."

The two voters also disagree on whether end-title songs get a fair shake. Though a number of them have been nominated over the years, conventional wisdom has been that end-title tracks are not given as much consideration as songs that are integrated into the film. "There's just a known thing that the Academy [of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences] doesn't respect it as much," says Voter One, while Voter Two adds, "As long as [the song] emotionally ties something together, it doesn't matter if it's an end title. It's not negative as long as it's not tacked on and unconnected."

While AMPAS prefers that voters view the films in their entirety so they can see the placement and role of each contending song, music branch members are serviced with a DVD compilation of all 70 eligible songs as they are used in their respective films. AMPAS allows one edit in the three-minute DVD submission to highlight if there is more than one usage in the film, but the one-edit rule "still hurts songs that are used multiple times in a film or are [highlighted] in the score," Voter One says.

Ultimately, Voter Two says when it comes to casting a vote, "I look to see how great the song is. It has to make you feel something, whether it's in the movie or at the end."

Nominations for the March 4 ceremony will be announced Jan. 23. Members of the music branch vote for the nominees by ranking their top five selections. The entire voting body can then vote for the winner from the nominations. Final ballots are due Feb. 27.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 13 issue of Billboard.