Oscar's Best Song Battle: Pharrell, U2, Karen O & 'Frozen' Fight for Academy Awards Gold

Joe Pugliese
Robert Lopez, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Pharrell Williams, Bono, Karen O and Spike Jones

Pharrell has a No. 2 hit, the "Frozen" soundtrack reached No. 1, Karen O is the indie ‘It’ girl and U2 is... just cool. The Academy’s sleepy little Best Original Song category turns shockingly competitive and surprisingly commercial as the nominees open up about what they wrote — and what’s at stake.


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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.



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"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.

Pharrell Williams Reps Talk 'G I R L' Album Stragegy

“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.THE SONG
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.

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“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.”

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].”

ODDS: 11-2
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.


"The Moon Song" from "Her"

Perhaps it should be thought of as the anti-campaign. Creating an aura of undeniable indie cool, Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O, 35, and the film’s composer, 31-year-old William Butler of Arcade Fire, have resisted doing publicity for "Her" (ditto for director and Karen O collaborator Spike Jonze, 44), and neither the song — a difficult fit for radio because of its hushed tone — nor the score is available for purchase.

Warner Bros. Pictures’ inhouse label WaterTower Music posted the film version of “The Moon Song” on SoundCloud in September and a duet between Karen O and Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig in February. The song also can be found on YouTube, including the version that appears onscreen featuring the voices of Scarlett Johansson and Joaquin Phoenix as their "Her" characters, Samantha and Theodore.

But none of these digital displays has shown all-that-impressive metrics. The few live performances of “Moon Song” have been limited to exclusive events, like The Hollywood Reporter’s Nominees Night at Spago in Beverly Hills on Feb. 10, and on Santa Monica-based public radio station KCRW (worth noting: The station broadcasts out of Los Angeles’ Academy member-dense Westside).

Nonetheless, the economic effects of an Oscar nomination, and certainly a win, can open opportunities (and revenue streams) for indie darlings willing to go Hollywood (and weather accusations of going commercial). Take Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, who shuns music’s biggest kudofest, the Grammy Awards, but takes vocal pride in the Academy Award he won for 2010’s "The Social Network."THE SONG
Written and recorded at Karen O’s dining room table, steps from the couch where she first read the "Her" script, “Moon Song” was 10 years in the making and, according to director-screenwriter-lyricist Jonze, a testament to their friendship and creative chemistry. “It was a unique process,” he says. “Similarly to when Karen O worked on "Where the Wild Things Are," she was writing songs while we were shooting. When you get to cut with a piece of music that you love and that’s part of the movie, it becomes intertwined and [not reliant on a] rhythm that’s already established by some piece of temp music.”

“Spike wanted an intimate love song that conveyed what it feels like when you are falling in love,” says Karen O via
email. “The lyric ‘a million miles away’ is meant to signify the feeling of being the only two people in the universe a million miles away from your life as you know it. ‘A million miles away’ also signifies the inherent unrequited nature of Theodore and Samantha’s relationship.”

What “Moon Song” lacks in a big-budget marketing campaign it makes up for with a still-building audience of devoted fans and industry tastemakers. It’s no wonder Karen O chose to broadcast a short set (taped by Jonze and the film’s production designer, K.K. Barrett) for KCRW’s popular Morning Becomes Eclectic program, the video of which has been posted by Pitchfork and other music sites.

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Having an original song nominee perform during an Oscar campaign was a first for KCRW. The idea started with Warner Bros. pitching KCRW producer Ariana Morgenstern on the idea of a Jonze-Karen O segment. “Knowing the aesthetic of the film and the history of Spike Jonze and Karen O, we felt we could create something that resonates with our audience,” says KCRW music director and Morning Becomes Eclectic host Jason Bentley. “There’s a value in [the appearance] that goes beyond winning an Oscar. It’s about building a foundation for the future, whether it’s more projects or getting more fans.” Multiple critics-group citations for Jonze’s screenplay have paid off in bringing attention to “Moon Song,” and the past two months have seen Her blossom to become the smartest of the Oscar nominees.

Driving the song to an even deeper impact is its significance during a key scene that serves a writerly function in the script. As Phoenix and Johansson exchange verses while a guitar plays wistfully in the background, they create the song from scratch.

ODDS: 33-1
FOR IT: The hipster set is represented by "Her"’s five Oscar nominations.
AGAINST IT: Minimal campaigning and a downtempo song.


(Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jr.)
"Ordinary Love" from "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom"

There’s a lot riding on this for U2 and The Weinstein Co., which relishes awards season like no other company. It’s the second nomination for the band, which won a 2003 Golden Globe for “The Hands That Built America” from Martin Scorsese’s "Gangs of New York" but saw "8 Mile"’s “Lose Yourself” win the Oscar. A win for “Ordinary Love” this year would create momentum heading into the release of U2’s upcoming album, and their Globe win for best song in January could prove a good omen.

For insiders, the campaign’s most visible moment came at the 25th Palm Springs International Film Festival, where U2 received the Sonny Bono Visionary Award, usually given to a director, for their humanitarian work. On Jan. 6, the day after the presentation, a meet-and-greet for Bono, 53, and The Edge, 52, was arranged in Los Angeles at the Sunset Marquis. “It didn’t feel appropriate to write an anthem for this movie,” Bono told the crowd. “We found a theme of common decency that inspired us.”

U2 Rocks Jimmy Fallon's 'Tonight Show' Debut

For the public, U2’s acoustic performance of “Ordinary Love” on the first night of "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" reached more than 11.3 million viewers.

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U2 was in the midst of making their new album when they started writing “Ordinary Love,” which went through numerous revisions, some of which were driven by different edits of the film’s conclusion.

“On this particular track,” says 52-year-old drummer Mullen, “there was a drum performance and we kind of worked back and forth on [guitar parts]. When the lyric came in focus, that’s when everything. . . with the rhythm section completely changed. It was just this evolving process and everything we started with basically got abandoned.”

Adds The Edge: “There were a few different iterations, and it took a little bit of time to get the arrangement right. . . . Had it been any other project, we definitely would have turned it down. This was special for us, very special. It meant an awful lot to be asked in the first place.”

The idea of U2 paying tribute to Nelson Mandela appears tailor-made for awards consideration. The leader’s Dec. 5 death notwithstanding, the band has treated the "Mandela" track with care, creating a limited-edition vinyl release for November’s Record Store Day, making a free download available to the band’s website subscribers and, after the Globe nom, celebrating with the release of a “Mandela version” of “Breathe” on SoundCloud.

The Weinstein Co.’s campaign continues. On Feb. 20, a YouTube video of the “Ordinary Love” performance on "Tonight Show" was posted, bookended with images of Mandela and the band. “There’s so much at stake,” says Mullen. “It’s not about an Irish band that writes a song for a movie and gets nominated. This belongs to Mandela and South Africa. It’s not really ours.”

ODDS: 5-1
FOR IT: U2 won the Globe; it’s the sole category in which voters can honor Mandela.
AGAINST IT: The Academy has shied away from end-title songs lately.


Kristen Anderson- Lopez & Robert Lopez
“Let It Go” from "Frozen"

At the photo shoot for this very feature, songwriter Kristen Anderson-Lopez, 41, admitted to being star-struck in the presence of her fellow nominees. But when it came to the other artists posing, along with the shoot crew and likely random passersby, she and husband Robert Lopez, 38, were the center of attention thanks to a slew of stories about viewing "Frozen" in groups of extended families and friends, not to mention multiple viewings by their children. To be sure, getting youngsters to convince parents and grandparents to vote for “Let It Go” is the sort of campaign no one can manufacture.

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What Disney did, though, initially was based on getting “Let It Go” in front of its potential audience. Two months before the film’s Nov. 27 release, Disney Music Group released Demi Lovato’s recording of “Let It Go” as a single, only to see it fizzle out at No. 38 on the Jan. 18 Hot 100. But with a $67.4 million opening weekend serving as a major boost, in December Disney shifted promotional efforts to the version by Idina Menzel, who voices Elsa in the movie. Menzel’s soaring “Let It Go” holds this week at No. 18 on the Hot 100 thanks to a combination of sales and streaming activity but minimal radio airplay.

'Frozen' Is Longest-Running No. 1 Soundtrack Since 2003

Helping the song pick up Oscar steam, while ballots are in the hands of Academy voters, the track has been discounted to 69 cents on iTunes (and has sold 1.2 million copies cumulatively, according to Nielsen SoundScan). And though Menzel’s availability to Disney was limited because of rehearsals for the Broadway show "If/Then" (the musical-theater actress won a Tony for "Wicked" and since has appeared on "Glee"), the studio got her for one impactful weekend — flying Menzel to L.A. on Feb. 9 for an invitation-only concert featuring some of the actors who sing in the film, including Kristen Bell, Josh Gad and Santino Fontana. “Like all the animation contenders, it was over-the-top,” says one veteran awards campaign consultant.

Wisely, the company submitted only “Let It Go” for Oscar consideration. Having multiple entries has backfired numerous times, most recently with the double-nominated "The Princess and the Frog" and the triple-nominated "Enchanted," also featuring Menzel as vocalist.THE SONG
By enlisting the Lopezes, best known for co-creating "Avenue Q" and "The Book of Mormon," it turned out the songs ultimately ended up driving the script, not vice versa. “When we wrote ‘Let It Go,’ the character of Elsa fell into place and the story started to make more sense,” says Robert. Adds Kristen: “The DNA was not of a musical. After we realized we had a real disconnect, we had a really intense retreat where we answered a lot of questions. Once we all got rowing in the same direction, then we started to fix basic things, like what does the main character want? We knew at some point, Elsa’s powers were going to come out and she would have a transformation into the Snow Queen. We had to start somewhere, so they said, ‘Why don’t you take a stab at that song?’ ”

“Let It Go” also would influence the film’s score — elements of the song pop up throughout, particularly when Elsa is onscreen. “Once we put ourselves in the shoes of this sympathetic character, the song came very quickly,” says Robert. “It goes through anger and sorrow to this joy, and it made Elsa the main character of the story.”

Box-office success and album sales fed each other through Christmas, with the soundtrack gaining week-to-week and spending four nonconsecutive weeks atop the Billboard 200 chart. Its sales tally so far: 1.05 million, with 100,000 albums sold for the week ending Feb. 16. Of course, there’s no better way to assure a zeitgeist moment than through the collective resolve of millions of faithful "Frozen" fans. Indeed, Disney execs are convinced the film will continue to thrive when it comes out on DVD and on-demand on March 18. Also on deck: a Broadway version of "Frozen," which immediately confers franchise status to the film, placing it alongside "The Lion King" and "The Little Mermaid."

As for the in-demand Lopezes, they are writing the "Frozen" musical while working on other film, TV and stage projects. And should the husband-and-wife team win the Oscar on March 2, Robert will gain entry to the small, exclusive club of EGOTs: creative professionals who have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony.

ODDS: 1-4
FOR IT: Animated movies historically do well in this category.
AGAINST IT: Not a particularly cool or edgy pick.