Nominees Feature Two Hits, But Only One Is On Radio

For the past few years, the Oscar original song nominations have had nowhere to go but up. The slate of 2012 nominees with only three songs, none of them hits, was the low point. But there's been a regular tendency for the Academy Awards to miss those places where movies and popular music intersect (the "Twilight" and "Hunger Games" soundtracks, for instance).

So while there are still omissions in the nominees that were announced last week, there are also two hits, depending on how hits are measured. Nominators were right to recognize "Happy" from "Despicable Me 2" and "Let It Go" from "Frozen." And now the question is whether radio will.  

For the last month or so, in the case of "Happy," it seemed like just a matter of when. In six months, Pharrell's song has become a radio and chart hit everywhere else in the world, as well as a global viral video phenomenon. After the holiday, Columbia finally began working it in the U.S. (Interestingly, a promotional email blast portrayed it as the kickoff single from the artist's album project and did not mention the movie.) 

Even so, it's telling that even after radio was asked to play "Happy"—which shouldn't make a difference, but usually does—the explosion didn't take place until this week. It's a song that ticks off multiple boxes for top 40—an existing pop culture story elsewhere, an uptempo record by an R&B artist that does not come from R&B radio. A week ago at this time, it had a spin gain at top 40 in the high-200s. Today, it is up +673 spins, a pace I had thought it might need a few more weeks to reach.

Even last week, when it still had a relative smattering of spins, "Happy" had airplay everywhere from mainstream AC to R&B/hip-hop, meaning that it will be an impossible-to-categorize multiformat record along the lines of "Forget You" or "Get Lucky."  

"Let It Go" is even more interesting. Like a hit of bygone years, two versions of the song have already charted on the Billboard Hot 100 due to its inclusion on the "Frozen" soundtrack, which was No. 1 for two weeks on the Billboard 200. The Idina Menzel version, which is more traditionally orchestrated and more keyed to the movie plot, is outselling the poppier Demi Lovato cover that’s heard over the final credits.

Hollywood and Walt Disney aren't yet working "Let It Go" to radio, and Hollywood has another Lovato single that it’s working anyway. So far, the only significant non-Radio Disney airplay is, interestingly, in Puerto Rico, where always quirky WTOK (Hot 102) and English/Spanish pop hybrid WKAQ-FM (KQ105) are both playing the Lovato version. Even in a market entirely off of mainland top 40's radar, it's still a case of a left-field song spreading from one station to a rival, something I always take very seriously as the sign of a hit.

At the very least, "Let It Go" is the sort of song that could provide mainstream AC with a pre-sold, sonically appropriate hit that it could own. (And Lovato's current "Neon Lights" isn't likely to get there.) If the Menzel version went to radio, it would be nice additional validation for an artist that Hollywood worked as a singer/songwriter nearly 20 years ago before she found her place in theater and TV. But with the help of post-holiday gift cards, “Let It Go” is more than an adult song.

And then comes the question, Is it already a hit? Like "Forget You," "Happy" is using its extensive story elsewhere, which already includes top 10 iTunes sales, to get radio's attention. Columbia is doing the same following the surprise album success of Beyoncé, promoting two singles to radio, even after 1.5 million albums sold, when it might have been an equally reasonable course not to expend 10 cents in radio promotion costs. But "Let It Go" could conceivably live most of its life outside of radio.

Do listeners remember those songs as hits? At the very least, they seem to remember those songs. At worst, "Let It Go" would be "Kiss the Girl," instantly memorable to anybody who was (or had) a kid within a 7-year age range. The staying power of such songs is almost never tested, but if you've ever seen research for holiday music, you know that TV-driven songs like "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" or "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas" endure as much as anything that was a radio staple.