What Is “Best” When it Comes to “Best Song”?

If you got a chance to see the Oscars last night, you got the opportunity to witness some great performances of music from the category of Best Song in a Motion Picture. The nominees began with Pharrell Williams’s singing of “Happy,” from Despicable Me 2, an infectious song for sure. He got things rolling.

A nice performance, early on in the show. It got people in the seats moving and it’s clearly a song that is hard to resist. Nice job.

Next was a delicate version of “The Moon Song,” from Her, by Karen O. Again, really nice – sweet and lovely.

Now, “The Moon Song” plays a different function in Her than “Happy” does in Despicable Me 2. It’s more central, as it’s a moment when Theodore sings to Samantha while on a “romantic” trip away – as romantic as one might be able to get when singing to the operating system on your phone, that is. It’s more central to the action than “Happy,” though this notion of centrality has nothing to do per se with the award. The song just has to be from a feature release; there are no specifics about what function the song is supposed to play in that film. In terms of the awards show itself, both very strong – if very different – performances.

Next we heard from U2, with “Ordinary Love,” the song that played over the closing credits for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.

I thought this performance was also excellent, with the band in good form and Bono and The Edge singing well. Not necessarily better than Pharrell or Karen O, but very strong and really hitting the notes literally and figuratively. Really, the first three performances were as good as any I can remember as a group on the Oscars.

Mind you, there were other musical performances on the show – Pink did a tribute to The Wizard of Oz, singing “somewhere Over the Rainbow” in honor of the 75th anniversary of the film, and Bette Midler sang a version of her “Wind Beneath My Wings.” Why did she sing this song? To honor “heroes” in films. So she sang this to movie stars sitting in the audience, and thank goodness, because they certainly don’t already get enough appreciation! Moreover, I have no idea why the academy felt compelled to honor the “heroes” in movies – seeing as that’s what the movies themselves pretty much always do anyway. It’s nice for Bette Midler that she got to sing on that stage, I suppose, but it’s kind of an insipid song. She did a fine job with it, but really, it was strange. Pink was fine if not my cup of tea but at least it was less random to honor The Wizard of Oz after 75 years and  there was an understandable reason for the performance.

The last performance of the night, and final nominee for Best Song, was “Let It Go,” from Frozen. The song was performed by Idina Menzel, who also sings the song in the film. This song plays perhaps the most vital role in the film of any of the category’s nominees, as it represents a pivotal moment, as Queen Elsa realizes that she no longer needs to hide her abilities to create and control ice and that she can now use them without worry. The song advances the plot quite importantly. Here is Mendel singing last night at the Oscars:

http://oscar.go.com/video/2014-oscar-music-performances/_m_VDKA0_tsgwsn3k

Menzel is clearly talented with a particularly strong voice, able to hold the stage and an audience’s attention just like the Broadway star she is. But I have to tell you that as I sat listening to this performance I felt something was off – not technically but in some other way. It was loud, brassy even. I recognized that it was a moment of transformation for the character Menzel was embodying, but it felt over the top to a degree, at least in performance outside of the film.

Simply put, I didn’t think much of the song, nor the performance of it. Not that I couldn’t tell it was going to win – Frozen has become a giant hit in the last two months and even Bono in the last week had publicly noted that it was the front-runner. But the win raises some interesting questions. Should the award go to the Best Song in a film? To the song that plays the most important role in a film? To the song that works especially well within the context of the film? I don’t think audience members have any idea how this is decided, and I wonder about voters too.

Based on what I saw last night, “Let It Go” isn’t the best song. Menzel is good; her performance is fine. It’s big, maybe even too big, but that’s the song itself and what it does. That was the issue for me. I found the other three performances and songs to be much stronger, more emotionally true, and more compelling musically – even the relatively simple “The Moon Song.” I’m not surprised the Disney song won: I mean, who could be? But I’m willing to say that I don’t think it should have.

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