Why the Oscars' Best Original Song nomination process is a mess

by Nina Corcoran / Music Columnist • March 12, 2014

This year’s Academy Awards was nothing short of expected outcomes, inspiring speeches, and  ever-painful snubbing (it’ll be okay, Leo). As usual, the music that helps shape our favorite films from the year got appropriate nods. Best Original Song went to “Let It Go” from Disney’s new movie Frozen, and while a single gasp wasn’t heard, sighs were certainly audible.

The Best Original Song category deserves to be a part of the Oscars, but with the nomination and voting process becoming more inane, it’s hard to take it seriously.

Frozen’s success at the Academy Awards was a no-brainer considering the musical comedy pulled in close to $100 million on its weekend box office debut, and “Let It Go” is any theater fanatic’s dream. With Broadway queen Idina Menzel  (Rent, Wicked) giving powerhouse vocals to Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez’s creation, it has the musical gusto children can fall back on when they need to stand tall.

With an all-star lineup of nominees stepping up to battle, how exactly did “Let It Go” win? The track was one of four songs nominated this year for Original Song, going against U2’s “Ordinary Love” (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom), Pharrell’s “Happy” (Despicable Me 2), and Karen O’s “The Moon Song” (Her), all crafted by superstar musicians.

The nomination process for Best Original Song is to thank, or bash, depending on your take. Innovative songs are being written specifically for a given film but fail to be nominated. The culprit is the system itself — and once again, not a single gasp was heard.

As a recent Variety article explained, the current process involves a DVD with the eligible Best Original Song nominees being sent to all 240 members of the music branch, listing each submission by song title and movie only, omitting composer, lyricist, and performer credits as to prevent bias. This year there were 75 eligible songs, and they were scrambled so there was no alphabetical advantage.

Songs can’t be nominated if they have more than three writers. Songs played over the credits can’t be nominated unless they’re the first one played over the credits. Songs published prior to a film’s production can’t be nominated, nor can ones that rely on sampling. News flash: songs can’t catch a break.

With just the song title and movie to go by, it’s reasonable to assume several of the Academy’s members vote based on their knowledge of the movie, either having seen it or recognizing the film name. 

If all 240 members did their homework and listened to each song, then maybe Taylor Swift, Coldplay, and Lana Del Rey wouldn’t be blotting their tears for not making the cut, not even diving in to the dozen or so musicians whose names we wouldn’t recognize even if they were listed. It’s fair to say the unknown Lopez writers got their break since Frozen showed up on the listing instead of their names.

This is a vast improvement from the pre-2013 rules where nominees had to receive an average 8.25 out of 10 to make it. Never forget the sad competition for 2012’s Original Song: a whopping two songs, making it something like the pathetic last round of musical chairs. Apparently only The Muppets’ “Man or Muppet” and Rio’s “Real in Rio” were good enough to make the cut, with the former taking home the gold.

At least if the nomination process seems stupid, take comfort in knowing that the voting process is, too.

In an article released at the end of February, The Hollywood Reporter shared the infuriating votes of a longtime member of the Academy’s directors branch. It was the first of five “brutally honest” Oscar ballots shared by Academy members leading up to the Oscar ceremony, and the text was almost unbearable to read. 

Not only did the member abstain from voting for Best Animated Feature (“I have no interest whatsoever. That ended when I was 6.”), Best Documentary Feature (“[The category] has about as much claim to legitimacy as the Bush-Gore presidential election.”), and any of the Best Short categories (“If I don’t know anybody who made one of them… I just don’t vote.”), but the member’s words for Original Song took the cake.

“I didn’t vote because I regard all four songs as utterly inferior and not worth voting for. To dignify any of them with a vote is to suggest that they’re worthy of a nomination,” the ballot read. “And as for disqualifying the fifth nominee? The rules are so petty and stupid, these people should get a life – it’s embarrassing. They’re like sub-basement, quasi-Talmudic scholars.”

The Academy member was referring to the rigged nomination for “Alone Yet Not Alone”, the title-track from a film that has yet to hit theaters. According to Variety, the composer was also a member of the Academy, and emailed at least 70 of his peers asking them to nominate the track, quickly leading to the song being disqualified. He, of all people, should know how the rules work.

It’s difficult to take the Original Song category seriously, if at all, when events like this happen. When those directly involved in the nomination process are breaking the rules, voters aren’t bothering to finish their ballots, and eligible songs have their chances skimmed of entering the pool thanks to discriminatory rules, viewers and voters alike don’t see the point in putting much weight on the award. How can you blame them? The system is flawed and the Academy doesn’t seem inclined to change it.

Thankfully “Let It Go” not only gave Lopez the ability to walk home with a blue moon EGOT win (snagging an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony), but it also gave viewers a chance to see underdog writers standing above million-dollar musicians. Cross your fingers that the next few award seasons show the Academy working on revising the process so we can see more of this. If not, don’t be surprised when that golden man looks a little less shiny onstage. Converting from metal to plastic would be a decent indicator of how much prestige that Oscar holds.