Chart Watch

Chart Watch Extra: Oscar Best Song Highs & Lows

Chart Watch

We will soon learn the identity of the 75th winner of the Oscar for Best Original Song. It will either be from Slumdog Millionaire, which has two tunes in the running ("O Saya" and the joyous finale "Jai Ho"), or WALL-E, which has one ("Down To Earth," co-written by Peter Gabriel). If you haven't seen the movies, there's a good chance you haven't heard these songs. None of them has appeared on Billboard's Hot 100. But that's the way things have been going in this category in recent years. Six of the last eight Best Song winners failed to crack the chart. The only Best Song winners in the 2000s that have charted are Eminem's monster hit "Lose Yourself" from 8 Mile and "Falling Slowly" from Once, which reached a middling #61 last year. It wasn't always like this. Thirty-one of the first 54 Best Song winners reached #1. But in the past 20 years, only three winners have topped the chart: "A Whole New World (Aladdin's Theme)," "My Heart Will Go On (Love Theme From Titanic)" and "Lose Yourself."

Another bad sign: This year marks the third time in recent history that there have been only three nominees in the category. There were also just three finalists in 2005 and 1988. Before that, you have to go back to the first two years of the category to find a year with so few nominees. The music branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences was reportedly unenthusiastic about this year's choices, which was a bad break for such songs as Bruce Springsteen's "The Wrestler" and Clint Eastwood's "Gran Torino."

Rewind through 74 years of Best Song winners and two things become obvious. First, the quality of the winning songs has declined. Songs have won in recent years that wouldn't have even been nominated in the glory years of the category (roughly 1934 through 1973). Second, the academy has continually expanded the scope of what a winning song can sound like. That's been a good thing. Isaac Hayes' pulsating "Theme From Shaft" was a radical departure from past winners in 1971, but it still sounds funky and fresh today. Three other ground-breaking Oscar winners have also held up well-1960's "Never On Sunday" (sung in Greek, it was the first foreign language winner), the Donna Summer smash "Last Dance" (the first disco hit to win) and "Lose Yourself" (the first rap winner).

The academy had no Best Song category for the first six years of the Oscars. It added the category for 1934. The first winner was "The Continental," from the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie The Gay Divorcee. Here's a decade-by-decade recap, working backwards.

The 2000s

Biggest Hit: "Lose Yourself," introduced by Eminem in 2002's 8 Mile. Eminem's smash logged 12 weeks at #1, the longest run for an Oscar-winning song since Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" had 14 weeks on top in the 1940s. "Lose Yourself" is the only Oscar winner from the 2000s to reach the top 10, which is the lowest total for any decade. It's also the only one to reach #1, matching the '60s total.

Biggest Miss: Six winners from this decade failed to chart: Bob Dylan's "Things Have Changed" from Wonder Boys; Randy Newman's "If I Didn't Have You" from Monsters, Inc.; "Into The West," introduced by Annie Lennox in The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King; Jorge Drexler's "Al Otro Lado Del Rio" from The Motorcycle Diaries; "It's Hard Out Here For A Pimp," introduced by Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson in Hustle & Flow; and Melissa Etheridge's "I Need To Wake Up" from An Inconvenient Truth.

Best: Randy Newman's "If I Didn't Have You" couples a witty lyric and a strong melody. Billy Crystal and John Goodman introduced the tune in Monsters, Inc. It's the latest in a long line of songs from animated children's movies to win the award, dating back to "When You Wish Upon A Star" from 1940's Pinocchio. Eminem's "Lose Yourself" was also a worthy winner. The motivational anthem is sort of like "When You Wish Upon A Star" on steroids.

Worst: "It's Hard Out Here For A Pimp," the second rap song to win, is second-rate.

The 1990s

Biggest Hit: "My Heart Will Go On (Love Theme From Titanic)," introduced by Celine Dion in 1997's Titanic. Dion's recording spent two weeks at #1. Six of the winners from the 1990s reached the top 10. Two hit #1. The only other chart-topper was "A Whole New World (Aladdin's Theme)." Peabo Bryson & Regina Belle's cover recording had one week on top.

Biggest Miss: "Sooner Or Later (I Always Get My Man)," introduced by Madonna in 1990's Dick Tracy. Madonna's sultry version wasn't released as a single. No one else charted with the song.

Best: "Beauty And The Beast," introduced by Angela Lansbury in the 1991 movie of the same name, shows that a song can be simple without being banal. A pop version by Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson also appeared on the soundtrack, establishing a new industry practice.

Worst: "When You Believe," introduced by Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey in 1998's The Prince Of Egypt, is unmemorable. As the first and only pairing of two of the hottest recording stars of our time, this was a fizzle.

The 1980s

Biggest Hit: "Flashdance...What A Feelin'," introduced by Irene Cara in 1983's Flashdance. Cara's rendition was #1 for six weeks. Eight of the winners made the top 10, the best showing since the '40s. Seven hit #1, the most in any decade.

Biggest Miss: "Under The Sea," introduced by Samuel E. Wright in 1989's The Little Mermaid. The vibrant children's song didn't chart.

Best:  "(I've Had) The Time Of My Life," introduced by Bill Medley & Jennifer Warnes in 1987's Dirty Dancing, combined a retro appeal with a sleek contemporary sensibility. It made the 1982 champ "Up Where We Belong," on Warnes teamed with Joe Cocker, sound like a dirge. (Warnes, surprisingly, is the only woman to introduce three Best Song winners. Such top female stars as Judy Garland, Doris Day, Barbra Streisand and Madonna have each introduced two.)

Worst: "I Just Called To Say I Love You," introduced by Stevie Wonder in 1984's The Woman In Red. It's a sweet song, but especially by Wonder's standards, it's a trifle. Sorry Stevie, but for this song I have "no chocolate covered candy hearts to give away."

The 1970s

Biggest Hit: "You Light Up My Life," introduced by Kasey Cisyk in the 1977 movie of the same name. Debby Boone's cloying cover version topped the Hot 100 for 10 weeks, the longest run at #1 for an Oscar-winner since "Buttons And Bows" by Dinah Shore and Her Happy Boys (which was also a cover version) had 10 weeks on top in 1948. Seven of the decade's Oscar winners made the top 10. Five reached #1.

Biggest Miss: "It Goes Like It Goes," introduced by Jennifer Warnes in 1979's Norma Rae. The hypnotic ballad didn't chart.

Best: "Theme From Shaft," introduced by Isaac Hayes in the 1971 movie of the same name, is both funky and classy; red-hot and oh-so-cool. Hayes, the first African American to win Best Song, gave the category just what it needed--a jolt of energy and excitement. Donna Summer did the same thing with "Last Dance," which she introduced in 1978's Thank God It's Friday. This marvelous record was disco's peak achievement. Also excellent: "The Way We Were," introduced by Barbra Streisand in the 1973 movie of the same name. The nostalgic ballad is a throwback to the richly melodic pop standards of the 1940s.

Worst: "I'm Easy," introduced by Keith Carradine in 1975's Nashville, echoes, but doesn't do justice to, the "introspective singer/songwriter" school of pop. The super-sensitive ballad makes John Denver sound like James Brown.

The 1960s

Biggest Hit: "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head," introduced by B.J. Thomas in 1969's Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. Thomas' amiable single was the first Best Song winner to hit #1 since "Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing," recorded by the Four Aces, in 1955. Only two of the winners from the '60s made the top 10, the lowest tally of any decade until the 2000s.

Biggest Miss: "Talk To The Animals," introduced by Rex Harrison in 1967's Doctor Doolittle. The witty, semi-spoken song (the first rap winner?!) didn't crack the Hot 100.

Best: "Moon River," introduced by Audrey Hepburn in 1961's Breakfast At Tiffany's, is one of those songs (like "White Christmas") that is so organic that it's hard to imagine that somebody actually sat down one day and wrote it. It seems like it was just always there. Henry Mancini, who composed this gorgeous song, won again the following year with the melancholy "Days Of Wine And Roses."

Worst: "Born Free," introduced by Matt Monro in the 1966 movie of the same name, isn't a bad song, but it's hardly Oscar caliber.

The 1950s

Biggest Hit: "Mona Lisa," introduced by an uncredited troubadour in 1950's Captain Carey, U.S.A. Nat "King" Cole's classic cover version was #1 for eight weeks, which puts it in a tie with 1948's "Nature Boy" as Cole's all-time biggest hit. Seven of the 1950s winners cracked the top 10. Four reached #1.

Biggest Miss: "Gigi," introduced by Louis Jourdan in the 1958 film of the same name. A cover version by Vic Damone peaked at #88.

Best: "Mona Lisa" was Nat "King" Cole's signature song for good reason. The graceful ballad presents him at his conversational best. It is, to borrow a line from the lyric, a "lovely work of art." Close behind are "Secret Love," introduced by Doris Day in 1953's Calamity Jane, and "All The Way," introduced by Frank Sinatra in 1957's The Joker Is Wild.

Worst: "High Hopes," introduced by Frank Sinatra and child star Eddie Hodges in 1959's A Hole In The Head. This kiddie tune was miles below Sinatra's usual standards.

The 1940s

Biggest Hit: "White Christmas," introduced by Bing Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds in 1942's Holiday Inn. Crosby's recording amassed 14 weeks at #1, more than any other Oscar winner. The success of the song led to a 1954 movie of the same name, in which Crosby also starred. Nine of the Best Song winners from the 1940s cracked the top 10, more than in any other decade. Five hit #1.

Biggest Miss: "Last Time I Saw Paris," introduced by Ann Sothern in 1941's Lady Be Good.  This song didn't crack the chart, which was a top 10 listing at the time. It's one of the few winners that touches on global events. Oscar Hammerstein II's lyric makes subtle reference to the fall of Paris to the Nazis ("No matter how they change her/I'll remember her that way.")

Best: "White Christmas," released early in World War II, expresses tremendous yearning. It's such a part of our culture that it's hard to imagine the holidays without it.

Worst: The wistful "The Last Time I Saw Paris" is good, but not great. And in the '40s, most Oscar winners were great.

The 1930s

Biggest Hit: "Sweet Leilani," introduced by Bing Crosby in 1937's Waikiki Wedding. Crosby's recording, featuring Lani McIntire and His Hawaiians, logged 10 weeks at #1. This was the first of four Best Song winners that Crosby introduced. That's more than any other artist. (Frank Sinatra and Jennifer Warnes each introduced three.)

Biggest Miss: No "misses." All six winners from the 1930s hit #1.

Best: "The Way You Look Tonight," introduced by Fred Astaire in 1936's Swing Time, is the best Oscar winner from the 1930s and quite possibly the best Oscar winner of all time. Here's the best indication of the song's timelessness: "Lullaby Of Broadway," the winner the previous year, sounds ancient today. "The Way You Look Tonight" doesn't sound at all dated. "Over The Rainbow," introduced by Judy Garland in 1939's The Wizard Of Oz, is also sublime.

Worst: "Sweet Leilani." The three other Best Song winners that Crosby introduced are all far superior to this dreary song.

Paul Grein writes the weekly Chart Watch blog, which appears on the site each Wednesday. He co-wrote the liner notes for the 1995 box set, The Envelope Please...Academy Award Winning Songs (1934-1993), released on Rhino Records.


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