Sunday, Feb. 26 was the 89th Academy Awards, when Hollywood’s elite dressed to the nines and celebrated another year of film and themselves.
The category of Best Original Song was revealing, to say the least. “La La Land” received two nominations: one for “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” and another for “City of Stars,” the ultimate category winner.
The potential for either “La La Land” song to win meant that Hollywood gets to keep stroking its ego and produce more films encouraging its self-importance. I’m not complaining – I found “La La Land” to be a gorgeous tribute to jazz music and an all-around enjoyable film, but it also reflected Hollywood’s narcissism.
One of this past summer’s hits was “Can’t Stop the Feeling” from “Trolls,” and Justin Timberlake is never a bad choice in my book. “How Far I’ll Go” from “Moana” was a promising nomination: the anthem that Auli’i Cravalho sings is a powerful one that will be stuck in my head forever (maybe). The final nomination was “The Empty Chair” from “Jim: The James Foley Story,” and admittedly, I hadn’t even heard of this movie, much less the nominated song. When I listened to the touching ballad written by Sting and J. Ralph, I put “Jim” on my must-watch list.
I had put my money on “City of Stars” and “How Far I’ll Go” as the main contenders for this award. “City of Stars” has a weighty sound and a modern take on Sinatra’s jazzy stylings. Moody recurrences of the song throughout “La La Land” as the theme of Sebastian, one of the main characters in the film portrayed by Ryan Gosling, is a great reminder of the timelessness of the jazz tradition.
The surging orchestral lines and raw vocal power in “How Far I’ll Go” make this the ultimate Disney princess song. Despite the criticisms of Disney’s appropriation and stereotyping of Polynesian culture that gained traction in the lead-up to the premiere, the praise for “Moana” – particularly for its music – has the movie approaching cult status.
The song also gave the composer Lin-Manuel Miranda the potential to be the youngest ever EGOT winner, the coveted title of those who receive Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards.
The song choices for this year’s Oscars reflect the narcissism and traditionalism typical of awards season, and the top contenders even more so. Disney is a usual champion at these events, and any project that panders to Hollywood’s ego is a winner.
It would be hard to imagine a non-Disney, non-American focused film winning any of the main categories, let alone the categories for Best Original Song or Score. In this way, I think the nominations for Best Original Song reflect a larger-scale hierarchy of privilege and power struggle.
If it’s not made for kids or in praise of the almighty American Dream, it’s not a winner. Maybe this is reflective of Hollywood’s reluctance to take on projects outside the realm of the white-dominated perspective, or of the Western audience’s subtly biased viewing choices, or maybe the lack of class mobility that permeates our ideals of film and pop culture that restricts who is able to tell stories that are in the spotlight.
“City of Stars” being named the Best Original Song was unsurprising, if a little disappointing. The question is what this year’s awards shows will teach us about ourselves and if we choose to listen. I, for one, am eager to see what happens with these categories in the future.