Every year, Miss Jennifer and I (Mr. Steven) listen to all the nominees for the Academy Award for “Best Original Song”. For the first time, we’re putting our thoughts on paper and looking for YOUR input. But first, a quick word about methodology —
Jennifer and I listened to all the songs first without watching their music videos. Later, we came back and listened again while also watching the videos. (Have you noticed how visuals can affect your response to music?) Beyond that, what follows is COMPLETELY SUBJECTIVE! We’d love to read your thoughts in the comments. Click here to go to our playlist: 2021 Best Original Song nominees
Here we go!
“Fight for You” (from Judas and the Black Messiah)
Judas and the Black Messiah takes place in the late ‘60s, and this song supports that ‘60s vibe perfectly, right down to the commentary from the brass section. The texture is smoky, the tempo drives without rushing, and there’s a strong backbone of blues. You would expect the easy-sounding vocals to spin out into an elaborate solo, but that never happens. H.E.R.’s performance is passionate but controlled, like a low boil.
We preferred listening to this song without the music video.
“Hear My Voice” (from The Trial of the Chicago 7)
“Hear My Voice” pays a strong homage to the gospel sound, primarily in the vocal work done by Celeste. Much like H.E.R., mentioned above, Celeste manages to give an emotionally intense performance without ever showing off or losing control. The colors in this song are nice and light; Celeste’s clarinet voice is paired with a simple drum kit and violins singing in the high register, for that “classic” sound (think Etta James, “At Last”).
We also preferred listening to this without the video, although Jennifer did remark that it was nice to see Celeste singing.
“Husavik (My Hometown)” (from Eurovision Song Contest)
If you know anything about the real-life Eurovision Song Contest, then you’ll agree that this is probably the best song that could’ve been written for a movie about the contest. In a nutshell, the ESC is kind of a Europe-wide battle of the bands, except each country is trying to win “best song”. Sounds cool, except the contest rewards generic, cookie-cutter Euro-pop. The songs that win are usually the ones with very “safe” textures, chord progressions, form, lyrics, and so on.
With that in mind, “Husavik” checks all the boxes. If someone told us this song was the product of some computer algorithm, we wouldn’t even argue. On the bright side, the vocals (by Molly Sandén) are nice, and the song actually has meaning within the movie (not simply played during the credits).
I preferred watching the video while listening. Jennifer disliked the song both ways.
“Io sì” (from The Life Ahead)
We really wanted to like this one. “Io sì” suffers from all the drawbacks of “Husavik” without any of “Husavik”’s redeeming qualities. The i–VI–III–VII progression is tired, the big crescendo sounds conspicuously cliché, and the whole thing could’ve been copy-pasted from a template.
To be fair, the song may have more impact in the context of the film. And I will say, Laura Pausini’s voice has a Celine Dion quality that I think a lot of people will like.
Jennifer liked this song better with the music video. I found the video to be distracting.
“Speak Now” (from One Night in Miami)
This final nominee opens with a simple acoustic guitar playing in mournful mid-tempo. For the song’s first minute, it’s just the guitar and the voice of Leslie Odom, Jr., beseeching the audience: “Listen, listen, listen…”
Like “Fight for You” and “Hear My Voice”, “Speak Now” is restrained yet emotionally focused for most of its runtime. Sadly, the song gets overbaked in the last half. Various instruments enter until the texture becomes too crowded; Odom begins to wail. The whole thing goes from smoldering intensity to theatrical melodrama before leveling off.
Jennifer preferred this one without the music video. I actually kinda liked the video.
So what’s our pick for this year’s “Best Original Song”? Jennifer’s money is on “Speak Now” (ending notwithstanding). I really liked “Speak Now”, but I’m betting on “Fight for You”.
Have you listened to these songs? Which one are you rooting for?