It feels strange whenever there's a year in which the music branch doesn't do something outright embarrassing. I guess you could disparage the disqualification of Antonio Sanchez's percussive Birdman score, but that's not so much a fresh embarrassment as the branch simply continuing to follow their own foolish rules.
But in regards to their Best Original Song selections, we have nothing on the level of 'Alone-Yet-Not-Alone-gate' from last year, or the hilarious two-nominee field from 2011. The music branch mostly obeyed the rules, singling out the three main songs that most people expected to be nominated, plus shining a light on couple of lower-profile tunes without any embarrassment.
If there's one song in the category that feels like it doesn't belong, it's "Grateful" from Beyond the Lights. Now, on the one hand, I was kinda happy to see this title unexpectedly pop up on nomination morning. I'm by no means a huge fan of the well-meaning showbiz drama, but I do think it deserved a bigger audience than it got this winter (No joke, I saw it in an EMPTY theatre... As in, I was the only person there. It was surreal). It is possible that it may have a life beyond the lights of the multiplex (tee hee), and hopefully this nomination for the end credit single can help with that. But on the other hand, the song... is not great. There's nothing about it that doesn't sound derivative, from its over-produced pop conventions to its thin lyrical theme about perseverance. It was penned by seven-time nominee Diane Warren, who could have been in it to win it for her showstopping ballad "You Haven't Seen the Last of Me" from Burlesque, which was inexplicably snubbed a few years back. Given that FYC screeners of the movie weren't sent out, she should be grateful (tee hee again) that the music branch does distribute clips of all the song contenders to music branch members.
Another tiny film that would have been lost in the awards shuffle were it not for this category is the documentary Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me, nominated for the song "I'm Not Gonna Miss You". The doc explores the country music legend's recent struggles with Alzheimer's disease, and therefore the song -- cowritten and performed by Campbell himself -- could resonate with any voters who are aware of that context. But it'll be tough. I imagine most voters don't go out of their way to actually listen to all the nominated songs in any given year (even though it takes literally less than twenty minutes on the Internet), but instead just vote for whatever they remember from a movie they've seen. That doesn't bode well for this modest doc, which only has this single nomination to its credit. Still, it has the potential to be a major shocker.
It's much more likely that our winner is coming from one of the more widely seen movies. One of the biggest delights of the summer was John Carney's Begin Again, which featured a whole soundtrack full of wonderful tunes by Gregg Alexander, including the nominated "Lost Stars". Frankly, this category could be entirely populated by songs from this one film, but the Weinstein Company wisely chose to submit only a single contender to avoid vote-splitting. A shrewd strategy, although it's a shame that none of the other tracks (a couple of which were co-composed by Carney himself) even had a chance. It's unclear how many Academy members have seen it, but those who have will surely remember how integral the music is to the experience. Might be a dark horse.
Cultural ubiquity is going to be an advantage to any song vying for this prize. Just ask Frozen, which won handily when "Let It Go" climbed to #5 on Billboard's Hot 100 last year (and that was the Idina Menzel version, not the more radio-friendly Demi Lovato cover, thank God). Of this year's crop, the only one that can come close to that kind of exposure is The LEGO Movie's "Everything is Awesome", which, as a parody of obnoxious pop songs, is a pretty catchy earworm in its own right. I wonder if voters might think it too slight compared to the competition, or if its bubblegum bounciness might actually give it a leg up. I also wonder whether the Best Animated Feature snub hurts it by attracting fewer viewers who still haven't seen it, or helps it by emboldening its supporters in the one category where they can vote for it.
But at the end of the day, it's another movie's supporters who will be louder yet. Throughout early January, as Selma continued missing key industry precursors, it became clear that the film was being set up to underperform with the Academy. With only a pair of nominations (one for the end credit track "Glory" and the other one thankfully for Best Picture), you can be sure that its very passionate fan base won't want to see it exit the season empty-handed. It's not impossible, but certainly very improbable that it's going to usurp Best Picture away from the frontrunners, but this seems to be the obvious place for AMPAS members to acknowledge the film in a collective "mea culpa". That, and the fact that the song is pretty damn great, mixing John Legend's piano and Common's spoken word to stirring effect.
Will win: "Glory" from Selma
Runner-up: "Everything is Awesome" from The LEGO Movie
Should win: "Glory" from Selma
Should have been nominated: "A Step You Can't Take Back" from Begin Again