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‘It’s Hard Out Here’ for a good Oscar song

Only three songs got nominated and the clear winner seems doomed to lose. By Helen A.S. Popkin
/ Source: contributor

It’s an odd year for the Academy Award best original song category. Only three tunes are nominated, all of which will be performed by the original artists (as opposed to last year’s Beyoncé debacle), though one may fall victim to network censors.

It’s not like it wasn’t a musical year at the movies. Mel Brooks penned an original song for the big screen version of “The Producers.” Soundtrack master Danny Elfman had “Remains of the Day” from “Tim Burton's Corpse Bride.” And who doesn’t want see comedian Sarah Silverman stir some action with an Oscar night performance of “You’re Gonna Die Soon” from “Jesus is Magic”? Fat dang chance.

Even the kiddie movies, usually a mainstay in the song category, didn’t make it. “Hoodwinked,” “Because of Winn Dixie,” “Chronicles of Narnia” and even “Harry Potter,” couldn’t get a song past the judges.

Of the 42 songs presented to the Academy for consideration, the three lonely nominees include “In the Deep” by Kathleen “Bird” York from “Crash, “Travelin’ Thru,” by Dolly Parton, from “Transamerica,” and “It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” by Al Kapone (performed by Terrence Howard) from “Hustle & Flow.” Had the Academy overlooked that last song, inseparable from its movie, Oscar would prove itself irrelevant, losing all ground gained with the dark horse (yet very politic) victory for Eminem in 2003 with “Lose Yourself” from “8-Mile.”

The song remains the sameThe Academy’s nutty decision to keep things limited may alienate the annual show’s perspective audience. The low number of song nominees is on account of newfangled Academy rules. Members of the voting panel gave each song submitted a score from 6 to 10. Only those with at least an average score of 8.25 made the cut. (And there were only three.)

A paltry three-song nomination happened once before, in 1988. And none of the nominated songs were performed then. Oscar aficionados may recall that year as the worst Academy Awards execution to date. Show producers eschewed a single host in favor of a bizarre song-and-dance numbers featuring a cavalcade of stars such as Ricki Lake and a recently-scandalized Rob Lowe (sharing a duet with Snow White).

Of all the songs passed over for Oscar nominations this year, the biggest fan furor is over the exclusion of “A Love That Will Never Grow Old” from “Brokeback Mountain.” Written by Bernie Taupin and the score's composer Gustavo Santaollala, and performed by Emmylou Harris, the song appears briefly during the pickup truck scene, when Jack wipes a tear as he drives away from Ennis.

According to Academy rules, there isn’t enough of the tune in the film to qualify for an award. To fans, this excuse rings false, like when your boss tells you the company can’t afford your raise, and you know in your heart the company does anything it really wants to do. But then, awards shows are always doing things that don’t make sense to us viewers.

Hey, maybe the Emmylou exclusion is part of that “Brokeback Mountain” backlash all the kids are whispering about. According to chat room scuttlebutt, everyone is so sick of hearing about gay cowboys, that the star-laden race-relations parable “Crash” may sweep the Oscars. That includes a trophy for York’s syrupy dreamscape, “In the Blue,” which would be a shame. Slipping in just before the credits, “In the Blue” is a high-pitch ballad of the “smooth jazz” variety.

Appreciatin’ PartonIf there is a “Brokeback” backlash, Dolly Parton may get sucked down with it. It is the year of gay country, after all. Along with Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson on the “Brokeback” soundtrack, and Nelson’s new cover of “Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly (Fond of Each Other),” Parton’s plucky “Travelin’ Thru” is from a movie about a pre-operative male-to-female transsexual on a cross-country road trip.

It would be nice to see Parton win an Oscar. She was nominated once before in this category for the title track for the 1980 comedy “Nine to Five,” in which she also co-starred. Underrated outside the country music community, Parton is one of the great American songwriters. Taking home an Oscar may imbue her with the respect she deserves.

Still, it’s the third nomination that truly deserves to take home the prize. “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” from “Hustle & Flow” is pure crunk, a growing rap genre from the South that often features gritty lyrics and danceable beats. In an uncharacteristically-hip decision by the Academy, this song will be performed on Oscar night by composers Three 6 Mafia. (While “Hustle” lead Terrence Howard says he’s too out of practice to perform, actress Taraji Henson will sing the hook as she did in the movie.)

No doubt the song will be subjected to the same clumsy censorship suffered by Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” at the Grammys in February. Even then, the subject matter, which reflects the raw nature of the film, may offend tender ears. For those who haven’t seen “Hustle & Flow,” it follows a poor and desperate Memphis pimp in midlife crisis and his attempt to break free by becoming a successful rap artist. “Hustle & Flow” is based on the Memphis crunk subculture, and how fame can be achieved through parlaying mix tapes.

“It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” is exactly what an Oscar-nominated song should be — integral to the film — not just something to listen to as the credits roll by, or thrown in at the last minute just to vie for that extra nomination. It will also be the first hip-hop song performed at the Oscars — Eminem refused an invitation to perform “Just Lose It” the year he won. While hip-hop’s acceptance from the mainstream Academy may be a couple of decades late, it’s a start.

Still, the Academy has a lot to make up for — most recently, last year, with the semi-talented Beyoncé performing nearly every nominated song. An even more-offensive exception included Antonio Banderas, accompanied by Carlos Santana, doing a cover of “Al Otro Lado Del Rio” from “The Motorcycle Diaries.” Turns out, the songwriter, Uruguyan Jorge Drexler, also sang on the movie’s soundtrack. But his respectable Spanish following wasn’t enough to get him airtime.

Perhaps the Academy felt compelled instead to showcase Latinos with whom the non-Latino community was familiar with — even if one of them is clearly not a singer. Sadly, at least for the show’s sponsors, it was another lost opportunity to attract a more diverse audience. Winning the award didn’t take away from the Academy’s misstep, which Drexler gracefully pointed out by singing a few bars from his Oscar-winning song to a cheering audience.

Three 6 Mafia’s performance may prove to be the most compelling event of the evening — and will certainly draw a more diverse audience, at least during their portion of the show. We’ll have to tune in and see how the censors handle the lyrics — though to do it right, the Academy may end up with a couple of jillion dollars in FCC fines.