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How the Best Original Song Oscar was taken over by films no one has heard of

Random resume: songwriter Diane Warren with some of the films she’s put in the Oscar history books via her lyrics (Getty/iStock)
Random resume: songwriter Diane Warren with some of the films she’s put in the Oscar history books via her lyrics (Getty/iStock)

The songwriter Diane Warren has spent more than four decades conjuring overwrought bangers by the bucketful – power ballads that plead and mourn and crescendo, the kind irresistible to office parties and chintzy karaoke machines. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me” drunkenly warbled by the most overconfident person you know from HR. A handful of Warren’s greatest and best-known tracks for other artists – among them Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” and Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” – have also helped make her the most nominated songwriter in Oscar history to never win a competitive trophy. More importantly, though, recent years have turned her into a trojan horse for the weirdest movies to grab a seat at the Academy Awards.

Warren has been nominated for 15 Best Original Song Oscars since 1987, each one more chaotic than the last. For these are nominations for movies that otherwise don’t really exist. There’s her song for Four Good Days, in which Mila Kunis shakes off crack addiction. Her song for Tell It Like a Woman, a female empowerment anthology film starring Cara Delevingne. For Breakthrough, a Christian fable about a boy who falls into an icy lake. For Racing for Agnes, about an elderly widower who competes in the Boston Marathon. And, this year, for an inspirational film about the history of Cheetos called Flamin’ Hot. Only one of these is made up, by the way, and it’s not the Cheeto movie.

Warren’s lyrics have always tended to circle the same handful of themes – adversity, resilience, tortured romance, pained gazing. Toni Braxton’s “Un-Break My Heart”. Sugababes’ “Too Lost in You”. Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time”. No metaphor is safe. Warren has described love as being like a shield from a storm. That words are like weapons, and that they wound sometimes. That you can try to resist LeAnn Rimes and hide from her kiss, but she is… moonlight, which you cannot fight. Or something. But even with the caveat of lyrical repetition, it’s wild that every one of Warren’s recent Oscar-nominated songs sounds exactly the same – full of fortune cookie aphorisms and limp motivational speechifying, as if she’s been possessed by the world’s most downbeat aerobics instructor.

“When you think that all the odds are all against you/ And you just feel like giving up, well, I won’t let you,” on “I’m Standing with You” from Breakthrough. “When you’re too run down to take another step/ I will take up the struggle,” on “I’ll Fight” from the Ruth Bader Ginsberg documentary RBG. “When you think that the mountain’s too high and the ocean’s too wide that you’ll never get through/ Some way, somehow, somehow you do,” on “Somehow You Do” from Four Good Days. Perhaps her Italian number “Io sì (Seen)” – from the 2020 Sophia Loren film The Life Ahead – enjoyed a lyrical switcheroo? Let’s throw it into Google Translate and see! “When you feel like no one understands you – I will, I will/ When you think no love can ever heal you – mine will, mine will.” Argh!

This is not strictly Warren’s fault. Outside of the Oscar bubble, her songwriting continues to be strong. Her lyrics on a 2023 Belinda Carlisle EP demonstrate she’s still capable of authoring hooky earworms. She has a great new track on Taylor Swift’s recent re-release of 1989 that riffs on the bombastic melancholy of her best work. And while some anti-intellectual philistines may condemn “Why Did You Do That?” from the A Star Is Born soundtrack – a song that features the immortal line “Why do you look so good in those jeans?/ Why’d you come around me with an ass like that?” – I happen to think it’s a camp marvel.

In fact, blame for Warren’s unstoppable run of Best Song slop lies mostly at the feet of the Academy. Best Original Song has for years been a bit of a zombie category – unloved, unasked for, but also essential to the annual Oscar broadcast as a whole. Without a handful of live performances to break the show up, we’d just be left with more time for acceptance speeches and advert breaks. Or, even worse, amateur-hour musical numbers quickly regretted by everyone involved. Do you think we’d have got Ariana DeBose confrontingly rhyming at bemused celebrities at last year’s Baftas if they gave out a Best Original Song prize?

What this all means, though, is that the Best Original Song category has to exist whether or not any songs exist to fill it. Hollywood hasn’t helped in that regard – whereas blockbusters of the Eighties and Nineties often made original theme songs integral parts of their identities (think “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic, “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” from Dirty Dancing, or any of the big, emotive numbers from Disney’s late 20th-century renaissance), today they’re harder to find. Or even remember. Last year’s Oscars saw Best Original Song nominations go to Top Gun: Maverick and Everything Everywhere All at Once. These were otherwise inescapable movies from 2022, but can you name either of their central songs?

Best Original Cheeto: the Eva Longoria-directed ‘Flamin’ Hot’ is Warren’s potential ticket to Oscar this year (Searchlight)
Best Original Cheeto: the Eva Longoria-directed ‘Flamin’ Hot’ is Warren’s potential ticket to Oscar this year (Searchlight)

So what does that leave to fill the rest of the required slots? Sludge! Tedium! The bad and the boring of end-credits wailing! A nod for something called “Hear My Voice” from The Trial of the Chicago 7? Stop this now! That the decision-makers of the Academy’s music branch typically seem allergic to fun only adds to the misery here – I remain bitter that Hugh Grant flapped and crotch-thrusted his way through the shimmering Eighties bop “Pop! Goes My Heart” for 2007 romcom Music and Lyrics and yet it didn’t even get a nomination.

Warren, meanwhile, has merely embraced the system as it stands: if the Oscars want sleepy ballads about people finding their inner strength, she’ll be there with her pen and her notepad. But considering the vast catalogue of treacly classics to Warren’s name, it’s disheartening to see her return to the Oscars – year after year – with tracks that reflect her worst lyrical instincts. She can do better! She can write songs for movies that actually exist outside of Oscar trivia games! All she has to do is believe in herself. And if she needs an inspirational ditty to get her going, I may have a few to hand.