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Oscars 2014

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Oscars' Best Song race: Out of Tune?

How nominees went from being popular hits to lesser-known tunes

Pop quiz, with an emphasis on pop: Which of the Oscar nominees for Best Original Song 25 years ago — ''Ghostbusters,'' ''Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now),'' ''Footloose,'' ''Let's Hear It for the Boy,'' and ultimate winner ''I Just Called to Say I Love You'' — topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart? The answer: all of them. Back in 1985, you really had to be a cave dweller — or a resident of the rock & roll-free town in Footloose — not to have heard that year's Oscar hopefuls. This year's crop, however, is hit-free — and that's par for the course these days. In fact, you have to go back to 2005, and the Counting Crows' Shrek 2 track ''Accidentally in Love,'' to find a nominee that even cracked the Top 40. ''Music's become totally fractured,'' says ''Footloose'' co-writer Kenny Loggins. ''And some of the [recently nominated] songs have been really horrible. But of course, that's just my opinion.''

Actually, a lot of people have been underwhelmed by recent nominees. Last summer, the music branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences even announced that it would eliminate the category altogether in years when branch members decide there aren't enough eligible songs of sufficient quality. It's not impossible to imagine Best Original Song joining such Oscar dinosaurs as Best Assistant Director and Best Dance Direction.

It wasn't always like this. In the early days of the Academy Awards, the Best Song prize was regularly bestowed on such standards-in-the-making as ''Over the Rainbow,'' ''White Christmas,'' and ''Moon River,'' which was co-penned for Breakfast at Tiffany's by songwriting giant and four-time Best Song winner Johnny Mercer. The Academy may have been slow to get its collective head around rock, but it did reward Isaac Hayes' funk-tastic ''Theme From Shaft'' in 1972 and the disco hit ''Last Dance'' from 1978's Thank God It's Friday.

Even when the Academy nodded to popular taste, though, it still found ways to alienate contemporary music artists. In 1985, organizers bizarrely tapped All That Jazz star Ann Reinking to perform ''Against All Odds'' instead of Phil Collins, who had written and recorded the track and was up for the award. According to Gregory Peck, one of the show's producers that year, they wanted to ''use as many film people as possible.'' (Maybe they were unaware that as a child, Collins was an extra on A Hard Day's Night — another classic rock movie that failed to generate a single Best Song nom.)

But by the 1980s, the Oscar song nominees were mostly in tune with the record-buying public. By that time, there were a lot of movie hits to choose from, as studios and record labels worked closely to repeat the enormous late-'70s success of the Grease and Saturday Night Fever soundtrack albums. ''The record labels went, 'Whoa, we can have this great vehicle to sell singles and soundtracks,''' says Footloose music supervisor Becky Mancuso-Winding. ''And the studios went, 'Whoa, we can use the labels to promote our film.' It was a pretty magical time to be a music supervisor.''

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