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Friday, March 17, 2006

AND THE OSCAR GOES TO …

The words are not the only things that have changed in the Academy Awards. The announcement used to be “And the winner is”. At some point, it was changed to the more politically correct “And the Oscar goes to”. I suppose it was changed to make those who did not win feel better about themselves. If there are five nominees, and one is the winner, the other four must therefore be losers. Not good for the fragile egos of our Hollywood icons.

The Oscar show has become something of a barometer for America, and our culture. In recent years, there has been almost as much controversy about the host as there is about the nominees, and eventual winners. No longer do we get the gentle humor and satiric observations of our lives and times. I think that we shall not see the likes of Bob Hope and Johnny Carson again. Even the slightly sharper tongue of Billy Crystal was aimed more at Hollywood insiders, rather than politicians or America itself. Today’s hosts seem to delight in mean spirited witticisms, taking the cheap shot, or making blatantly political statements.

The winners themselves no longer use the public forum of an acceptance speech to thank those who helped them reach this plateau. Rather, they view this as another opportunity to show us where their political or social views lie, and where the blame should be laid for all of the worlds ills. And usually, the blame falls on America.

However, it is not my intent to discuss the politics of the elite of the entertainment world, but rather, to talk about music. More specifically, the music of the movies, as honored by an Academy Award. Allow me to take you on a brief review of Oscar music.

The 1930’s was a time of deep economic woe in America. The Depression affected almost every American family in one way or another. Movies were one of the few entertainments left to the working folks, and attendance increased steadily. The nickel admission allowed us two hours of entertainment, and an escape from the tribulations of daily life. Hollywood responded with musicals, comedies and lighthearted looks at life, accompanied by music that reflected a positive attitude. Oscar winning songs included classics like “Sweet Leilani”, “The Way You Look Tonight”, “Thanks for the Memory”, “Over The Rainbow” and “Lullaby of Broadway”. Songs that said, “Hey guys, stay positive and things will get better”.

The 1940’s were the years of World War II, with millions of Americans fighting for the very survival of our country. Many of the brightest stars in Hollywood actually joined the military, and saw combat. Some of those who could not join the fight formed the U.S.O., and took entertainment to the troops at the front. The entertainers who stayed behind made movies. Some were stories of the men doing the fighting and dying, while others were designed to lift the spirits of those left behind, and provide a respite from the hardships brought on by the war. Again, the music that won Academy Awards reflected these same feelings. Time honored tunes like “When You Wish Upon A Star”, “White Christmas” and “You’ll Never Know” reflected the war years; while “Zip-A-Dee-Do-Dah”, “Buttons And Bows” and “Baby It’s Cold Outside” were immortalized in the years following wars end.

The 1950’s brought in the new film noir genre movies, reflecting the more sophisticated tastes of a post war people. But the winning music in the movies reflected a positive attitude brought on by an increasingly affluent America. Romance, love, humor and sentimentality were reflected in such winning music titles as “Mona Lisa”, “Secret Love”, “Love Is A Many Splendored Thing”, “All The Way” and “High Hopes”.

The decade of the 1960’s was a time of radical change in American society. Again, Hollywood and it’s music reflected the times, with traditional song stylings like “Moon River” and “Call Me Irresponsible” at the beginning of the 60’s, and the haunting sounds of “The Shadow Of Your Smile” and “Windmills Of Your Mind” finishing the era. A sense of whimsy remained, as winners also included “Talk To The Animals”, and “Chim Chim Cher-ee”.

The 1970’s were a confusing time for many of us. We were in transition in our taste in movies and music. This eclectic phase bounced around the Oscar world, causing the “Theme From Shaft” to win one year, followed by “The Morning After”. Traditional sounds won the decade, however, with other Awards going to hits such as “The Way We Were”, “Evergreen” and “You Light Up My Life”.

The 1980s allowed for the inclusion of what we now refer to as soft rock into the world of the Academy Awards. “Fame”, “Flashdance”, “The Time Of My Life” and “Up Where We Belong” entered the mainstream, as did the generation that sang along. Some winners were hard to classify, but tunes like “Say You Say Me” and “Let The River Run” have outlived the movies in which they were featured.

Nostalgia must have ruled the 1990s, as love was featured in a preponderance of the movie songs that took home the Oscar. “You Must Love Me”, “My Heart Will Go On”, “Beauty And The Beast”, “Sooner Or Later” and “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” led the way. Or maybe it was the cartoons. Six of the ten winning songs in the 90’s were from animated films, while one was from a film adaptation of a cartoon strip.

So now we are in both a new decade, and a new century. We opened this decade with an alternative rock song as the winner, in “Things Have Changed”. Boy, did that song get it right. It was followed by a rap song winning with “Lose Yourself”. And the 2005 winner of the Oscar for best song was “It’s Hard Out There For A Pimp”. I think this was the first time the words of an Academy Award winning song had to be altered to make it suitable for network television. The lyrics of “Lose Yourself” were not sanitized; as it was not played at all. That was also a first.

Even though I am just a casual observer, I am able to classify the music for most of the decades that the Motion Picture Academy has given its award for best song. I can identify the mood of the country, and the culture of the average movie goer, by the songs that became Oscar winners. But I must admit I am not able to quite get a handle on what this year’s winners says about movies, the movie makers, or the people who vote on the Oscar ballots. I simply cannot believe that a song about a pimp, and the problems he faces while managing his stable of hoe’s, is a reflection of American society, or a measure of the mood of the country. But I can draw my own conclusions about several issues that could be indicative of this trend. You may agree or not with these conclusions, as I claim them only as my own.

Hollywood no longer has any idea what is happening in the real world in which most Americans live. The movies that are coming from our entertainment industry have a definite disconnect from we the people.

Much of the music associated with these films is at best forgettable. Great tune masters and songwriters, while still among us, are being ignored by a Hollywood elite that is more interested in “cutting edge” and provocative themes than in popular trends.

Media moguls are lamenting the continued decline in attendance at their movies. I might point out that movie attendance actually increased during the Depression, when people were hard pressed to come up with the price of admission. Today, Americans have more disposable income that at any time in history, yet they are not spending it on movies. Could it be that they are not interested in the types of movies being made?

The American public is increasingly viewing the Hollywood elite as unpatriotic, anti-military, or just plain loony. The stars of yesterday were aware of their need to be role models during World War II; but today, it is difficult to get most stars to give any substantial support to the tens of thousands of service men and women serving our Nation in harms way. The U.S.O. has scaled back its entertainment of our troops overseas because most Hollywood stars just can’t be bothered. And how many of our current crop of leading men have joined the military?

Today’s Oscar winning music is a reflection of the disparity between the lives most of us live, and the rose tinted world in which today’s movie idols live. I know the music and movies of my parent’s generation, and can sing along with “Over The Rainbow” and “White Christmas”. And I naturally know the music of my own generation, and can appreciate the efforts of the writers, and the feelings they were expressing in their creations. My adult children know the tunes of many of the Oscar winners from sixty and seventy years ago, so timeless were these melodies. I find it very difficult to believe that my Grandchildren will be singing along with “Its Hard Out There For A Pimp” at any time in the future, let alone fifty years from now. But I could be wrong.

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