Inside the Original Song Race: Will Voters Pick Foreign Language or Opt for Social Justice Message?

If “Io Sì (Seen)” wins the song Oscar on April 25, it will mark only the fourth time in Oscar history that a foreign-language lyric has taken the prize. Diane Warren’s song for “The Life Ahead,” which co-lyricist Laura Pausini sings in Italian, is the 10th song not in the English language to be nominated.

The winners were the title song from 1960’s “Never on Sunday,” in Greek; “Al Otro Lado Del Rio,” from 2004’s “The Motorcycle Diaries,” in Spanish; and “Jai Ho,” from 2008’s “Slumdog Millionaire,” a mix of Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi languages.

One of its strongest competitors is “Husavik,” from “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga,” which is sung partly in Icelandic.

A non-English lyric is not necessarily a handicap. Multiple factors go into an Oscar song win, and it isn’t always just the competition. Manos Hadjidakis’ song “Never on Sunday” — from Jules Dassin’s Greek-language comedy about a free-spirited prostitute (Melina Mercouri) — was a hit, with plenty of radio play throughout late 1960 and a best-selling soundtrack album during the voting period of early 1961 (it went to No. 2 on the pop charts).

Bouzouki music flavors the entire film, and Mercouri sings the song on-screen, which never hurts. The film received five nominations (including lead actress and director) but won only the song Oscar. It may have been an early instance of the “consolation prize” theory that has often applied to song wins. Sometimes Academy voters choose the music categories to reward films that they like but aren’t going to win anything else.

That happened with “The Motorcycle Diaries,” whose Jorge Drexler song “Al Otro Lado Del Rio” was its sole Oscar win (it was also nominated for adapted screenplay). It was considered so obscure, its artist so little known, that the Oscar telecast producers nixed him from performing it (giving the gig to the better-known Carlos Santana and Antonio Banderas). When he won, he ran up to the stage and sang it anyway.

The competition that year was weak: songs from “Shrek 2” (sappy soft rock), “Polar Express” (characters’ creepy look was a turnoff ), “Phantom of the Opera” (Andrew Lloyd Webber had already won for the movie of “Evita”) and “Les Choristes” (children’s choir in French, even more obscure than “Al Otro Lado Del Rio”). Awarding the song seemed like the best solution for honoring the widely praised tale of a young Che Guevara on the road in South America.

“Jai Ho” had an easier road to the Oscar win. First, it was part of an eight-Oscar “Slumdog Millionaire” sweep that included best picture. Second, it’s the backdrop for the memorably fun Bollywood number that closes the film. Plus, it was one of only three song nominees that year and one of the others was the lesser-known “O Saya” by the same composer, A.R. Rahman.

“Io Sì (Seen)” accompanies the emotional final scene of “The Life Ahead” as Momo (Ibrahima Gueye) says goodbye to Madame Rosa (Sophia Loren), and that may sway voters — and the fact that veteran songwriter Warren has lost 11 times in 33 years.

“Husavik” cannot be discounted, because it’s performed on screen and, what’s more, it’s the climax of the film, as Lars and Sigrit (Will Ferrell, Rachel McAdams) risk disqualification by singing an ode to their hometown. And with nearly 10 million views on YouTube, its popularity extends beyond its Netflix origins. Swedish pop singer Molly Sandén (who herself once participated in the Junior Eurovision Song Contest) sings it in that scene, including a few lines in Icelandic.

The three remaining songs in the category deal directly with the social issues powerfully brought home by their films. Leslie Odom Jr. plays Sam Cooke in “One Night in Miami,” and is nominated for that performance, but he sings “Speak Now” (which he co-wrote) in his own voice, and it’s a call to action while also reminding us of the ’60s (“listen to the echoes of martyrs praying”).

“Hear My Voice” could easily be a protest song from the ’60s, as Celeste sings at the end of “The Trial of the Chicago 7” (“let us make a world in which we believe”) and the melody is hinted at throughout composer Daniel Pemberton’s score for the Aaron Sorkin film.

H.E.R. sings “Fight for You” under the end titles of “Judas and the Black Messiah,” and its ’70s soul style perfectly matches the period of the film and the Fred Hampton story being told (“oh you better beware, their guns don’t play fair, all we got is a prayer”).

The fact that all three of these songs speak directly to the national conversation on racial injustice makes them not just relevant, but significant cultural events beyond simple “movie songs.”

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