Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The 2023 Oscars' best original song nominees, cruelly ranked

"Naatu Naatu" from the film <em>RRR</em> is up for best original song at the 95th Academy Awards. The tiger flying in the air toward Ram Charan (right), however, is not.
DVV Entertainment & Variance Films
"Naatu Naatu" from the film RRR is up for best original song at the 95th Academy Awards. The tiger flying in the air toward Ram Charan (right), however, is not.

This year's crop of Oscar nominees for best original song may not have a James Bond theme or a ubiquitous Disney banger, but it's got range: a viral dance number, a pair of ballads by major pop stars, a welcome surprise and... yes, the obligatory Diane Warren track.

NPR has been publishing these lists for a few years now — here's 2022, 2021, 2020 and 2019 — and it's been a while since a best-original-song field has been this easy to rank. The best are great, as they either feature prominently in the films or reflect directly on the themes therein. The worst either roll vacantly over the closing credits, are by Diane Warren, or both. The middle... eh, we'll get there.

5. "Applause," Tell It Like a Woman, performed by Sofia Carson (Diane Warren, songwriter)

Now might be a good time to note a few of the original songs that could have received Oscar nominations in 2023. Remember Turning Red's amazing boy-band pastiches? "Nobody Like U," by last year's best original song winners Billie Eilish and Finneas, didn't even make the shortlist for the category this year. Same goes for "On My Way," a Jennifer Lopez pop ballad from Marry Me that was strong enough to make viewers think, "It is plausible that this fictional chart-topper could be a huge hit in real life." Jazmine Sullivan's "Stand Up" (from Till) was shortlisted, but not nominated, while the Will Ferrell/Ryan Reynolds musical number "Good Afternoon" (from Spirited, also shortlisted-but-not-nominated) would have given the Oscars telecast a welcome bit of bonkers energy, but... here we are. Diane Warren. Again. Some more.

Somewhere along the way, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences went from having a Diane Warren fixation to a Diane Warren problem. It's one thing to nominate, say, 1997's "How Do I Live," which has more or less become a pop standard. But Warren's boilerplate movie songs have been nominated for eight of the past nine years, and the past six — all from consecutive years! — could have been written by ChatGPT if it had been fed enough Diane Warren songs beforehand. All six of those songs are basically the same: lightly rousing but deliberately paced vehicles dispensing affirmation, with titles like "Stand Up for Something," "I'll Fight" and "I'm Standing With You," heard by virtually no one in the world beyond the people who didn't feel like getting up to make themselves a snack on Oscar night.

The Academy's members gave Warren an honorary award last fall, which makes a fair bit of sense, given that she's never been far from their minds. She received her first Oscar nomination all the way back in 1988, yet she's never won in 13 (soon to be 14) tries. That honorary award would be much more welcome if it meant that Oscar voters would stop feeling obligated to nominate her, particularly when the songs she's written are 1) generic to the point of self-parody; and 2) extremely obscure. This year's nominee is derived from a movie (Tell It Like a Woman) that not only isn't available for screening or streaming by the viewing public, but could also theoretically be entirely made up. Couldn't you imagine, say, 30 Rock's Jenna Maroney appearing in a movie called Tell It Like a Woman?

Anyway, "Applause." Look, it's possible that Academy voters were deeply moved by the song's instructions to, you know, stand up and give yourself some respect and whatnot. But... come on. This song is nominated because Diane Warren's name is on it, and because Diane Warren is a veteran Hollywood songwriter — she lives there and works specifically in the movie industry — and not some pop star tossing out crumbs in the hope of getting an EGOT someday. The song genuinely does not matter, and that's true in more ways than one.

So, there you go. Be sure to watch this space next year, when "Gonna Be You" makes 80 for Brady the Oscar nominee it was destined to be.

4. "Lift Me Up," Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, performed by Rihanna (Tems, Ludwig Göransson, Rihanna, Ryan Coogler, songwriters)

Remember that line a few sentences ago about "some pop star tossing out crumbs in the hope of getting an EGOT someday"? Meet Rihanna's "Lift Me Up," a ballad that barely merited a shrug when it came out last fall, even though it was 1) from the dizzily anticipated blockbuster Black Panther: Wakanda Forever; and 2) the singer's first piece of new music in more than six years. Revisiting the song months later, that shrug persists: Rihanna lends it a clear, emotive, luminous vocal, and it's a more-or-less effective sonic bridge between Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and its bonus scene, but the song could have been dropped onto the closing credits of just about any movie without the words needing to change.

Think about the emotional weight of the first Black Panther movie to appear following the death of Chadwick Boseman. Now take a peek at this song's lyric sheet: "Lift me up / Hold me down / Keep me close / Safe and sound." There's virtually nothing here beyond boilerplate requests for support, all the way down. Swap Rihanna's name for that of, say, Sofia Carson, and ask yourself: Would "Lift Me Up" have even made the shortlist in this category?

3. "Hold My Hand," Top Gun: Maverick, performed by Lady Gaga (Lady Gaga and BloodPop, songwriters)

Top Gun: Maverick doesn't squander many opportunities to recapture the high-flying grandeur of its 1986 predecessor. But it falls a little short in the songs department, even with the passing nod to Kenny Loggins' "Danger Zone" that pops up in the film's opening moments. The original Top Gun was packed with hits — including "Danger Zone," Berlin's Oscar-winning "Take My Breath Away" and Loverboy's "Heaven in Your Eyes" — but Top Gun: Maverick largely skimps on the original songs, with just OneRepublic's forgettable "I Ain't Worried" and Lady Gaga's power ballad "Hold My Hand" to show for 36 years of buildup.

Where the latter song doesn't skimp is in the sheer exertion of it all: Lady Gaga gives "Hold My Hand" every ounce of the fists-plunged-heavenward, writhing-atop-a-piano-on-a-lonely-airstrip grandeur it requires, and then some. Lyrically, it doesn't add up to a whole lot — "I know you're scared and your pain is imperfect / But don't you give up on yourself" — but damned if it doesn't pair effectively with images of planes whooshing ominously and rulebooks getting tossed into trash cans. This is Lady Gaga's third Oscar nomination in this category alone (she won for "Shallow" in 2019), so she knows her way around a movie moment.

2. "This Is a Life," Everything Everywhere All at Once, performed by Ryan Lott, David Byrne and Mitski (Ryan Lott, David Byrne and Mitski, songwriters)

Just based on degree-of-difficulty alone, this one deserves a lofty ranking: Son Lux's Ryan Lott (also rightly nominated for best original score) helped synthesize the themes of Everything Everywhere All at Once — of which there are many — into a singular, graceful song that mirrors the film's grand, humanistic sweep. "This Is a Life" simply operates on another level from the other closing-credits fare on this list, in part because it fits alongside no movie but this one. It's a song about "many lives that could have been," about "the weight of eternity at the speed of light," and about the impossible knot of outcomes the film has spent two-plus hours endeavoring to untangle.

It's also exquisitely performed. Lott uses the orchestra at his disposal sparingly, as it slides in at key moments alongside the ideal pairing of singers Mitski and David Byrne — two voices that know their way around the search for meaning and wonder. Each contributes mightily to the song's (and the film's) warm, openhearted embrace of a world defined by endless possibility.

1. "Naatu Naatu" RRR, performed by Kaala Bhairava and Rahul Sipligunj (M.M. Keeravaani and Chandrabose, songwriters)

RRR is an absolute meal of a movie: Three hours of grand, epic spectacle, punctuated by brutal violence and none-too-subtle messaging that combines anti-colonialism with ultranationalism. You might love it, you might not, but let's see if we can't gather together in celebration of its greatest moment: A viral dance number called "Naatu Naatu," in which the film's impossibly telegenic stars (Ram Charan and N.T. Rama Rao Jr.) dance their hearts out while lip-syncing for their lives.

Placing "Naatu Naatu" and "Applause" in the same field of nominees is like declaring that the humble, misunderstood blobfish is visually akin to Ram Charan because they're both living organisms. Every second of this thing is electric: a song-and-dance number for which watching qualifies as aerobic exercise, in part because dancing along is essentially involuntary.

It's honestly a shame that the credits at the top of this ranking can only note performers and songwriters, because a healthy share of the credit also belongs to RRR's leads. Their commitment to the bit, and to Prem Rakshith's impeccably synchronized choreography, makes "Naatu Naatu" one of the season's biggest Oscar slam dunks. It should win, it almost certainly will win, and the fact that it's being performed on the telecast means we all win.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)