Can We Talk About…? Divas and Their Attempts at Snatching a Best Original Song Oscar

In honor of Beyoncé's "Spirit", a look at the winners, nominees, and try-hards who sought to song-write their way to Academy Award gold.

Can We Talk About…? is a weekly series that supports this message—especially if it comes in an assless chap.

The intrepid diva-turned-actress has traditionally contributed an original song, if not an entire album, to whatever film she’s contractually dedicated herself. Sometimes it’s a deeply felt, personal number that represents a career peak; sometimes it’s a blatant Oscar grab. One, however, does not always mutually exclude the other.

Beyoncé—queen, icon, America’s greatest natural resource—recently released her latest bid for cinematic legitimacy, “Spirit” from the upcoming Lion King live action remake. It’s…fine.
 

The song is part of a stand-alone album Bey has curated, The Lion King: The Gift, featuring songs inspired by the film, performed by an international cadre of artists. By this point, I’ve grown to trust Beyoncé implicitly so I’ll be tuning in on July 19 when the album drops. Even if I don’t love “Spirit”—which, for the record, I do not.

It sounds like equal parts “deeply felt” and “blatant Oscar grab.” Which I’m fine with, I just prefer my Oscar bait to be a bit catchier. But not every song can be “Shallow.”

Here, however, are the other songs, including “Shallow”, that divas past and present have contributed to films—either that they starred in, produced, or simply showed up at a recording session for—to the delight, or ambivalence, of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
 

Winners

Barbra Streisand – “Evergreen”
 

Having already snatched Oscar gold for her film debut in 1968’s Funny Girl, Babs decided to remake A Star Is Born because apparently every generation needs one. With “Evergreen,” Streisand, who wrote the music—lyrics were by Paul “Rainbow Connection” Williams—became the first woman to be honored as a composer. “Evergreen,” living up to its name (and reflecting what a questionable year 1978 was in music) became Streisand’s second No. 1, spending three weeks at the top of the charts, and also took home the Song of the Year Grammy. Yes, the lyrics, “Love, soft as an easy chair” were considered stellar.

Elton John – “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”
 
https://youtu.be/RYEhoKKKvoU?t=26
Ah, the rare male diva. And no one claims that crown like Dame Elton John*, who crystallized the childhoods of an entire generation with the original (and still best) Lion King soundtrack. John is simply drowning in trophies but is still somehow an Emmy away from EGOT’ing. Ryan Murphy, can you help a sister out?

Annie Lennox – “Into the West”
 

Listen, give Annie Lennox whatever the hell she wants. She gave us one of the quintessential diva albums—appropriately titled Diva—not to mention one of the most gorgeous musical moments in modern film, and she basically made us all gay with the song and music video “Walking on Broken Glass“. Thank you for your service.

Adele – “Skyfall”
 
https://youtu.be/7LigbmG8aII?t=26
For awhile there, it seemed you could contribute a mediocre song to a Bond film and just saunter away with an Oscar in hand (see also: non-diva Sam Smith). While there have been some truly great Bond songs over the years—”Goldfinger”, “Nobody Does It Better”, “The World Is Not Enough”—”Skyfall”, from the film of the same name, and later Smith’s wholly forgettable “Writing’s On the Wall” from Spectre, are the only ones to win Oscars.

Lady Gaga – “Shallow”
 

If you’ve ever been drunk at a bar at 2am and “Shallow”—or, God willing, a remix—comes on, you probably agree that Gaga deserved her trophy. And boy did she want it! More on that later. But as the second song from an iteration of A Star Is Born to win big at the Academy Awards, Gaga followed in Babs’ giant footsteps…while Judy Garland continues to spin in her grave.

Nominees

Dolly Parton – “9 to 5”
 

One of the few Best Original Song nominees that’s not a treacly ballad, and definitely one that should’ve walked away a winner, “9 to 5” lost out to “Fame”—remember when the Oscars were that gay? Dolly would get another go ’round when she was nominated for “Travelin’ Thru” from the transface classic Transamerica, but she lost to Three 6 Mafia. Because it’s hard out here for a diva.

Janet Jackson – “Again”
 

For her film debut, Ms. Jackson contributed this ballad after being inspired by her role in the late John Singleton’s Poetic Justice. Topping the charts for two weeks, “Again” became the popstar’s seventh No. 1 single and nabbed both Oscar and Golden Globe nominations, ultimately losing to Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia.” While “Again” is a good song and all, where was Janet’s nomination for “Doesn’t Really Matter” from The Nutty Professor 2? Now that is a gem.

Mary J. Blige – “Mighty River”
 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VqXM91PQosM
The Queen of Hip Hop Soul made history when in 2018 she became the first person nominated for acting and songwriting in the same year—a feat repeated by Gaga the following year—for her magnificent turn in Mudbound, only to walk away empty-handed. Mary will be fine, though—she needs neither the Academy’s hateration, holleration, nor its vindication. Not in this dancery, goddammit!

Try-Hards

Beyoncé – “Listen”
 
https://youtu.be/y7IZSxMzc3c?t=120
Queen Bey missed out on being nominated for “Listen” due to an Academy rule that (allegedly) only nominates three songwriters. An executive committee met and decided that of the four songwriters listed, Beyoncé contributed the least (#SHADE) and was therefore left off the ballot. “Listen” was nominated but lost out to Melissa Etheridge’s “I Need to Wake Up” from the climate change doc An Inconvenient Truth. Despite Bey’s inconvenient truth precluding her from her first Oscar nomination, this time around mom’s not playing: “Spirit” is credited to just three songwriters, including Mrs. Carter.

Madonna – “Masterpiece”
 

Madge has been trying to get recognized by the Academy since she pulled her hair in a chignon for Evita. And though she performed the Oscar-winning “Sooner or Later”, written by Stephen Sondheim for Dick Tracy, at the 1991 ceremony, she’s been otherwise relegated to the Oscars’ drunk stepsister, the Golden Globes. Not only did she win a GG for Best Actress for Evita (to Patti LuPone’s chagrin), but in what was really the torching of the HFPA’s last shred of credibility, Madonna won Best Original Song for “Masterpiece” for her universally-panned historical romance W.E. The Oscars, however, didn’t bite, and Madge remains nom-less.

Lady Gaga – “Til It Happens to You”
 

Proving that one year’s try-hard can be the next year’s winner, Gaga contributed this song to the 2015 documentary, The Hunting Ground, about sexual assault on college campuses. Co-written by perennial Oscar also-ran, 10-time nominee Diane Warren, the song basically begged for the Academy’s attention, only for Gaga to lose out to the previously maligned “Writing’s on the Wall.”

But hey, if those bland Bond ballads can win, then Beyoncé at least stands a chance to get nominated for “Spirit”—though I’m sure that’s the last thing on her mind. It’s all about the art and making a statement and blah, blah, blah. Just make sure that trophy reads “Knowles-Carter.”

Finally, it should be noted: “Shallow” had four songwriters.

Rick Rowell via Getty Images

And the Academy didn’t’t mind giving all of them their due. Jussayin’—the BeyHive knows how folks hate giving their queen her awards so if they get a repeat of the Grammys and Adele somehow sweeps in after breathing on a track for some rando franchise film, there will be hell to pay.

*Prince would also qualify as a male diva, and though he won an Oscar for Purple Rain, it was in the now-defunct “Best Original Song Score” category.

Lester Fabian Brathwaite is an LA-based writer, editor, bon vivant, and all-around sassbag. He's formerly Senior Editor of Out Magazine and is currently hungry. Insta: @lefabrat