Adele vs. ‘Les Miserables’ battle reflects Oscars’ changing taste in music

Fifteen years ago, “Suddenly” from “Les Miserables” would have been the clear frontrunner for Best Original Song at the Oscars. It’s a sentimental ballad, written for a prestigious musical by its original composers, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, and Herbert Kretzmer. And it’s the only nominee from a film entirely driven by music. So why are most of our experts betting on pop superstar Adele?

Once upon a time, a classy love theme or a crossover Disney ballad were music to the Academy’s ears, but the same rules don’t apply anymore. Looking back, 1999 may have been the tipping point. That was the year Phil Collins won for “You’ll Be in My Heart” from “Tarzan,” a typically safe choice for conservative Oscar voters, but it met with widespread criticism because of the songs it beat, including indie songwriter Aimee Mann‘s “Save Me” from “Magnolia,” and the audacious “Blame Canada” from “South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut.” That award came to symbolize how out-of-touch the Academy was with popular modern tastes.

Perhaps Oscar voters aren’t overly concerned with looking cool; given the choice, they usually opt for a warm, feel-good “King’s Speech” over a young, upstart “Social Network.” However, there was a perceptible paradigm shift in the race for Best Song; in fact, the very next winner in the category was Bob Dylan‘s “Things Have Changed” (from “Wonder Boys”), a title that fittingly describes the next decade of music honorees.

In 2002, Eminem won for his “8 Mile” rap anthem “Lose Yourself,” defeating, among others, “I Move On,” an original song written for the Best Picture-winning musical “Chicago.” In 2004, the Spanish-language “Al otro lado del rio” (from “The Motorcycle Diaries”) upset “Phantom of the Opera’s” “Learn to Be Lonely.”

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Then, in 2005 Oscar picked a winner that would have seemed impossible any earlier: “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” by the group Three 6 Mafia from “Hustle & Flow.” It was the second rap song in four years to win an Oscar; compare that to the Grammys where no rap song has ever won Record or Song of the Year. In just a few years, the conservative Academy was starting to seem downright radical.

That was followed by rock star Melissa Etheridge‘s environmentalist anthem “I Need to Wake Up” from the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” which beat a trio of new songs from “Dreamgirls” in 2006.

In 2007, “Falling Slowly,” from the acclaimed indie musical “Once,” prevailed against three songs from Disney’s “Enchanted” co-written by Oscar darling Alan Menken. Disney also lost the next two races, with “Down to Earth” (“WALL-E”) falling to the Bollywood-style hit “Jai Ho” (“Slumdog Millionaire”) in 2008 and a pair of Randy Newman songs from “The Princess and the Frog” losing to hit-maker T-Bone Burnett‘s “The Weary Kind” (“Crazy Heart”) in 2009.

Disney won the next two races: in 2010, for Newman’s old-fashioned “We Belong Together” from “Toy Story 3,” but then in 2011 for Bret McKenzie‘s unusual, tongue-in-cheek “Man or Muppet” from “The Muppets,” which was the very first Oscar awarded to a Muppet movie.

So it’s no wonder experts are betting on Adele for her theme from the James Bond film “Skyfall,” even though only three other Bond tunes have ever been nominated and none have won. It turned out to be pretty easy out here for a “Pimp,” so it might be a cakewalk for a universally loved chart-topper like Adele. And, lucky for her, Phil Collins is nowhere in sight.

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