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The 2024 Oscars' best original song nominees, cruelly ranked

Clockwise from top left: Billie Eilish, Mark Ronson, Scott George, Diane Warren and Jon Batiste.
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Clockwise from top left: Billie Eilish, Mark Ronson, Scott George, Diane Warren and Jon Batiste.

Given the commercial and awards dominance of Barbie's soundtrack — which was, if you remember, the most-nominated album at this year's Grammys — you'd be forgiven for thinking that this year's race for the best original song Oscar boils down to Fun Barbie (Ryan Gosling's "I'm Just Ken") vs. Pensive Barbie (Billie Eilish's "What Was I Made For?"). But the field has even more going for it than that, from a lovely Jon Batiste ballad to a moving piece by the Osage Tribal Singers to... well, the umpteenth nomination for songwriter Diane Warren, and even that song isn't terrible!

This is the sixth year I've ranked the nominated songs for NPR — here's 2023, 2022, 2021, 2020 and 2019 — and this is one of the better fields all around. So let's tee 'em up, in ascending order of quality.

5. "The Fire Inside," Flamin' Hot, performed by Becky G (Diane Warren, songwriter)

It's hard to devise new ways to say that a Diane Warren composition gets nominated in this category every single year, invariably at the expense of superior songs. She's locked into an eternal paradox: enough institutional support for a seventh consecutive nomination (!!), never enough juice to win.

So here we are, yet again, pondering Doomed Nomination No. 15 and thanking our lucky stars that "The Fire Inside" is actually... decent, as recent-vintage Diane Warren songs go. Lyrically, it's just another slice of quasi-inspirational, nominally defiant boilerplate, dragged down by couplets that would cause a generative AI program to resign in embarrassment ("They will think they can stop you / But there's no stopping you"). Rise, stand, fight, you got this, they can't hold you back, blah blah blah, seriously, have ChatGPT and Diane Warren ever been seen in the same room together?

Musically, "The Fire Inside" is an effervescent and thoroughly inoffensive trifle, brought home by a charismatic vocal from Becky G. As a whole, this is probably Warren's best Oscar-nominated song since 2015's "Til It Happens to You" (a Lady Gaga collaboration that should have beaten Sam Smith's "Writing's on the Wall"), which is at least saying something. Just, you know, not much. Had Flamin' Hot never existed — and how sad it would have been for the world to be denied Eva Longoria's sub-featherweight brand-fluffing biopic! — Warren would have just gotten nominated for "Gonna Be You" from 80 for Brady.

4. "Wahzhazhe (A Song for My People)," Killers of the Flower Moon, performed by Osage Tribal Singers (Scott George, songwriter)

Maybe I'm riding high on the thrill of not having to write about Diane Warren for another 12 months, but this is a strong field! Next up is "Wahzhazhe (A Song for My People)," which closes Martin Scorsese's epic Killers of the Flower Moon — and pointedly gives the Osage Nation the last word. An unconventional entry in a field typically reserved for English-language songs by well-known artists, "Wahzhazhe" had an unusual number of hurdles to clear in order to get nominated, starting with the fact that it had never been written down prior to submission.

The first Native American nominated for best original song, songwriter Scott George crafted a rousing work that transcends its place in a movie's closing credits: It's a work of celebration that suits its moment in the film while speaking to the Osage Nation's resilience in the face of systemic discrimination and murder. And it'll surely sound terrific when performed on Oscar night, which is just one more reason among many to cheer its inclusion.

3. "It Never Went Away," American Symphony, performed by Jon Batiste (Jon Batiste and Dan Wilson, songwriters)

American Symphony documents 2021 Oscar winner Jon Batiste's efforts to write a symphony while his wife, bestselling author Suleika Jaouad, battled leukemia. As documentaries go, it's moving without being terribly revealing — which can also be said for the Oscar-nominated ballad that plays over the film's closing credits. But the gorgeous piano line that propels "It Never Went Away" sure does hit hard, as Batiste serenades his wife in a lullaby of devotion.

Unlike so many Oscar-nominated closing-credits songs before it, "It Never Went Away" feels richly connected to the themes of the movie preceding it. The words Batiste sings aren't exactly novel — "Thought I was a wise lad / When you plan, God laughs" — but the song as a whole beautifully captures the experience of love as an accumulation of hard-won moments, forged in shared sacrifice.

2. "I'm Just Ken," Barbie, performed by Ryan Gosling (Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt, songwriters)

It's virtually impossible to choose which eligible Barbie song most deserves this year's Oscar: You could make a strong case for both nominated songs, as well as Dua Lipa's effervescent "Dance the Night," which was shortlisted but missed the cut. (These days, Oscar rules stipulate that no more than two songs can be nominated from a single film.)

So, seriously, think of Ryan Gosling's wild, joke-dense "I'm Just Ken" as No. 1a more than No. 2 — though it does seem fitting that poor Ken would be relegated to second place yet again. Part inspirational battle anthem, part dream ballet, part '80s power-ballad pastiche, "I'm Just Ken" soundtracks one of Barbie's many key scenes, advancing the plot even as it dispenses catchphrases ("Can you feel the Kenergy?") and asks the questions so many of us have asked of ourselves ("Am I not hot when I'm in my feelings?").

Though "What Was I Made For?" remains this year's likely winner, it wouldn't be a massive shock if "I'm Just Ken" were to rise up and snatch the Oscar from its more somber Barbie counterpart. The song pulls off a genuinely awesome feat: a grand and clever piece of comedic spectacle that is, among other superlatives, great at doing stuff. And, if you're not grateful for "I'm Just Ken" now, just wait until it shows up to enliven a three-and-a-half-hour Oscars telecast.

1. "What Was I Made For?," Barbie, performed by Billie Eilish (Billie Eilish and Finneas O'Connell, songwriters)

I'm never going to fault anyone for choosing jokes over feelings, so you're more than forgiven if you prefer "I'm Just Ken" to "What Was I Made For?" But, man, this is a gorgeous song: melodically rich, a radiant vocal performance from Billie Eilish, a compelling way to magnify the pathos in Barbie's story of self-awakening, and an actual chart hit to boot.

It's worth noting once again how often the Oscars' best original song field gets dominated by songs that roll harmlessly over closing credits — and, more to the point, that fail to convey or reflect on what their films were trying to say. This season, only the Diane Warren song really falls short in that regard; though they play over their respective credits, "Wahzhazhe (A Song for My People)" could only come from Killers of the Flower Moon and "It Never Went Away" could only come from American Symphony. That's a big step up from most years, which says nothing of how integral "I'm Just Ken" and "What Was I Made For?" are to Barbie.

Last year's Oscar field produced one of the best and most satisfying winners this category has ever produced in "Naatu Naatu" from RRR. As long as Barbie gets its due this time around, we're in for another all-timer.

Copyright 2024 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.)

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