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April 18, 2003
That Win For "Lose Yourself"
by Jon Burlingame

When Eminem won the Academy Award for Best Song – "Lose Yourself" from the urban drama 8 Mile – presenter Barbra Streisand wasn't the only observer whose jaw literally dropped.

The controversial rapper was given virtually no chance to win by Oscar handicappers – the same crowd that guessed Roman Polanski would lose in the Best Director race, and made newcomer Adrien Brody an even longer shot as Best Actor.

In the days since the Oscars were handed out March 23, reaction has been predictably mixed. Fans of contemporary music rejoiced, contending that Oscar had finally joined the 21st century. Lovers of more traditional forms of songwriting – the kind practiced by past Oscar winners Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe, Livingston & Evans, Bacharach & David, et. al. – simply shook their heads in disbelief.

Even executives at Universal, which distributed 8 Mile, privately expressed surprise at the results.

How did it happen?

Academy officials never release vote counts (although in recent years there has been a growing number of calls to report the numbers), so there is no way to know precisely how many of the organization's 5,800 voting members actually checked off 8 Mile on the ballot. Irish rock band U2 was the clear favorite going into the ceremony, having written "The Hands That Built America" for Martin Scorsese's epic Gangs of New York.

But Gangs of New York was not a well-liked movie, and Miramax's aggressive campaigning (especially for Scorsese) turned off legions of voters. The new song in Chicago might have been a good alternate choice, but the Kander & Ebb tune played literally like an afterthought over the film's end titles and barely registered with most listeners despite the commercial success of the soundtrack album.

Paul Simon's lightweight "Father and Daughter" from the animated Wild Thornberrys Movie was never taken seriously, and Elliot Goldenthal was always more widely favored for his authentic-Mexican-sounding Frida score than the song he wrote with director Julie Taymor. (And, of course, Goldenthal won Best Score honors.)

Some Academy members have quietly confessed that they now feel so out of touch with modern music that they confer with their children about what's hot before completing their ballots. That's not the way they're supposed to vote, of course, but it remains a fact of the Oscar voting process.

Which brings us back to Eminem (and his co-writers Jeff Bass and Luis Resto). "Lose Yourself," the five-and-a-half minute rap from 8 Mile, is performed over the end titles of Curtis Hanson's story about Detroit rappers.

The critical difference, however, is that "Lose Yourself" works within the film as an integral part of the narrative, the final finished song becoming a culmination of an aspiring rapper's drive for success. Its music combines gritty street rhythms with a lonely piano melody; its lyric neatly summarizes his depressed life and his need to express himself in the only way he knows how. More to the point, it provides an effective parallel to Eminem's own life story. It will never be compared to Gershwin or Kern, but it is surprisingly compelling on its own terms – particularly for a contemporary audience.

And it's not as if this has never happened before. As with The Beatles' win in 1970 for Original Song Score for "Let It Be," Isaac Hayes' victory in 1971 for "Shaft" and Prince's in 1984 for "Purple Rain," Eminem's win for "Lose Yourself" will go down in the record books as a rare Oscar nod to the ever-growing synergy between the record business and American moviemaking.

© 2003 Jon Burlingame

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