Lady Gaga, just hours after performing at the Super Bowl, broke into song. Sam Smith, just hours before performing at THR‘s Nominees Nite party, mused about the lack of gay Oscar winners. And David Lang, a Pulitzer Prize winner and Yale University professor, disclosed how he found his lyrics through a Google search. It all happened at the second annual THR/Billboard Song Summit, a gathering of the best original song Oscar nominees at the Beverly Hilton hotel immediately after the Academy’s Oscar Nominees Luncheon. (You can check out last year’s edition here.)
This year’s seven participants represented all five nominated songs: Smith and Jimmy Napes, nominated for “Writing’s on the Wall” from the Bond film Spectre; Gaga and Diane Warren, nominated for “Til It Happens to You” from the sexual assault documentary The Hunting Ground; Lang, nominated for “Simple Song #3” from the indie drama Youth; J. Ralph, nominated for “Manta Ray” from the environmentalist doc Racing Extinction; and Stephan Moccio, nominated for “Earned It” from the blockbuster literary adaptation 50 Shades of Grey.
(Click above to listen to this episode now or click here to access all of our episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Amy Schumer, Samuel L. Jackson, Kristen Stewart, J.J. Abrams, Brie Larson, Ridley Scott, Kate Winslet, Ian McKellen, Sarah Silverman, Michael Moore, Benicio Del Toro and Lily Tomlin.)
What started with a barrage of mutual admiration — Smith called himself “the biggest Gaga fan there is” and said he “queued up for her shows when I was 17,” while Moccio told Warren, “We all grew up on you, Diane” — quickly developed into a full-fledged conversation about the songs’ origins, music, lyrics, functions, oddities and impact.
Warren said she “felt compelled” to write a song for The Hunting Ground — “I had my own situation with sexual assault” — and reached out to Gaga because she’d heard she had endured similar trauma. “I always wanted to work with Diane and I’ve always really looked up to her,” Gaga acknowledged. “What her idea was was for two women with a history with sexual assault to come together and make something honest. And I was really grateful to her for calling me.” Noting that Warren doesn’t write with many people, Gaga added, “You let me be my crazy self,” to which Warren responded, “Yeah — well, your ‘crazy self’ is f—ing genius, it’s okay!”
Classical musician Lang’s music has been heard in films going back to 2000’s Requiem for a Dream. He first crossed paths with Paolo Sorrentino when the Italian filmmaker licensed some of his music for the Oscar-winning film The Great Beauty, and then heard from him again when Sorrentino was contemplating making a film about a composer. “I was involved in the planning of this movie before the script was done, before the cast was made,” Lang shared. “We just started talking about what this song would mean in this film and what the music would do and how it would reveal the narrative about this person, the Michael Caine character.”
For Moccio, a Canadian classical pianist-turned-composer/arranger, a recent association with Miley Cyrus on the chart-topping song “Wrecking Ball” led to a relocation to Los Angeles and the opportunity to be a part of “Earned It.” Fifty Shades director Sam Taylor-Johnson initially intended to close her film with another song Moccio helped to create, but eventually changed the ending and wanted a different song, with a more “male perspective.” He teamed with Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye, Ahmad “Belly” Balshe and Jason “Daheala” Quenneville — “We’re all Toronto boys” — “and they fell in love with it.”
Ralph has specialized in songs for social-activism docs since contributing one to Louie Psihoyos‘ The Cove, which went on to win the best doc feature Oscar six years ago. He co-wrote “Manta Ray” for Psihoyos‘ Cove follow-up, and his nom makes him the first person to have received more than one mention for songs from docs (he was previously nominated for “Before My Time” for Chasing Ice). “The songs help the audience relate on an emotional, resonant level,” he submitted. He also lauded his co-nominee, Antony “Anoni” Hegarty, who becomes only the second known out trans person to receive an Oscar nom.
As for Smith and Napes, they’ve been working together for the last four years. “When I met Sam,” Napes disclosed, “he was 19 and he was working in a bar in St. Pauls, and I heard him sing and just thought he sang like an angel.” “We got the opportunity to do a Bond film, which is a dream come true for me and Sam — being British, it’s kind of like the most amazing thing.” Smith chimed in, “It was just the ultimate dream for me. It was something that I really wanted to get to at some point in my life. I just didn’t think that it would happen this soon.”
Music and lyrics
What led Lang to Google? He explained, “I was trying to find something that would make it so the song would be universal. I wanted people to watch the film and think about their own lives and their own loves and the secrets that they have that they don’t want to share with other people, that are too personal.” So, he continued, “I just, out of curiosity, went to the Internet and Googled, ‘When you whisper my name I…'” Sorrentino’s only instructions to Lang were that he wanted the song to make him cry, a mission that was soon accomplished.
Ralph’s song may be about manta rays, but it was inspired by the sounds of another animal — the last living O’o Bird, a species now extinct — that he heard during a visit to the Cornell Bioacoustic Laboratory. Having employed that sound as a base, he recruited Hegarty to write the lyrics. “She went home that night, and I expected it to take weeks or months, as it sometimes does,” he recalled. “She called me 24 hours later and said, ‘I think I have something. Can I come down today?'” The song — despite some controversial lyrics (“my children are dying inside of me”) — changed little thereafter.
“The way that me and Jimmy write,” Smith laid out, “is he gets behind the piano and I’m standing there and then we sing, and we just go through ideas until we are literally running around the room screaming because we are feeling it so much in our bodies.” “The initial idea came very quickly,” Napes said of “Writing’s on the Wall,” sharing, “The chords that are in the song I actually wrote years before, just by myself, in the hope that one day I could write a Bond song!” Smith said he always tries to infuse his songs with emotional vulnerability, and emphasized, “I wasn’t gonna change that for Bond.”
Warren had taken a pass at the music and lyrics of “Til It Happens to You” before Gaga came onboard — “It started out with just wanting to honor these stories and what these girls went through,” she said, but she also wanted the song to have a more universal meaning. Gaga, however, insisted it needed to feel more specific in order for her to be able to sing it, given its deeply personal subject matter, and Warren eventually consented. “I made it much louder and I made it more complicated,” said Gaga. “I felt like it needed to feel more like a rock song.” She added, “What I feel that the melody became, as a part of me working on it with her, is there are some sour turns now that weren’t there.”
In Moccio’s case, he and his collaborators needed to craft a song with lyrics that spoke to the story of an S&M relationship, but also to broader situations. He helped to create the slow-tempo beat that thumps throughout the song, on top of which The Weeknd added lyrics centering around the word “It,” which is never defined in the song — as in the case of “Til It Happens to You,” as well — leaving it open to the interpretation of the listener. “A great written pop song, or any song for that matter, is typically one that’s ambiguous enough that you’re able to extract your own meaning from it,” Moccio suggested.
Functions, oddities and impact (spoiler alert)
In Youth, Lang’s “Simple Song No. 3” is a song that ostensibly was written by the film’s protagonist when he was a young composer; he’s repeatedly asked to play again when he’s old; and he greatly resists revisiting because its meaning has changed over the years. It is mentioned in the film’s first scene; there are hints at it throughout the film, such as a melodic crinkling of a wrapper; but we don’t actually hear it performed until the film’s final scene. “I mean, no pressure, right?” Lang deadpanned. Because the song received such a huge buildup, Lang insisted “everyone he [Caine’s character] works with has to be a world-class musician,” hence the participation of a world-class orchestra and opera singer, Sumi Jo.
Just as Lang is heartened by the idea that he may have helped to introduce some people to classical music who might not otherwise have been exposed to it, Ralph is moved by the notion that the song he wrote with Johnston, and the film in which it appears, might inspire people to change their behavior in regard to endangered species and the planet.
“Writing’s on the Wall” is featured twice in Spectre, most prominently over its opening sequence (which Smith jokingly described as “the world’s most expensive music video.”) With its strains that sound almost like crying, and Smith’s voice sometimes going very high — “I grabbed my balls,” he cracked — it helped to set the tone for a more vulnerable Bond than we’ve tended to see before, a Bond who bleeds, as Smith put it. It became the first-ever Bond song to top the U.K. charts; went on to win the best original song Golden Globe; and is now the fifth Bond song to receive a best original song Oscar nomination. (Only one has ever won: Adele‘s “Skyfall” from 2012’s Skyfall.)
Conversely, “Earned It” — which won the Grammy for best R&B performance on Monday night — and “Til It Happens to You” effectively close their films (a version of the latter is also employed earlier on), serving as musical exclamation marks, as the last thing that audience members hear. Gaga felt that this placement necessitated an upbeat close to the song she wrote with Warren. “I think that where a song goes in a film is important,” she emphasized. “I said, ‘If this is gonna be at the end, after all of that, these women need to leave marching out like The Beatles. It needs to be like ‘Sgt. Pepper’ all the way. This song needs to be David Bowie and Janis Joplin, and it needs to be a little f—ed up.'” The song has since become an anthem — a rallying cry of sorts — for those who have experienced sexual assault and refuse to let it define them. “I’ve had a lot of big songs and a lot of big hit records, but never in my life has a song resonated so deeply with so many people,” Warren shared, noting that everyone from flight attendants to Vice President Joe Biden have told her how much it moved them. As a result, Gaga marveled, “Suddenly I’m a spokesperson for something that I didn’t even admit to myself happened until I was 27 years old.”
Can a song change the world? “Oh, my God,” enthused Smith, “100 percent. 100 million percent.”