Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O and ambient pioneer Brian Eno both wrote scores for major film releases in 2009, but a few weeks ago Rolling Stone that broke the story that neither would be eligible to win a Best Original Score Oscar at this year's Academy Awards. That's because the Academy rulebook currently disqualifies a score if it's "diluted" by the use of preexisting music, "diminished in impact" by the predominant use of songs, or is assembled from the music of more than one composer.
It could have been either the song caveat or the bit about more than one composer that disqualified Karen O's score for Spike Jonze's Where The Wild Things Are. There's some singing in the score and she did collaborate with Bradford Cox of Deerhunter while writing it, as well as Nick Zinner and Brian Chase of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Well known film composer Carter Burwell participated too, but his presence wasn't likely the problem. He was credited and the rulebook makes provisions for "two composers functioning as equal collaborators."
Brian Eno isn't eligible for his score for Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones because he didn't file the relevant paperwork to have the Academy consider it, but even if he had, it would probably still be disqualified, since it uses portions of his earlier work. The same thing happened to Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood a few years ago. Greenwood's score for There Will Be Blood was widely considered brilliant, but contained some preexisting work including a bit of his 2006 track "Popcorn Superhet Receiver" as well as some Arvo Pärt and Johannes Brahms compositions. That same year, Nick Cave was just plain overlooked by the Academy for his score to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It was eligible, but never nominated.
It's interesting that these innovative, culturally relevant artists are so regularly being disqualified and excluded from one of the most prominent award ceremonies in the world. It makes you wonder if the Oscar rulebook is written in such a way that predisposes the category to the phenomenon.
After all, touring, album-releasing artists bring a different perspective to score than the work-for-hire composers. The quality of what they do depends, in part, on heavy collaboration and an ability to riff on their own work and the culture at large. Their tendency to bring in more of the world is something the Academy sees as muddying the waters, but can actually lead to a more interesting, potent score—all the more so for the healthy friction between image and sound that a fully individuated pop artist naturally creates. It's also worth pausing to consider what rare fluency and talent it takes for an artist like Karen O to make the leap from albums to film score. After all, how many traditional film composers could write something that could land them top billing at Coachella?
Not to mention, it's possible that scores are being subjected to a bit of a double standard here. Spike Jonze hired Jim Henson's folks to create the monsters in Where The Wild Things Are, so his work was assembled from the work of more than one artist, but it wouldn't be ineligible for the Best Film category because of it. Why should score be any different?
In any case, there's no doubt that whatever collaborations took place, Karen O's score is distinctly her own. It's full of her dark exuberance and edgy tenderness. Her wildness and vulnerability. Her whoop and croon.
Plus, she and Brian Eno are in good company. In 1961, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn composed music for Martin Ritt's film Paris Blues and were nominated for an Academy Award for it, but several pieces of the score were actually jazz standards that Ellington had recorded several decades before, such as "Take the A Train" and 'Mood Indigo." Later the Academy would change the rules to their existing form, which would have disqualified Ellington and Strayhorn from being nominated at the time.
It might be time for the Academy to revisit the rules once again, because right now it seems diminished for being incapable of acknowledging Karen O's work. Instead of disqualifying artists like her for collaborating with other musicians, including songs, or drawing on past creations, it should make more room for them. The greater glory of movies would likely be served.