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[whitespace] Oscars, Where Is Thy Sting?

It's about time a hip musician won a gold statue

By Gina Arnold

THE OSCARS have always felt like the apex of unattainable glamour here in these United States. So you can imagine my surprise a few years back when someone I practically knew personally wandered on stage in the middle of the ceremony, looking just as rumpled and schleppy as the day, years ago, when he and his band mates in Heatmiser slept on my living-room floor.

It almost didn't seem right. The Oscars are supposed to be the one place that's inaccessible, not just to plebes like me but to pretty much everyone who isn't supersonically beautiful and glamorous.

Yet in 1998, there was Elliott Smith, nominated for his song "Miss Misery," the theme to Good Will Hunting, and although he didn't win (inevitably beaten out by Celine Dion and the theme from Titanic), it was still an awesome moment in indie rock's ascension to the mainstream.

Oscar nominees in the Best Song category have become remarkably more hip than the days when they were confined to Disney confections like "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" or numbers by Bing Crosby. These days, nominees have included people as cool as Philip Glass, Anne Dudley of Art of Noise, David Byrne, and Lisa Gerrard of the avant-garde 4AD band Dead Can Dance (who did the soundtrack to Gladiator).

Last year saw the inclusion of indie singer Aimee Mann, who appeared on stage clad in jeans and a T-shirt, but this year's nominees are the coolest set yet. Sunday's broadcast will feature Icelandic singer Bjork, Bob Dylan, Sting, Randy Newman and the less-well-known composers of the theme to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The problem, of course, is that none of the more talented people from the rock world ever actually win the prize. Randy Newman, for example, has now been nominated for an Oscar an incredible 14 times--for both Babes, both Toy Storys and for A Bug's Life, Pleasantville, Ragtime, Parenthood, Avalon, The Paper, The Natural and James and the Giant Peach. But he's never won, despite the fact that his extremely poignant songs are perfectly suited for movies in a way that--say--Bob Dylan's just aren't.

I'll be rooting heavily for Randy come Sunday, but I won't put any money down, because as everyone knows, the Oscars are rigged. Votes come from the Academy--a body whose taste in pop music is unbelievably suspect. Elliott and Aimee were obviously way too edgy for a group of people who've cheerily given statuettes to Debby Boone and Andrew Lloyd Webber, but although Bjork ought (also) to scare the bejesus out of them, she actually has a slim chance this year.

THE OSCARS are all about politics, and she could win the Oscar as a consolation prize for not being nominated for Best Actress for her role in the weird movie Dancer In the Dark.

It would be nice to watch her up on the stage, if only to see what she wears (I'm hoping for the fuzzy animal suit she donned in the video for "It's Quiet"), but I'm not holding my breath. After all, if you look at a list of winning songs of the past, they invariably come from subpar movies--Dirty Dancing, Flashdance and Top Gun, to name but a few.

Quality alone rules out Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Wonder Boys. I suppose Dylan has a slight chance of storming the barricades--I don't know how many members of the Academy are 50-to-60-year-old men whose youth was colored by "Blowin' in the Wind."

After all, in 1993, Bruce Springsteen won for the theme to Philadelphia, thus adding his name to the very short list of decent songwriters who've actually stood up on the Oscar podium. The only other good years in recent memory were 1975--"I'm Easy" by Keith Carradine--and 1971, when the Oscar went to Isaac Hayes for Shaft.

Politics and personal preferences aside, however, my guess is that the winner this year will be Sting, for the song "My Funny Friend and Me," from The Emperor's New Groove. Why? Because ever since the 1980s, the lion's share of both nominees and winners of Best Song Oscars have come from animated movies. Since 1989, when the winner was the theme from The Little Mermaid, seven more winning songs have been from animated films, most of them by Disney: Tarzan, Prince of Egypt, Pocahontas, The Lion King, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast and--although this isn't Disney--last year's surprise winner, "Blame Canada" from South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut.

That's why "And the Oscar goes to Sting" are seven words I'd lay odds on being uttered. Any takers against that bet?

Murder in the Mosh Pit

A FRIEND OF MINE has a DVD player and one of those giant TV screens, and he's been hosting rock & roll movie nights featuring newly re-edited and configured versions of various midnight movies--Don't Look Back, The Last Waltz, Help and so on--the minute they get released.

Last week, we watched Gimme Shelter, a movie I last recall seeing at the Varsity Theater in downtown Palo Alto circa 1978, and it was quite remarkable how different my reaction to it is today compared to what I felt about it way back then.

The first time I saw Gimme Shelter, I think I was still in the sway of the glamour of the Rolling Stones. Surely, I was horrified by the violence that took place at the 1969 concert and that was depicted in the movie, and equally repelled by the sheer physical ugliness of the crowd.

But deep down, I believe I still felt the charm of a free Rolling Stones concert, and possibly even some appeal in its dangers. Why else would I, forewarned and forearmed, have gone on to become a rock critic specializing in just that type of melee?

Having done so, however, what's striking to me about Gimme Shelter nowadays is that it is positively tame. There's literally nothing the film depicts that I haven't lived through time and again, from the naked girls being pawed by "security" guards to the fist fights and drug ODs and crazy-faced loons ricocheting around the grounds.

I've been in traffic jams and bathroom lines that make those in Gimme Shelter look like child's play, and this is just a short list of the things that go down. I've seen guys jump from speaker towers and hit the ground, unconscious. I've seen pregnant girls shoot heroin in the mud fields of Roskilde. I've seen people turn over Port-O-Potties with other people in them, and I've stood on stages and looked into the horrid maw of crowds that were much more violent than those at Altamont, since at Altamont, the concept of a mosh pit had yet to be invented.

Because it contains film of an actual murder, Gimme Shelter still stands as the apex of live-festival rock horror. And yet it is more like a harbinger, or primer, on rock-concert behavior, rather than a warning, or a threat.

Security is a lot better at most concerts these days, but even so, the main lesson that seems to have been learned from Altamont is that people will voluntarily put themselves in immensely crowded and uncomfortable situations just for the privilege of saying they were there. This summer's festival rock season is almost upon us, and if you are even vaguely considering attending a show like Ozzfest or Warped, my advice to you is, rent Gimme Shelter first.

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From the March 22-28, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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