“Original” Scores

For a movie or show to be nominated for Best Score at the Oscars or Tony (or any other offshoot) Awards, the music written for it must be predominantly original.

Though this stipulation prevents these voting bodies from crowning the same greatest hits year in and year out, the definition of “original” needs to be expanded in this age of the musical remix.

Two recent examples come to mind to elucidate my point:

Anyone evenly remotely familiar with the last 30 years of hip-hop will surely recognize most of the beats in Locked Up Bitches, a new musical currently running at New York’s Flea Theatre that reimagines Orange is the New Black as a West Side Story prison turf war between cats and dogs (indicating the show’s blue heart, these species are referred to as pussies and the titular bitches). In the same way the musical wildly adapts its source material into a new, yet still recognizable, form, its music simply uses these equally-recognizable beats as a familiar register to create totally new lyrics that are rapped over them by the uniformly-skilled cast. More so than Hamilton’s subtle musical allusions to its inspirational forebears, basically half of what we rely on to judge scores — the music (separate from the lyrics) — are rehashes of pre-existing work by others in Locked Up Bitches.

And I do mean rehashes; though the beats don’t try to pass themselves off as completely separate from their origins, they’re still chopped and screwed enough to be considered at least remixes (thus the reason Catya McMullen and Scott Allen Klopfenstein are credited with original music in addition to McMullen’s original lyrics). And in an era when inventively-altered samples are treated and respected as individual entities by the music community, the musical community should follow their lead, unless we want to insist on keeping our beloved art form in the dark ages on this issue to match the litany of others stuck in the past.

The Academy Awards (and other similar film groups) seem destined to commit the same ignorant mistake as well. Last year’s All These Sleepless Nights was one of my favorite movies of 2017, in no small part due to its rave of a score. Befitting its subject — Europe’s underground EDM scene — the soundtrack is comprised of selections from classic tracks and deeper cuts. EDM parallels rap in terms of its liberal conception of originality; DJs take bits and pieces of old tunes and make them sound dynamically fresh, and only diehard electronica historians would be able to detect traces of their progenitors.

Taken individually, each song in All These Sleepless Nights collectively would add up to the definition of a soundtrack, not a score. But similar to the best DJ sets that last until the early AM, taken together these scraps of the original songs are compiled into compositions that sound wholly new in a macro sense. The score becomes not a mere collection of songs, which is the definition of a soundtrack; rather, these songs are collected and strung together in such a way that the disparate, unoriginal parts turn into a unified, original score when heard all together. Think of the borrowed track as musical notes; even though each individual note in a conventionally-original score predate the writing of the score, they’re arranged in a new way to create something original. The component parts might be old, but the way they’re arranged turn them into something new.

As such, the Oscars and Tony Awards (and the like) would be wise to redefine the parameters of their musical categories to keep up with the times by defining these contributions as sufficiently original to qualify. Luckily, neither awards body have needed to reckon with this dilemma…yet; All These Sleepless Nights was too off-the-radar for last year’s Academy Awards, and Locked Up Bitches is off-Broadway, and thus ineligible for the Broadway-exclusive Tonys (and off-Broadway’s awards groups are too numerous to follow).

But the day of reckoning is coming soon. And when it does, let’s hope the powers-that-be decide to be forward-thinkers…or at the very least be tuned into the norms of the eras over which they preside.

If they need further convincing, they could adhere to the wise words tweets of this generation’s musical philosopher-king:

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