When the Oscars announced the 2017 nominations on Tuesday, La La Land garnered 14 nominations, matching the record held by James Cameron's 1990s juggernaut Titanic. Two of those 14 went to Justin Hurwitz's music in the Best Original Song category. But Hurwitz will be competing with heavy hitters, with the other nominees either voiced or written by proven pop stars: Alessia Cara, who recorded a Lin-Manuel Miranda composition, "How Far I'll Go," for Moana; Sting, who co-wrote "The Empty Chair" with J. Ralph for Jim: The James Foley Story; and Justin Timberlake, who penned "Can't Stop the Feeling" with Swedish pop savants Max Martin and Shellback for Trolls.
The Oscars ceremony airs on February 26th at 7 p.m. EST on ABC. Listen to the nominations for Best Original Song below.
La La Land - "Audition ( The Fools Who Dream)"
Hurwitz went to Harvard with La La Land director Damien Chazelle and contributed music to his directorial debut, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, and the acclaimed follow-up Whiplash. He described the grueling process of writing for La La Land in an interview with Rolling Stone in December. "I made over 1,900 demos for this movie," he explained. "We throw out lots of material. It's 'No, no, no, maybe; no, no, no, no!' Eventually we get to 'no, no … oh my god, I love that!'"
Once he got the music in order, he passed it on to Benj Pasek and Justin Paul to write lyrics. The approach seems to be paying off: La La Land was already awarded Best Original Score at the Golden Globes earlier this month, and the soundtrack album peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard albums chart.
Trolls - "Can't Stop the Feeling"
Justin Timberlake recruited one of the best pop songwriters in history, Max Martin, to help with "Can't Stop the Feeling." The result: a shiny disco cut that debuted at No. 1 on the Hot 100. It's Timberlake's fifth No. 1 as a solo artist and Martin's 22nd as a songwriter. Maybe they'll get an Oscar to add to their plaque display.
La La Land - "City of Stars"
"City of Stars" probably has the advantage over "Audition" in the La La Land category: it builds around an easy-rolling, hummable piano riff, easily condensing the movie's theme into the tight parameters of a pop song. It also benefits from its on-screen treatment, as it's performed as an endearing duet between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.
Jim: The James Foley Story - "The Empty Chair"
Sting recorded this melancholy piano ballad to pay tribute to James Foley, a journalist killed by ISIS in 2014. "[J. Ralph] invited me down to his studio in Chinatown and showed me the film, which devastated me, and then he said, 'would you write a song with this musical setting I’ve done?'" Sting told Deadline. "I said, 'I don’t think I can. It's too devastating.'"
But the song's central metaphor came to him later that evening after he showed the film to his wife. "I gave it to Josh the next day," Sting remembered. "He said, 'You're supposed to make this look hard.'"
Moana - "How Far I'll Go"
"How Far I'll Go" unites two proven young talents: Lin-Manuel Miranda, who create the massive hit musical Hamilton, and Alessia Cara, who continues to pump out popular singles since debuting with "Here" in 2015. (Her latest, "Scars to Your Beautiful," is sitting at No. 13 on the Hot 100.) Cara brings her usual verve to "How Far I'll Go," soaring into Miranda's lines to emphasize the importance of choosing adventure over inertia.