20 Greatest Best Song Oscar Performances - Rolling Stone
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20 Greatest Best Song Oscar Performances

From Springsteen to Southern hip-hop and hot-buttered soul, Oscars’ grandest, grooviest musical showstoppers


A prepubescent King of Pop, singing a love song to a rat; a Southern rap trio, paying tribute to the trials and tribulations of being in “the game”; a Canadian chart-topping superstar crooning hard enough to shatter glass chandeliers; a Portland, Oregon indie troubadour gently singing his way through an acoustic ditty. Look back at the Best Song Oscars of the last four-plus decades, and you’ll find an oddball mix of pop, rock, R&B, hip-hop, old-school showtunes, old-fashioned showstoppers and a few unclassifiable gems. We’ve grabbed 20 of our favorite Academy Award broadcast performances and ranked them from good to jaw-droppingly great. You think it’s hard out there for a pimp? Try choosing between Adele, Bjork, Springsteen and “Everything Is Awesome” for your top slot.

20 Greatest 'Best Song' Oscar Performances

Elton John, ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight’ (1995)

Only Elton John could take a song about cartoon lions fucking and turn it into a power ballad for the ages — the simple but spectacular rendition he delivered at the 1995 Oscars was a reminder of why he’s one of a kind. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” became a kitschy earworm as soon as The Lion King hit theaters, but a quick listen to this note-perfect performance is enough to remind you that the track is even bigger than the movie itself. Watching John sit at the piano and fill every inch of the cavernous auditorium with his studio-ready vocals, it’s clear that this Disney tune will always belong to the man who sang it. DE

20 Greatest 'Best Song' Oscar Performances

Glen & Marketa, ‘Falling Slowly’ (2007)

Even when the whole world was watching, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglová sang as if they were the only two people in the room. Undoubtedly the most intimate musical performance that's ever graced the Oscar stage, this showstopper is what happens when you get an earnest 37-year-old rocker and his 19-year-old girlfriend to belt out the mega-ballad inspired by their relationship. He sat on a stool, she tucked herself behind a piano, and the two of them sneaked looks at each other on the downbeats as they bared their hearts for an audience of millions. The moment was so transporting that you quickly forgot how incongruous it was for Hollywood's biggest night — until Jack Nicholson sauntered up to the microphone to announce the next category. DE

20 Greatest 'Best Song' Oscar Performances

Adele, ‘Skyfall’ (2013)

“This is the end … hold your breath, and count to 10.” Adele had already taken home a Golden Globe and Grammy for the film’s opening number, by the time she graced the Oscars’ stage, crooning that opening line in a glittery dress as elegant as the song itself. By the time she unleashes that climactic “Sky-faaaaaa-AAAAALLL,” the British singer had entered the Pantheon of Bond-Theme Belters; you half-expected Shirley Bassey to walk onstage and high-five her. JP

20 Greatest 'Best Song' Oscar Performances

Three 6 Mafia and Taraji P. Henson, ‘Hard Out Here for a Pimp’ (2006)

There are the traditional, understated renditions of Best Song nominees — and then there was the raucous live performance that Southern rappers Three 6 Mafia provided for their Hustle & Flow breakout hit. Future Empire MVP Taraji P. Henson sang the chorus, including the modified line "a whole lot of 'witches' talkin' shit"; a slew of extras dancing in a fake living-room set; and enough strobe lights to cause coast-to-coast grand mal seizures. The song was an infectious trap-music highlight of the evening; even Queen Latifah gave her own brief rendition at the podium when she presented the group with the Best Song award. JP

20 Greatest 'Best Song' Oscar Performances

Bjork, ‘I’ve Seen It All’ (2001)

For three glorious minutes in March 2001, the whole planet paused to watch Björk perform a song about a nearly blind woman accepting that she'll never be able to save her sight. Swanning around the stage with the same commitment that scared Academy voters away from nominating her for Best Actress, the Icelandic chanteuse delivered a singular rendition of Dancer in the Dark's signature tune, as small and alone in the spotlight as her character was in the world. The song may be called "I've Seen It All," but most Oscar attendees and television viewers had never seen anything like it. DE

20 Greatest 'Best Song' Oscar Performances

Isaac Hayes, ‘Theme from Shaft’ (1972)

It starts with a funky-as-hell high-hat and metronomic hip-shaking, and only gets groovier from there — once those interpretive dancers start doing the chicken-walk as the wah-wah pedal riff kicks in, you know there’s something brewing right around the corner. Then … wait, is that Isaac Hayes in a chain-mail shirt, playing the keyboards? Daaaaamn right. The Oscars have never shied away from serious spectacle du Velveeta (remember that Rob Lowe/Snow White debacle?), but this blend of time-capsule showbiz goofiness and hot buttered soul is the perfect combination of sweet and salty. This would have ranked higher were it not lip-synced. DF

20 Greatest 'Best Song' Oscar Performances

Michael Jackson, ‘Ben’ (1973)

Check out that 13-year-old with the killer afro and that dope red sweater vest: Yes, that’s really the future King of Pop singing that sweet, sad song about the rat who got away. As “one-fifth of the Jackson Five,” per presenter Charlton Heston’s introduction, Michael Jackson could be a dynamic performer; the fact that he could mesmerize you all by his lonesome, and by showing his tender side via an ode to his a horror film’s titular killer vermin, was something altogether unique. It may have been past his bed time, as Heston joked, but this rendition suggested that the young Mr. Jackson was indeed capable of solo career — a tiny hint of the power ballads and pop-chart juggernauts to come. DF

20 Greatest 'Best Song' Oscar Performances

Tegan and Sara and the Lonely Island, ‘Everything is Awesome’ (2015)

Arguably the single most optimistic movie-theme song ever written, this sonic equivalent of a sugar high — sung by Canadian duo Tegan and Sara — could have brought down the house on its own. But they pulled out all the stops for this showstopping live performance: Andy Samberg and his Lonely Island cohorts rapping the lyrics while dressed in powder blue tuxedos; Will Arnett rocking out as Batman with Questlove; DayGlo construction workers and campy cowboy extras handing out Lego Oscar statuettes to the audience (including a smiley Oprah). Future generations will study this as the ne plus ultra of poptastic pastiche spectacles; it was, in a word, awesome. JP

20 Greatest 'Best Song' Oscar Performances

John Legend and Common, ‘Glory’ (2015)

Holy shit, John Legend can sing. Of course, the music star's incredible pipes are hardly the only reason why this performance of Selma's stirring anthem injected a rare feeling of urgency into Hollywood's most self-congratulatory spectacle. It's the rare case where the Oscars' staging helped make something special — as Common rapped to the audience, a largely black crowd gathered behind him in front of a mock-up of Alabama's Edmund Pettus Bridge and chanted the song's title as a refrain. Even a consummate pro like Legend couldn’t keep his voice from cracking with emotion. DE

20 Greatest 'Best Song' Oscar Performances

Robin Williams, ‘Blame Canada’ (1999)

Thanks to one of the most unlikely nominations in the history of the Academy Awards, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut‘s foul-mouthed ode to our neighbors to the North would be performed live for a crowd of millions — the question was, what to do with the repeated uses of the word “fuck”? Luckily, a galloping chorus gasped whenever Robin Williams hit the curse word (with the comedian strategically turning and mouthing the phrase). He did yelp “and that bitch Ann Murray, too!” with glee, however, while surrounded by a dance line of scantily clad women dressed as mounties. When the song lost to Phil Collins’ “You’ll Be in My Heart,” Trey Parker and Matt Stone later parodied the singer in a South Park episode the following year (and an Oscar eventually gets stuck up Collins’ butt). JP

20 Greatest 'Best Song' Oscar Performances

Elliott Smith, ‘Miss Misery’ (1997)

Late singer-songwriter Elliott Smith was never much for the spotlight, and watching him croon in front of the entire world feels like shining a flashlight through a ghost. Performing the acoustic stunner that Gus Van Sant commissioned him to write for the closing credits of Good Will Hunting, Smith warbles through the verses with the same bittersweet resolve that his voice brings to the film’s touching final moments. His evident (though admirably well-contained) nerves highlight the song’s beautiful fragility, and the moment has come to serve as a wonderful remembrance of this tragic musician — not even the Oscars could prevent Smith from being himself. DE

20 Greatest 'Best Song' Oscar Performances

Bruce Springsteen, ‘Streets of Philadelphia’ (1994)

Nobody on Earth is more comfortable singing for large crowds than Bruce Springsteen, and he took to the Oscar stage with the same steely confidence that he's always brought to every other arena-sized venue on the planet. Still, The Boss was palpably vulnerable as he quivered behind the microphone on that March night in 1994, digging deep to deliver this soul-stirring elegy to the victims of the AIDS epidemic. Captured in a delicate close-up that slowly zooms tighter on Springsteen's face, the performance is made all the more powerful for how it seems to weigh down one of our most irrepressible showmen. DE

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