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Before we begin, I’d like to get a couple of things out of the way up top. That sentence would be scary if you were meeting with your therapist or your boss, but we are all equals here. I’d like to think I can trust you.
The first thing I must disclose is that I really do not care about the Best Original Song category at the Oscars. I find that most years, it bleeds too much into Grammy territory. Why should I really care about an original song unless the song itself is diegetic? For those who didn’t go to film criticism school (like my annoying ass did), “diegetic” refers to any sound or song in a movie that the characters are actually able to hear within the world of the film. For example, “City of Stars” from La La Land is diegetic; so are the gurgling noises of the titular bridesmaids shitting themselves in Bridesmaids.
A non-diegetic sound would be a film’s original score (something I care deeply about) or the soaring, theatrical theme song that plays over an opening or closing credits sequence (which I haven’t paid much mind to since Madonna recorded the most banging Bond theme there ever was). Too often, I find that these theme songs are corny are far too obvious. They exist to drive home a movie’s themes in one succinct package, using every possible tactic to prey on the viewer’s emotions to leave the floors of a theater stained in tears. And who do you think is going to have to mop that up, huh? Coincidentally, also Madonna.
Sure, I enjoy that unforgettable flute melody that opens “My Heart Will Go On” and I recognize the technical greatness of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” But something in my brain remains too aware that it is being manipulated for the sport of Oscar contention.
This brings me to the second secret I must disclose to you, one that’s less of a secret and more of a resignment to my own truth: As a lifelong Lady Gaga stan, I do not like “Hold My Hand.”
“Hold My Hand,” which was released in May of last year as the theme for Top Gun: Maverick, is an illusion. It is not real, or at least that’s what I had convinced myself for the last eight months. No matter how many times Gaga insisted on closing out last summer’s Chromatica Ball tour with the song, I could not accept its existence. I had lived pleasantly for nearly a year with this ephemeral ballad at the back of my brain, doing me no harm. That is, until it resurfaced as a Best Original Song nominee during last week’s Oscar nominations.
Like Tom Cruise’s waiting 30 years for a second Top Gun film, I always knew the day would come. I am being forced to speak my truth. “Hold My Hand” can’t hold a candle to Gaga’s other two Oscar-nominated original songs: “Til It Happens to You,” from the 2015 documentary The Hunting Ground, and “Shallow,” from 2018’s A Star is Born.
“Til It Happens to You,” particularly, is an absolute powerhouse. The Hunting Ground delved into the epidemic of rape on college campuses and institutional cover-ups. Co-written with the legendary Dianne Warren, the song’s lyrics convey the trauma of post-traumatic stress following a sexual assault, plucked from Gaga’s own experiences as a survivor. When Gaga performed the song at the 2016 Oscars ceremony, she brought out dozens of other survivors to stand courageously next to her on stage, their hands linked with hers. The crowd erupted in a standing ovation, but moments later, the Best Original Song Oscar was awarded to Sam Smith for the worst Bond theme this century.
But Gaga got her due three years later in 2019 when she performed A Star is Born’s mega-hit “Shallow” alongside Bradley Cooper. When she won the Oscar for the song later that night, it felt like justice; a cosmic wrong had finally been righted by the universe. Now, things were level again.
It’s just too bad that “Hold My Hand” does not contain the same scorching sense of emotion that’s embedded within the very framework of Gaga’s other Oscar nominees. Don’t get me wrong, the song sounds technically great. There are firm piano chords, bombastic drums, and sprawling guitars that reach heights as tremendous as Gaga’s epic vocals. But, for Gaga? The instrumentation feels decidedly generic, like she and the song’s producers were just trying to make a Top Gun song, not a Gaga song. And if there’s one thing that Lady Gaga is not, it’s generic.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Gaga clearly loves the song. She’s made no secret that writing and perfecting “Hold My Hand” gave her a sense of release. “I didn’t even realize the layers it spanned across the film’s heart, my own psyche, and the nature of the world we’ve been living in,” she wrote in an Instagram post announcing the song back in April 2022. “I wanted to make music into a song where we share our deep to be both understood and try to understand each other.”
Believe me, I wish I could hear that! I don’t know if I have some sort of Best Original Song Disease or what my problem is, but I listen to this song and think, “Really?” And, to be fair, I think that with every other song in the category too. But Gaga normally brings such a personal intensity to everything she does; “Hold My Hand” just doesn’t feel the same way. It looks, sounds, and feels like a contracted soundtrack single. While there is no doubt that Gaga will do more soundtrack work as her career continues past its supernova state and into the far-reaching galaxies, I still struggle with embracing this particular song’s authenticity.
“Shallow” is a barn-burner duet that defined an entire year’s worth of cinema. It was inescapable and powerful. It also lent a poignant believability to the film it was a part of. “Til It Happens to You” is sonic catharsis, a dose of healing in a small, five-minute package. “Hold My Hand,” as far as I can tell, is a mad libs song made for a shiny piece of military propaganda. It has all the right parts to get it off the ground, but just can’t seem to fire on all cylinders.