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Pharrell Williams Adds Some Swing to the Academy Awards

Pharrell Williams/ Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty

As a teary-eyed Octavia Spencer exited the Hollywood and Highland Center stage, in her hand, the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as Minny, the feisty black maid from The Help, a sweeping, percussion-heavy, electro soul jam played the 84th Academy Awards to commercial. The camera flew over the crowd and landed on the house band, briefly treating viewers to Sheila E. and Pharrell Williams — along with Hans Zimmer, Williams was credited as the award show’s music consultant — excitedly drumming along to the uncharacteristically vibrant music. This moment was hipper than anything from this year’s Grammys.

That the sixth African-American female Oscar winner in the show’s history received the award for a role in a white people-centric, civil rights melodrama seemed bittersweet, and Pharrell’s sly, funky composition felt like a quiet corrective. Here was a brief splash of black modernity that answered The Help‘s good/bad ol’ days retread, combatted Billy Crystal in blackface, and provided the night’s only respite from the nostalgia-soaked absurdity of a very old industry-insider show celebrating new movies about old movies, and then, twisting the films’ wonder-filled meta-narratives into an argument against Internet piracy and Netflix streaming.

You can hear one of Pharrell’s songs for the Academy Awards on Celebrate the Music – The 84th Academy Awards, available on iTunes. His contribution is “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got Pharrell,” a future-funk interpretation of the Duke Ellington-penned jazz standard, “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).” In typical swaggering, hip-hop fashion, Pharrell cheekily changed Ellington’s title to big up himself, and like all rap producers, enacted a sonic conversation with music history, suggesting a kinship with jazz’s people-pleasing, boundary-breaking composer.

Messing around with a jazz standard is a clever, inspired decision from a forward-thinking hitmaker brought in to spruce up a stodgy, white awards show. Ellington’s composition is a classic everyone has heard. So much so, its thesis — a declaration of the importance of African American jazz’s visceral, rhythmic elements — is now, taken for granted. The usually perfunctory, interstitial music certainly did swing more this year, but it never shouted-out “this ain’t your grandma’s Oscars” or any of that nonsense. No one attacked an MPC or beat-boxed or kicked a hot 16. The music was organic enough to ignore, yet strange enough to grab those listening closely. It was not a token inclusion.

Considering the Grammy Awards’ refusal to even nominate Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy for Album of the Year, the chance to hear the other wide-eyed genius hip-hop producer do symphonic, though still fun hip-hop to another notoriously out-of-it room of industry goons, felt a bit vindicating. Though maybe the instrumental for West’s “Runaway” soundtracking a Super Bowl beer commercial the week before the Grammys, reaching the ears of 111.3 million viewers, was already enough.

Minor victories like a rap instrumental making it into an advertisement, or the guy who co-produced “Super Thug” being put in charge of an entertainment warhorse, are rarefied though significant examples of hip-hop breaking out of genre restrictions (throw the lush, beat-driven Blue Velvet ballads of Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die in there too). It’s enough to imagine a mini-moment for baroque hip-hop — a very different mainstream embrace of rap than you get when Ludacris rhymes with Justin Bieber and Flo Rida crams a verse into some EDM. Pharrell Williams’ contribution to this year’s otherwise tedious, typically racially problematic Oscars ceremony spoke to something that hip-hop fans have known for quite some time: Pop music’s boldest visionaries are rap music’s beatmakers.