“Miss Misery (Live- 1998 Academy Awards Ceremony)” – Elliott Smith
(Words/music: Elliott Smith, available on Good Will Hunting OST, Capitol 1997)
Part II: The Academy Awards Performance (Read Part I here)
Even without the Hollywood makeup, “Miss Misery” resonated with audiences, scoring Elliott Smith a deal with Dreamworks (and in the infancy of the internet, being on a major label meant more than it does now) and an Oscar nomination. Still, the notoriously reserved Smith found himself in an odd pairing during the ceremony – performing between two huge pop ballads – “How Do I Live” from Con Air and Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” from the Titanic juggernaut. Carl Wilson writes eloquently about this performance in his book Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste and describes the absurdity of the situation better than I would (in particular the suggestion that Richard Marx would have performed it if Smith declined), so I’ll point you toward his book (a great read) for more of the context of the performance. In March of 1998, I desperately wanted Elliott Smith to win, if for no other reason than I wanted a song I liked to beat a song I loathed (and if you were a teenage male in 1998, you would have hated that Celine Dion song too- I can now accept that it’s an exceptional piece of pop craftsmanship, but it annoyed the hell out of me then). Despite having little interest in the rest of the ceremony (that hasn’t changed – I’m writing this while the 2009 ceremony is going), I taped the ceremony in addition to watching it. I’m a relentless archivist and for the first couple years of my music obsession, I taped as many videos and performances so that I could watch them again (bless Youtube, Hulu, etc – I don’t have that kind of energy these days). I even went as far as hooking up an old VCR to my parents’ VCR to make a “master tape” (which still exists somewhere, I hope).
But I digress – I was excited to see Elliott Smith perform this song and wanted to make sure that I didn’t miss it. So I sat there, watching the ceremony because in order to tape, I had to watch the same channel (bless DVRs). I remember staying up as late as possible until I inevitably gave up and went to bed. The next day, I scanned the tape for the performance (which I guess I just missed) and the award presentation (which, of course, went to “My Heart Will Go On”). I’m almost certain (unless I saw him on 120 Minutes, which was possible, but my memory isn’t clear on this one) that this was the first time I’d seen Elliott Smith perform and I remember thinking how odd he looked standing up there by himself when everyone else had much more elaborate arrangements. I was at least expecting a band with him or something. Watching the performance now, I’m struck by a few things. First, the orchestra’s backing arrangement doesn’t sound as hokey as I thought it might have – it’s actually quite tasteful and similar to his own recorded version (and I love the tin whistle about halfway through). Also, he didn’t look as immediately nervous as I thought – it’s not until about a minute and a half in that his voice shakes (the “next door” line) – an incredibly human moment in an otherwise surreal event. It took a lot of guts for Smith to go up there and perform by himself – no other musicians, no dancers or film clips or any other visual to distract the audience. For the reserved Smith to accept the Sisyphian task of performing before Celine Dion (her performance is cut out of the Youtube clip, but just look at the orchestra before Madonna reads the nominees) and perform in front of the largest audience of his life (and, quite possibly, an audience that eclipsed all his other audiences together) is noble. In a strange way, Smith’s discomfort (search for any other performances on Youtube and you’ll see he was frequently a captivating and charismatic performer in his own quiet, understated way) goes back to his loyalty to the song. His choice to uncomfortably protect his song from the overblown Oscar-produced alternative put the song before the singer and created a memorable performance, even if it lives in the iceberg’s shadow.