Oscar’s Best Song Category: Why Only Two Nominees?

Complicated voting rules shut out songs by Elton John, Lady Gaga, Mary J. Blige and Pink.

Tuesday morning’s (January 24) announcement of the 2012 Oscar nominations delivered plenty of surprises. Michael Fassbender (“Shame”), Albert Brooks (“Drive”) and Charlize Theron (“Young Adult”) were overlooked in the acting categories, while Melissa McCarthy (“Bridesmaids”), Rooney Mara (“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”) and Max von Sydow (“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”) scored surprise nominations. But perhaps no category was more head-scratching than Best Original Song.

Despite the fact that a short list of 39 tracks were eligible for nomination , only two were named — “Man or Muppet ” from “The Muppets” and “Real in Rio” from “Rio” — leaving tunes from Elton John and Lady Gaga, Pink, will.i.am, Zooey Deschanel, Elvis Costello and Mary J. Blige shut out of the competition.

Many Oscar-watchers were left wondering why the Academy would opt away from the traditional five contenders in favor of just two little-heard songs. Well, a closer look at the Oscar rule book shows it’s probably less a case of choosing to nominate only two songs than it is simply a case of a single song scoring enough points to secure a nod, and then bringing its closest competition along for the ride.

Oscar nominations are arrived at using a very complicated weighted system in which members of the Academy, voting exclusively for members of their own branch (i.e. actors chose the acting nominees, directors vote for directors, etc.), rank contenders in order of preference. From there, a “magic number” is determined that relies on the number of ballots cast for a category, along with a specific mathematical equation. Ballots are tallied and contenders are eliminated through several rounds in a process that tabulates factors like first-place mentions and so on. Once a contender reaches the magic number, they are an Oscar nominee. (The folks over at EW‘s PopWatch break down the selection steps in great detail.)

So this is how the nominees are determined — with one exception: Best Original Song. In 2009, when the Academy opted to up the number of Best Picture nominees to 10 (the voting body has since altered that number), it also changed the rules for Best Original Song. As Billboard points out, members of the Academy’s music branch now “assign each song a numerical score between 1 and 10, and if no song receives an average of more than 8.25, there are no nominees. If only one song tops the threshold, as clearly happened here, the next highest vote getter secures a nomination as well.”

This year’s Best Original Song category boils down to this: either Bret McKenzie’s “Man or Muppet” or “Real in Rio” by songwriting trio Sergio Mendes, Carlinhos Brown and Siedah Garrett secured a score of 8.25 or better, earning a nomination and pulling the #2 vote-getter into the fray. Simply put, members of the music branch didn’t award any other song, including John and Gaga’s duet “Hello Hello” or Blige’s “The Help” track “Living Proof,” a score high enough to secure a nomination.

But lest you think that this means the category is all but locked, think again. While selecting the Oscar nominees is an intensely mathematical process, picking the winners is much easier. Once the nominations are decided, every member of the Academy can vote in each category and the nominee that receives the most votes wins. Easy enough. And since actors are the largest voting block of the Academy— and would have had nothing to do with the tracks selected to contend for Best Original Song — it’s anyone’s game.

See the complete list of Academy Awards Nominations .