For an artist to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song, they have to create a piece of music that not only captures the spirit of the accompanying movie but one that transcends it. They have to create a song that, like any good pop song, gets their message across to the masses in such a way that, despite each listener’s unique experience, leaves everyone feeling the same. The Academy hasn’t totally honored that guideline over the past few years (Sorry, La La Land and, uh, Spectre), but hey! It’s a new year and with it comes a new opportunity to do things right. And if the Academy were to do things right, they’d give the golden statue to Sufjan Stevens for “Mystery of Love,” off of the Call Me By Your Name soundtrack.
Stevens wrote and performed three original songs for the movie, but two made it: “Mystery of Love” and the aching “Visions of Gideon.” Together, the two songs toy with the arch of a wondrous, arresting romance—its warm, befuddling beginnings and the heaviness of its ending. Each makes a strong Oscar contender, but “Mystery of Love” manages to be blissful and yet soberingly realistic at the same time; to love, Stevens says, is to live in the moment, knowing heartbreak and the pain that follows is imminent.
In the context of Luca Guadagnino’s film, Stevens’ songs speak to a specifically queer coming-of-age romance. I don’t know what queer stars aligned to make it so Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer)‘s relationship gets narrated through Stevens’ undeniable sense of melancholy but blessed be those stars. For, part of Stevens’ lore is that many queer people, especially cis gay men, find themselves in his melancholy; they search for hints at his sexuality in his lyrics. Stevens, for his part, keeps who he loves and desires to himself. But here we have Stevens, for the first time, specifically writing original songs for a queer movie which, in a way, makes them queer love songs.
Their queerness, however, isn’t overt. Like the movie, “Mystery of Love” and “Visions of Gideon” don’t make big, queer statements; they simply exist as haunting love songs that only ring queer when considered in the context of the film and, say, by whoever is listening to them. This, in turn, broadens their appeal because Stevens makes the queer romance of the film feel universal, regardless of sexual identity.
Both of the songs are included on the Academy’s shortlist for Best Original Song nominees. It would be incredible for both songs to get nominated and tie, but “Mystery of Love” seems to be the one Sony is pushing considering it’s the only song to get the music video treatment. And rightly so! “Mystery of Love” is tender and optimistic, but only just so. It wavers in the possibility of both happiness and unhappiness, love and loss. It speaks to a world that’s moving beyond the heteronormative ideals of love, showing that love is, in all its mystery, love.