As awards season heats up, one of the many races where it’s currently anyone’s game is the original song category, which includes a new James Bond song (a recent Oscar favorite), at least a half-dozen potential contenders written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and, well, Beyonce. But also in the mix is Don’t Look Up’s “Just Look Up,” a collaboration bringing together Ariana Grande, Kid Cudi, composer Nicholas Britell, and songwriter Taura Stinson for the last pop song… ever.
“Just Look Up” isn’t a closing credits song — it’s showcased in an epic “Last Concert to Save the World” in the film, with Grande and Cudi performing the song in character as Riley Bina and DJ Chello, two pop stars whose torrid romance has overwhelmed the headlines (instead of, y’know, the comet that’s about to hit the planet).
Director Adam McKay recently revealed to Netflix Film Club that Grande improvised a key lyric for the song, but it felt like there was more to the story behind writing “Just Look Up.” So Consequence got Stinson on the phone in order to learn more about the collaboration that brought the song together.
A previous Oscar nominee for her work on the Mudbound original song “Mighty River,” performed by Mary J. Blige, Stinson is an accomplished multi-hyphenate in the music world; she’s also worked with Cynthia Erivo, Destiny’s Child, Deborah Cox, and more.
In the below interview, transcribed and edited for clarity, she offered up insight into how she got involved with the writing process for “Just Look Up,” including how Grande’s improv actually happened, and what made writing this song different from others.
To start off, I wanted to get your story of how you got involved in the process of writing the song.
I was working with Nicholas — we worked with each other on another project [the upcoming “reimagining” of Carmen], and he gave me a call and he says, “I have this song and I think you’ll be able to pull it off,” and I’m like, “Why are you laughing?” He was like, “Because it has to start off as a legit love song, a pop song that’s believable, a really good pop song, that goes into [talking about] a worldwide disaster.” And I was like “Okay? Can I have a little more context?”
So he sent me some snippets from the script and just gave me a briefing of what the storyline for the film is and I thought, “Of course I can do this, because all I do is obsess and think about terrible endings when I’m up late at night combing the internet. So yeah, I think I’d be great for it.” It was that simple — he was like, “I think you can pull it off, do you think you can pull it off?” and I’m like “Yeah, absolutely.” And that’s how the door opened.
Once the door was opened, what did that next step look like?
So the next step was, he told me about this melody — well, actually, at that point he had to meet with Ariana and talk to her about it, and obviously she had already been cast, so he went to go meet with her. Then he called me, I want to say the same day or the next day, and he was like, “Oh my gosh, she’s so amazing, she just has this melody that flowed out of her.”
She said to him, “Would you mind me just going in the booth real quickly and trying something?” to the bed of music that he had already laid, and when she did that — I don’t want to say it was easy, because I question myself with every word, but when he let me hear her melody, I felt like, innately, I was hearing words. I felt like I was meant to write these words, almost like an interpreter, because she was making these sounds and these vowels and I just gave voice to them.
It’s different because with other songs, for example, when Nicholas and I were writing a different song, it would be me coming up with the melody and the lyrics or even sometimes he may come up with a melody and I’m the lyricist. Or sometimes with any collaborator, we’re just going to sit down and write a song. There’s not really any rhyme or reason, it just comes out and you kind of share responsibilities.
But this was very regimented because Ariana is a creative, she’s more than just a voice. She’s someone who knows how to write, and I’ve written with a lot of, air quotes, “superstars,” but she’s a little bit more than that. She knows what she’s doing.