THE SONG “LET IT GO” gives me chills. There I said it. Many of my peers loathe this internationally beloved tune, so I anticipate blowback from my admission. But I am taking the song’s advice, and so should they: Let it go, ya’ll. Bring it. That song is a force, and attention must be paid, props must be given in the face of scorn. Someone whose age is not in the single digits must rise to it. That person is me.
“Whoa,” say my friends with small kids. “If ‘Let It Go’ were on an endless loop in your home, and your car, you would actually hate the song with a teeth-gnashing passion as we do.” Maybe. But I’ll say no. I will, however, allow: my introduction to the song may color my feelings.
Once a week, I play music at a preschool. I love this gig, which restoreth my soul. I teach three-and-four-year-olds tunes both ancient and new-ish, we make stuff up, and most of them dance with endlessly entertaining abandon. Last year, out of the blue, a shy three-year-old non-dancer named Abigail, from whom I’d heard little since we’d met, asked if she could sing a song. Surprised, I said sure, and she proceeded to sing all of “Let It Go.” About twenty digital-age tots stood rapt. That is no small thing. “Let It Go” not only mesmerized the room, it uncorked something in Abigail. She came out of her shell. No longer a wee wallflower, she now sings and flings her little body around the room, dancing with her peers and pretending to be a cat or a butterfly. When she grows, these will likely be among her first memories.
That was my first exposure to “Let It Go.” My son is several years out of the go-see-every-Pixar/DreamWorks-animated-feature widow, so it took awhile to see Frozen. When we finally did last Autumn, I thought, “It’s OK.” (It’s no Toy Story 2, Wall-E, or Incredibles.) I dig the “I don’t need no Prince Charming to make me whole” message, the sister-power angle, and yeah, Olaf the Snowman is hilarious, but “Let It Go” is Frozen’s mojo, the reason it has raked in $1 billion and become the most financially successful animated movie ever.
Turns out, the song, did, indeed, heavily influence the fraught production of Frozen. Since the 30s, Disney had been trying to bring a version of Hans Christian Andersen’s dark, beautiful The Snow Queen to the screen. Frozen was the latest iteration, though it barely resembled the original fairy tale. When husband-wife songwriting team Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez (genius behind The Book Of Mormon and Avenue Q) came on board, Frozen featured two orphaned princesses, but they differed quite a lot from what they would become: Anna was the beautiful, naive “good girl,” and Elsa, her blue, spiteful, punky-haired sister who wreaks havoc on the kingdom with dastardly snowmen accomplices. It was an adventure tale, with Anna the hero, Elsa the villain.
The Lopezes had written songs for the production, but nothing gelled. While walking through Prospect Park in Brooklyn, they decided to scrap the existing version of Elsa and write a song in which she isn’t “bad” after all, just afraid and ashamed. Her ice-creating power makes her an oddball, hence the shame, and it’s so intense and unwieldy, she keeps accidentally doing damage, hence the fear. In “Let It Go,” written in one afternoon, Elsa flees into the icy wilderness, where she unleashes everything in a primal scream of pain, anger, ecstatic release, and acceptance. Away from judging eyes, Elsa’s unfettered force creates beauty – a vast ice palace, a sparkling blue gown – although it isolates her. And who will seek her out, who will save her (and, eventually, the kingdom)? Her plucky sister.
When Frozen screenwriter and co-director Jennifer Lee (first woman to direct a Disney animated feature) heard the tune, she recognized its strength and wisely re-wrote the script, using “Let It Go” like a stem cell, spreading its DNA throughout the whole tale. Her canny re-tooling, I’d wager, also owes a debt to uber-successful Wicked. In this Wizard of Oz prequel, still running strong on Broadway after twelve years, the citizens of Oz scorn the oddball character Elphaba (originated, perhaps not coincidentally, by Idina Menzel, the singing voice of Elsa); her green skin, anti-social tendencies, and ability to wield magic make her a freak, in her own eyes and the public’s. She chafes under expectations, and can’t keep her mouth shut in the face of tyranny. When she gathers the courage to embrace her gifts, she defiantly wails chill-bump-y anthem “Defying Gravity” and flies to the West, to isolation, away from judging eyes who will now call her “the Wicked With of the West.” But we know she’s not wicked, just different, just a misunderstood badass. This show is a huge hit with young girls in particular, who relate to a powerful female simultaneously contending with her rising energies and the unkind eyes of the rabble. All is crystallized in “Defying Gravity,” Wicked‘s own “Let It Go.” Both close their respective shows’ Act 1, and both are the lifeblood of each production.
As many songwriters have done, and are doing as we speak, you can break “Let It Go” down to see what makes it tick, but it’s an ineffable thing, that spark. All the Lopezes will say is they wanted to write something “that didn’t suck.” Like most writers who create such huge songs, they had no idea it would become such a phenomenon. One thing is certain: it possesses a rare power greater than the sum of its parts. Like it or hate it, that is inarguable.
Is the spark in the words? I don’t think so. Although the sound of the words is always a factor, the euphoniousness of them, most kids don’t intellectually grasp lines like “My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around.” Nevertheless, even if kids don’t understand the “meanings,” they mouth the words like an incantation, and presto, they understand the song’s concept of allowing scary feelings to come rushing out without fear of judgment; they get the exhilaration of fear energy morphing into edifying power. They can’t articulate it, but I maintain they get it.
People often say, “Don’t be afraid” or “Don’t be ashamed,” as if one can merely turn off fear and/or shame with a switch. What I like about “Let It Go” is that it never says either of those things; it shows Elsa grappling with energies ginned up by those emotions and fashioning them into power, with which she creates beauty. It’s rebellious, assertive, and active. The song presents a landscape where it all exists: fear, shame, pain, and then power, exhilaration, and release from anxiety.
But again, the lyrics can be hard for a small child (or me, sometimes) to follow, and the pint-sized demographic from here to freakin’ China put Frozen into its current bracket. So maybe the nitro is in the melody, which is on a par, I daresay, with great pop epics like God Only Knows, MacArthur Park, My Heart Will Go On, and We Are the Champions. A rich melody can beguile beyond reason, can convey and incite emotion with unmatched efficiency, with or without words. The interweaving of notes, rhythms, phrases, tempo, and pitch, et al, can create as close to a magic spell as you will find. And interestingly, except for the chorus, “Let It Go” is hard to sing, with great leaps in range and tricky intervals. Yet people, mostly kids, sing it incessantly.
Whatever the reasons for its power, “Let It Go” crystallizes something intense and very real, but formless, and little kids, who, bless them, do not know from “cool,” love it more than any other song, ever. Even boys. For the first time ever, boys do not categorically run from a Disney princess. They are drawn to Elsa. At the risk of overstating it, the whole thing feels historic and timely.
(my favorite version)
As I said, many in my crew will adjudicate me harshly for liking what they see as the epitome of soulless, corporate dreck, engineered, in their estimation, with calculated, artless cynicism and an eye only on the bottom line. A few will admit they just can’t like something so off-the-charts popular, or they’ll say, yeah, it was great the first thousand times I heard it, but now it upsets me, and that makes me feel like I might be a bad person. Fine. But why, I ask them, do kids tirelessly love this song more than any song we’ve ever seen/heard? Why?
If you think, kids will just take whatever, trust me, that is not so. Their critical thinking faculties are undeveloped, but here’s the thing: they cannot yet lie. Unholy institutions force-feed them countless songs – and other assorted products – and they’ll sample stuff, sometimes in bulk, and they’ll like stuff, but they cannot fake joy. In fact, the preschoolers I’m around are only just beginning to grasp the concept of lying about their feelings, and they’re hilariously awful at it. Mastery of that, as we all know, comes later.
Kids perceive so much more than they can say, and when a song or a story encapsulates it for them, they cleave to it, often with striking devotional energy. This is not an intellectual process. I daresay intellect gets in the way of appreciating the art we need to help us deal with life. Sometimes that art gets judged as “bad taste,” or “lowbrow,” or some other looking-down-the-nose adjective, but as I said, it’s quite refreshing to be in the company of humans who don’t yet fathom those distinctions, which time will reveal as arbitrary anyway.
I believe kids have found in “Let It Go” and Frozen an effective way to deal with fear, shame and judgement, and just in the nick of time, as those aspects seem even more prevalent than when I was a kid. Kids are increasingly aware that their essence will not always be met with acceptance; people who take pleasure in making them feel bad aren’t going away. A good story reveals these truths. Sometimes stories offer remedies, sometimes not. “Let It Go” offers a remedy.
For now, when I worry for the next generation – and I do, it’s how I’m wired – I take comfort in picturing “Let It Go” keeping one from getting lost, even when she’s grown. In an unforeseen future, she dimly recalls the movie song that offered her courage to be true to who she really is, and she moves forward in a kind of dance, her full self on display, turning fear and shame into power.