Friday, 18 July 2014

Overly detailed analysis of 'Let It Go"

This post is going to be about the Disney song "Let It Go", which comes from the film "Frozen". You may regard that as pretty trivial. You'd be right. But, according to the New Yorker, "Frozen" has taken over the world. And "Let it Go" is central to the film: it's the big song, the Oscar-winner, the one whose composition forced the makers to reconceptualise the part of Elsa. If you're not familiar with it, then here is official Disney YouTube version with sing-along subtitles. Good luck singing along.

If you're still interested, you can read my thoughts on the lyrics (the tune has its own issues) are below.

I'll set out the lyrics (centred) and my comments (left-aligned, below).

The snow glows white on the mountain tonight
Not a footprint to be seen
A kingdom of isolation,
And it looks like I'm the queen.

The song starts off pretty well. The scene is Elsa walking across a snowy mountain. There are in fact some footprints to be seen - hers (it's not snowing at the time). But we can forgive that kind of poetic licence: it is a pretty isolated location and there's no company for Elsa. More interestingly, Elsa really is a queen: people watching the film up to this point will know that she has fled her kingdom on her coronation day (for reasons we will come to below). So we are introduced to the idea that she has swapped being queen of a common or garden kingdom full of (warm) people and all their tedious concerns for a kingdom of isolation and snow. We can all see where that emotional development is going to go: she'll have to return to warmth and company. Good set-up.

The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside
Couldn't keep it in, heaven knows I tried!

The song starts going off at this point. The wind isn't howling: it's a lovely still, crisp winter's night. (Is that the film-makers' fault? It's a film song, so I'll criticise the song.) The song sets us up for a correlation between real and emotional weather that irritatingly doesn't exist. But back to the plot: we see that she is a seething mass of emotions. 

Don't let them in, don't let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don't feel, don't let them know
Well, now they know!

This bit is a little better. 'Conceal, don't feel' quotes something her (now dead) father told her earlier on (in fact during a better song called "Do you want to build a snowman?"). 'Don't let them in' has an obvious emotional meaning, but again it refers to her physically having shut the door to her own sister (again during "Do you want to build a snowman?"). She has fled her kingdom because she has a hard-to-control ability to turn things frozen, which she unleashed at her coronation after-party to what might be described as mixed reviews. 

But although the stanza is ok in its own terms, notice that it has a completely different emotional content from the first one. Now we have the story of a girl who has been repressed and who is now showing herself in her true colours: i.e. someone who is going the right way in life (in the context of modern liberal sensibilities). Far from being an emotionally stunting journey she is going on, she is casting aside the admonition not to feel. (Note that this bit is where the idea that Frozen has an LGBT-agenda comes from: throwing aside concealment and not being the 'good girl you always have to be'.)

Surely the song can't have it both ways, you are no doubt thinking. Is she running away from proper emotions to embrace ice and cold (mistake) or being true to her real self (good move)? Let's see what the chorus tells us.

Let it go, let it go

Can't hold it back anymore
Let it go, let it go
Turn away and slam the door!

The tune picks up at this point. But what are we to make of the words? Let what go? 'Turn away and slam the door' sounds positively unfriendly: especially when we have seen so much of her and her sister's childhoods miserably divided by a plonkingly literal closed door.

I suppose we could say that the song embraces the ambiguity at the heart of an act of liberation. Being authentic to one's self and embracing the new means throwing aside the old, even the valuable bits of the old: it's like a coming out narrative in which the child is upset at upsetting his/her parents. But that's not what the tune is really telling us (it's free and triumphant). And as for 'slam the door'? I just can't read that as bittersweet regret for a world sadly but finally discarded.

It's worth noting that as Elsa starts to sing 'Let it go' we see her fully in control of her ability to manipulate snow and ice. If her coronation had featured the sort of party tricks we see at this point in the song then she would never have gone away from her tweely named kingdom of Arendelle (and for somewhere so Nordic, why has her kingdom got a Sussex-y name?). 

I don't care
What they're going to say
Let the storm rage on,
The cold never bothered me anyway!

There is still no storm! It's still a lovely night. And even the storm inside her heart seems to have gone - she's let it go, after all.

But here we are getting two sudden changes of mood in a row. First, defiance. Fine, I can see how that goes with slamming doors and letting it all out. But then we have the 'cold never bothered me anyway'. Good line - but it casts what comes before into a different light. As a line, it sounds like someone trying to persuade themselves of something they know not to be true, or like a punished child saying that they didn't want their treat anyway. It turns the defiance of raging storms into a sort of pouty teenage rebellion. Nobody likes me and I don't care! That's never a sincere utterance, not in Disney anyway.

Note, however, that on a purely physical level, she's right. Cold doesn't bother her. She hangs around in an ice palace in the snow in a sparkly dress with no ill-effects. Her sister gets cold but she doesn't. Does that help to explain the song? I don't think so. 

It's funny how some distance
Makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me
Can't get to me at all!

It's time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me I'm free!

Now we have distance bringing fears into perspective (good, I think) followed by breaking through to becoming some sort of amoral Nietzschean superman (um, good-ish maybe?). It's a little bolder than the average song for children anyway.

Let it go, let it go
I am one with the wind and sky
Let it go, let it go
You'll never see me cry!

The chorus again, and again a strange tension between second and fourth lines. Being one with the wind (there's still no wind!) and sky sounds all very well, but 'you'll never see me cry' sounds more like a line from 'I will survive'. My daughter says that in fact we don't see her cry after this point. That might be right - Elsa's certainly an odd fish.

I should also say that her powers to control snow and ice are becoming more and more impressive: at this point she creates a charming ice bridge over a crevasse.

Here I stand
And here I'll stay
Let the storm rage on!

You know my thoughts on the non-existent storm. But given that at this point she is building a a highly dramatic palace of ice (a little oligarchy in its interior design choices for my tastes, but impressive nonetheless) using the sheer force of her will, the pictures are telling us that she is doing pretty well in her chosen standing ground. The cold is still not bothering her. But the defiance is looking increasingly odd: now she is in a shiny ballroom with a chandelier, on a clear winter's night. What is she defying? Nothing we can see.

My power flurries through the air into the ground
My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around
And one thought crystallizes like an icy blast
I'm never going back,
The past is in the past!

The first line of that stanza is wrong - her power is going upwards. Let's not make a big deal about that, but let's make a big deal about the second line, which must hold some sort of record for combined meaninglessness and unsingability. It's a great example of why sticking to simple words is such a good idea. And, while I have no idea what her soul is up to, I can tell you that all around her is mainly concerned with the interior design touches of her new palace.

Let it go, let it go
And I'll rise like the break of dawn
Let it go, let it go
That perfect girl is gone!

At this point, what she is mainly letting go of are the minor restraints of her coronation hairstyle. She releases her hair from its pin at the back and runs her hand through it. The result is that she now has a long neat plait. By the time she is telling us that the perfect girl has gone, what we see is a glamorous young woman (I don't know whether feminists have tried showing what her proportions would look like on a real woman, as they do with Barbie from time to time, but I'm guessing the fact that her eyes are as big as her waist would pose problems - try this to see the contrast between Elsa and a real woman) in a shimmering blue dress slit to above the knee, wearing high heels, with long blonde hair in a thick plait over one shoulder striding confidently across the shiny floor of her new ice palace. A few stanzas back, you might be thinking that this song is about a young woman more or less confidently embracing her sexuality - but now it seems to be about a rich girl who finally realises her dream of being a supermodel. We're not in stereotypical lesbian territory anyway.

Here I stand
In the light of day
Let the storm rage on,
The cold never bothered me anyway!

The song now comes back into contact with Elsa's actual situation: the sun has come up and she is standing on a balcony of her ice palace as a reddish dawn breaks. But there is still no storm: Elsa's life is blessed with perfect skiing weather. It doesn't even look cold any more.

The final line is delivered by Elsa directly to the camera with what one might call a pert expression. I can't recall another character in the film addressing us directly in this way. By doing it, she makes us her accomplices in her scheme of liberation, whatever it is - but then she turns away from us and a shiny snowflake-embossed door shuts in our face.

At this point I'm completely lost. It is not just that I have no idea what moral pre-teen girls are meant to draw from this: I have no idea what meaning they could extract from it. Is it about positively embracing your inner mean-girl-cum-supermodel and getting a palace out of it? 

As I said above, this unclear, contradictory and in some parts just plain bad song is the heart of the film. By well before the end of the song, Elsa has achieved mastery over her curse/gift of making things frozen. She does not undergo any real further emotional development - the only thing the plot needs from her is for her to go back home and release her kingdom from the icy state she left it in. At the end she seems pretty happy to be queen of people again and to use her powers for good, but she doesn't have to change to get to that state (she makes the odd mistake on the way, but it's a little contrived). All the emotional (and actual) journeying is for her sister, who is much more like a real person. 

So what are we to make of the song? Considering everything that it is wrong with it, it's not that bad really. I can only conclude that I should stop worrying about it. Let it go! Let it go!

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