Two years ago today, Disney’s Frozen was unleashed upon the world. As far as rapacious corporate behemoths go, it’s one of the more appealing, and remains surprisingly resilient to repeat screenings. Everything about it – its expertly deployed comic relief, its heavy-handed but effective symbolism – remains charming and ebullient, but at the heart of its achievement, commercial or aesthetic or both, sits one indisputable melodic and cultural phenomenon: ‘Let It Go’. You can analyse the song’s appeal in numerous ways – the artful build and release of its structure, its surging, insistent chorus – but it’s wiser, in this instance, to drop the restrained labels of sober analysis and concede a greater, plainer truth: the song is an absolute monster.
Ignore the film’s happy ending and spirit of conciliation, and, instead, accept what the toddlers in all those YouTube supercuts understand, strutting through the living rooms of a million terrified parents in their best homemade Elsa finery, singing their tiny lungs out and waving magic ice-summoning fingers at figures off-camera. What we have here isn’t a diversion, but a reckoning.
Looking for a resonant musical comparison, I briefly alight on hip hop’s brazenly imagined fantasies of dominance, then the swaggering dick talk of Muddy Waters’ ‘Mannish Boy’, before settling, finally, on the song’s true predecessor: PJ Harvey’s ‘50 Ft Queenie’. Frozen’s centrepiece and Harvey’s glorious fever dream share a context and power, irrespective of origin. They’re the sound of slender women, on first glance reserved enough to walk and talk over, opening their mouths and unleashing the Furies. That Harvey drew from a deep Blues influence and ‘Let It Go’ is pure Broadway show-must-go-on willpower is irrelevant. Ideas are cheap in pop; force of presentation is what convinces and finally renders an audience helpless. Elsa sings to conquer.
Frozen’s sequel is scheduled to arrive in 2017, carrying with it a burden of expectation forceful enough to break a child’s heart. But whatever else happens in that pop culture future, there’ll be another landmark to celebrate that very year: the eightieth anniversary of Disney’s first animated feature, and Year Zero of the company’s Princess Industry, 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
How to define those early years, the Ur-Princess and her humble song? The title of Snow White’s signature number serves as a statement for decades of Disney’s work: ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’. No matter the depth and sorrow later bestowed upon the tune by Miles Davis and dozens of others, the original, emanating from the simpering, smudgy lines of Snow White’s mouth, speaks only of need. The animation might have sharpened over time – and 1959’sc Sleeping Beauty, a later variation on the format, is, if nothing else, a ravishing display of hard lines and bold colours – but when it came to the business of romance, the song, for the longest time, remained the same. Cinderella, spinning gaily on her only night off, could only marvel ‘So This Is Love’. Sleeping Beauty (Aurora to friends), letting the birds of the forest alight momentarily on her soon to be pricked finger, could only swoon: ‘I Wonder’ (‘I wonder, I wonder / If my heart keeps singing / Will my song go winging / To someone who’ll find me / And bring back a love song to me?’). The Disney Princess was an absence, raw desire untapped, waiting to be filled and completed.
What follows for the Disney damsel and her song is a jump in time too large to be glibly summarised in a single sentence. After the commercial disappointment of Sleeping Beauty (now rightly recognised as a masterpiece) the studio directed its energies elsewhere to little reward, expending years of work on films like 1977’s The Rescuers and 1985’s infamous flop The Black Cauldron. It would take another thirty years for the studio to return to its roots, with 1989’s The Little Mermaid. Yet however savvy and modernised the tale might have seemed to a new generation, both its conception of romance – and, most crucially, its portrayal of female desire – remained timebound. The film’s key song isn’t the naggingly catchy ‘Under The Sea’, but the longing ‘Part of Your World’. The song and its performance style would define Disney for the next decade. Ariel, from the depths of the ocean, focuses all her hopes and dreams on the small circle of light – land, legs, life – that seems for now so far away. Proving that it’s the singer and not the song, Disney protagonists, whether princesses or hunchbacks, would continue to look to the middle distance, hoping the blank canvas of sky would provide answers, approval.
The breakthrough of 1991’s Beauty and the Beast gave Disney a credibility it had previously lacked. The film was the first animated feature ever nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, and, even more than The Little Mermaid, started what is now loosely termed ‘The Disney Renaissance’: a decade of highly successful and (moderately, varyingly) artistically ambitious pictures, released at the rate of one a year. And there was, of course, the film’s central song, ‘Beauty and the Beast’, a duet between Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson.
It’s a rather wet and plodding piece of work, but it defined much of the studio’s musical approach for the next few years, and represents the curious paradox at the heart of Disney’s ‘Renaissance’ achievements. The plaudits bestowed upon Beauty gave the studio that most rare and toxic form of attention: respect. Effortlessly holding the youth market while somehow appealing to an Adult Contemporary audience, it led the studio to consequently pepper their films (y’know, for kids) with soundtracks that Dad could listen to while driving the kids to school. Consider some of the musicians employed in these key years: Elton John, Sting – and, as late as 2000’s Tarzan, every five-year-old’s favourite chart-topper, Phil Collins.
This is not be glib, or dismissive of smooth radio pop and balladry, nor deny that at its best this approach yielded spectacular results. Consider the arguable high point of this style: the monster hit ‘A Whole New World’ from the Aladdin soundtrack, sung by Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle. It’s a soaring duet, completely irresistible. Even the song’s time-bound moments, like its overblown guitar solo, somehow add to its grandeur instead of sinking it. Yet for all its gorgeousness, it too is hokey and casually retrograde in the way only the passage of time can render old forms of romance. Try a line like ‘Tell me Princess, when did you last let your heart decide?’ out in the real world and find yourself on the receiving end of a justified glassing. This was a beautiful and ridiculous fantasy, and any lip-service paid to the notion of a tough-talking, independent female character ended the moment the necessities of plot came calling. Still, ‘A Whole New World’ returns a nostalgic viewer to a fond wonderland, where portly moustachioed middle-aged dudes in electric blue suits commanded the total attention of the preteen market. It was a glorious time to be alive.
Evolution, of a kind, came soon enough to the Disney Princess. The nineties started with Bikini Kill and ended with The Spice Girls, a stretch of time where ‘Girl Power’ went from a genuine stance of female empowerment and resistance to two random words stuck together (if backed by some fairly irresistible pop). Whatever the scattered and commercialised nature of aspects of the era’s feminist movement, or its debates and definitions, they forced Disney’s hand. The company had to start behaving like it had a window on which to view this changing world.
The decade’s home stretch saw the first signs of change, both culturally (1996’s Pocahontas; 1998’s Mulan) and musically. Pochantas’ key numbers offered humanist, environmentally-minded consciousness (‘Colors of the Wind’) and a more assertive, if still unresolved, self-reliance (‘Just Around the Riverbend’). Although Mulan presented inarguably the strongest female character Disney had yet created, it also highlighted the challenge of trying to find a song to match the heroine’s force, a problem the studio still hadn’t resolved by 2012’s Brave. When Mulan does sing, it’s the beautiful, if forlorn, ‘Reflection’. Songs were for doubt, not defiance. The punchier numbers playing with gender expectations like ‘I’ll Make A Man Out of You’ were handed to male voices, or choruses.
Two films from the first decade of the new century – 2009’s The Princess and The Frog, and 2010’s Tangled – remain instructive example of Disney’s half-measures and aesthetic challenges. Tangled’s Rapunzel isn’t the fiercest of warriors, but she’s no sappy pushover either – the studio was skilled at having their wedding cake and eating it too. While still obviously stuck in the ‘Someday…’ mode of longing, rarely has domestic imprisonment sounded as vivid as during movie opener ‘When Will My Life Begin?’. When it comes to romance, the film turns to the lit-by-lanterns drippiness of ‘I See The Light’, a tone familiar from a dozen other films, but getting Mandy Moore on the soundtrack instead of, say, Genesis’ old drummer, suggested the studio knew, at last, who they were angling for. And as for the earlier Frog – the studio’s last hand-drawn feature, and an underappreciated effort – the jazzy ‘Almost There’ suggested that not only was Disney at last comfortable with female desire for something other than a man, but that such a position could be, well, fun. It was light, and the song bounced along irresistibly, but still, the stakes were low, and there was no fire. Or, rather, no ice.
Here, then, lies Frozen’s greatest achievement – the Princess ballad of desire is at last perfectly integrated into character and narrative, but with one massive difference. Elsa, unlike her middle distance beholding brethren, no longer asks permission, or longs for a figure of fate, or even, like Frog’s Tiana, a restaurant to call her own. She doesn’t want specifically, within limits. Her song is total demand and assertion. Numerous tracks on the Frozen soundtrack are imbued with breezy, modern wit – ‘Love Is An Open Door’, for example, updates the romantic duet at screwball speed, shading sentiment with the slightly brittle insincerity of knowingness – but the real achievement remains ‘Let It Go’. It’s the end of the line, a summary of everything Disney has been working toward (and, at times, against) since Ariel gained the land but lost her voice.
Disney’s next princess, and that inevitable Frozen sequel, will show a generation of children whether this evolution is just pandering, or genuine change. Will the indomitable Elsa be saddled with a love interest next time around, or do her powers make her the toddler equivalent of X-Men’s Rogue, unable to touch another person, forced to adjust to a life without true contact with others? And if so, what does that song sound like? Is there a topper, once your soul spirals in frozen fractals all around you? Can you go back to the old forms, the old genre demands? Tell me Princess, when did you last let your heart decide?