Like millions of little girls across the country right now, my daughter loves to sing “Let It Go,” the big power ballad at the center of my new favorite movie. A lot of people who love Frozen are very anxious about the cultural influence of this song, which has become a huge kids’ smash; some people who agree with me that Frozen the movie is a positive influence are actually saying that the overall impact of Frozen the media property will be negative, because the damage done by “Let It Go” will outweigh the good done by the movie from which it comes.
The problem in a nutshell is that “Let It Go” embodies the cult of self-expression that the movie is subverting, and when the song is removed from the context of the movie and sung without irony, it can actually encourage the cult of self-expression. “No right, no wrong, no rules for me!” sings Queen Elsa. In the context of the movie, when Elsa sings this, it is the first step toward the death of her sister. But now we have millions of little girls running around singing “no right, no wrong, no rules for me!” and it’s not at all clear how many of them have internalized the message of the movie. And if you read what people are writing on the web, while I think there’s a strong case to be made that the overall impact of Frozen on the culture has been very positive, there’s no question that some people are adopting “Let It Go” as an anthem of self-expression without appreciating how the story of Frozen as a whole undermines Elsa’s point of view.
First let’s step back from “Let It Go” and say something about the general problem of which this is a specific case. The general problem is that cultural artifacts do not interpret themselves; they require a culture within which they are interpreted. As a result, each individual cultural artifact can only do as much positive (or negative) work as the culture within which it is situated allows it to do.
Here is an extreme example that illustrates the point with shocking clarity. When the movie Schindler’s List was in theaters, the Washington Post carried a story about a high school teacher who took his class to see it, hoping they would learn some powerful lessons about evil. But several of the boys in his class took nihilistic delight in watching the Nazis slaughter Jews – when the camp commandant started shooting prisoners at random from his window, they shouted things like, “Pow! He got him! That’s so cold!” Etc. They reacted this way not because they were fascists or anti-Semites, but simply because they had been conditioned to experience movies about people murdering each other as an opportunity for recreational enjoyment.
“Let It Go” is not at that extreme, but I can see why people are concerned about it. Still, I think the comparison puts things in perspective. In a culture that is in so much trouble that even Schindler’s List can be an occasion of evil for some audiences, it is simply too much to expect that any positive cultural artifact will not affect some people negatively. Indeed, the more trouble the culture is in, the more we should expect this. Thus, as the need for good cultural products rises, so does the extent to which we should expect to see them abused.
The appropriate conclusion, I think, is that we should not be too troubled by the abuse of “Let It Go.” This is the price you pay for releasing a cultural product of any kind into a chaotic culture.
In the particular case of “Let It Go,” there is something that makes the real value of the artifact even greater, while increasing the likelihood of its abuse. This is the ambiguous nature of the song itself. Objectively, this is a strength, not a weakness. As I’ve written before, what makes Frozen so powerful is that it acknowledges the individual’s legitimate claims to dignity, justice and freedom. Because Queen Elsa is fleeing from real injustices, we are right to feel good that she is finally free – even as the deadly seed of willfulness is mixed into her celebration.
This is what makes the movie’s confrontation with the cult of self-expression real and costly. Frozen is not subverting a cardboard caricature of the cult of self-expression, but the real deal. It shows us that cult at its most appealing, not at its least appealing, before taking it on. And this is why Frozen is such a triumph.
A fact worth knowing: from all the interviews and information available on the web, it’s pretty clear that the makers of this movie made major changes to the story after the songwriters turned in “Let It Go” and everyone in the room realized they had something really unique on their hands. The details of the accounts vary, but it appears that Elsa became a more three-dimensional character, and much more sympathetic, after “Let It Go” was written. That makes sense – if you only look at the lyrics and don’t hear the music, you might think “Let It Go” was sung by a two-dimensional villain. Maybe that’s what Elsa was when they handed the songwriters this assignment, and the songwriters did too good a job letting her have a real human voice.
Because that, in the end, is what makes “Let It Go” so powerful, and the power of “Let It Go” is what makes Frozen’s subversion of what “Let It Go” stands for so powerful. People in real life are not movie villains, who have all the wealth and privilege in the world, but won’t be satisfied with anything less than global domination. They suffer, and often they suffer unfairly and unjustly. They turn to evil not out of megalomania but simply because they want dignity, justice and freedom, and see no other way to get it. As the song “Fixer-Upper” tells us, Elsa’s choices are not extraordinary but very ordinary. This is what human nature does when natural love relationships (especially in the family) are obstructed.
And what about my daughter? I sat her down and talked it over with her. I explained that Elsa says and does some good things during the song (“like making Olaf!” she exclaimed) but she also says and does some bad things. After we talked and I reminded her of where “Let It Go” leads in the story of the movie, she understands. So now she sings “Let It Go” and I don’t worry, because she knows that “no right, no wrong, no rules for me!” was a bad thing for Elsa to say.
The deepest failure of the culture is not that there’s a lot of bad stuff out there. That’s a symptom. The real failure is that parents don’t know what they believe and why they believe it, watch what their kids watch, and talk to them about it. If we did that, the bad stuff wouldn’t matter as much, and in a generation it would fade away because our kids would grow up into people who don’t buy the bad stuff.
But, for the moment, we don’t do that. All the more reason we need Frozen, “Let It Go” and all, to help us remember to be that kind of people.