An Object Lesson in Brilliance

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all content © A.E.M. Baumann

– posted to the PDC blog June 9, 2013
– added to the Cabinet May 25, 2016

Frozen directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee
"Let It Go" sung by Idina Menzel, written and composed by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez


an object lesson in brilliance


That's right. First post in a month; second in four months, and I'm going to Frozen. Not only Frozen but "Let It Go." As I said elsewhere, deal with it. (I'll get to Wallace Stevens in the end, so don't have a fit.)

This is the official (Disney UK) sing-a-long version of the song as found on Youtube. I have no idea how it might be possible, but if you speak English and have somehow avoided familiarity with the song, or if you haven't seen the movie itself, give a listen and a watch before we continue.



Sorry if that song get's stuck in your head. It's been playing in my brain for two weeks, now.

To say, if you haven't seen Frozen it is well worth the viewing. And while you're at it, you probably haven't seen Brave either and you should see that as well (it's even better than Frozen, though it's Pixar and Frozen is Disney). It was one of the best films produced in the US that year. I never thought I'd say it, but after Tangled (which is also really good) and Frozen, it looks like Pixar hooking up with Disney was a net positive for both sides. Creatively the two films are orders of magnitude above the pablum (if not occasional stupidity) Disney had been putting out over the previous many decades (ok, Hercules has its assets). And Frozen is a complete break from the normal Disney princess story-lines. But I digress.

My point of focus here is but three notes. And I am not concerned only with the song but with the song as part of the film: the events on the screen and the integration of the song with the events on the screen are both integral to my point. What I am going to do here is not complex or a deep analysis. I simply want you to see one moment in the music and film. To see that moment will require comparing it to the other two iterations of the that moment (the opening "let it go"s of the three choruses) later in the film. Hopefully I can set the stage here so you can see what I see. Once there, I have three rather simple conclusions. Simple, even perhaps obvious, but profound within the realm of creative endeavor.

Now, we are going to jump around, so you might want to pop the video out into a new window. (Clicking on this should get you at least the youtube page in a new tab; you can pull it out into a window.)

What I want to look at is the opening of the first chorus: specifically the first time Elsa sings the words "let it go," focusing primarily on the second "let it go" in the line. But I want you first to listen to the same moment in all three choruses, to see and hear the differences.

They occur at about 1:05, 2:05, and 3:05. (Curious how they are a minute a part.) But watch and listen a little early to hear the lead-in, and listen until after the "let it go" lines so you see and hear the full context.

It is obvious how they are different in general. I'll work backwards. In the third, at the end of the song, Elsa has totally freed herself spiritually from her previous life, is walking out into the rising sun of a new world (it is totally ok to say that she looks fabulous). And, the music and the motion of the character reflect that this is the triumphant moment. As such, when she sings the words "let it go," the notes start high, launching this final chorus into its apotheosis. (I joke, of course.)

Now let's go back to the second time the chorus appears (at 2:05). Here in the story in the sequence Elsa is in the midst of actually letting loose the constraints that has held her in check and is freeing what is quite obviously a potent power. The words leading into the chorus are: "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."

The music reflects the moment. Notice how in the first "let it go" in this chorus she's singing with strength, but is still following the notes given in the first chorus. It is not the full-symphonic strength of the third, where she's wholly come into herself; but it is more than the first, which occurs at her first daring to use her powers playfully. Notice also how the "go"s are sustained (which sets well with the visual of her racing up the stairwell that she is herself making ten feet ahead of her.)

Now, let's go back to the first chorus (at 1:05).

As said, this is the first moment of change from the Elsa who is afraid to the Elsa willing to be herself. Her first experiments with her powers (if you haven't seen the movie) since childhood. They are – in the first two "let it go"s – but puffs of snow crystal.

The first time she sings "let it go" she is establishing the base phrase of the chorus, the three rising notes, off of which every other singing of the phrase will play: especially the very next one.

Ok, so the first time she says "let it go" we are coming out of the anunciatory and sustained "Well, now they know," which is in a wonderful overhead shot that visually states "this is no longer small Else wandering the big mountains" as is seen in the opening of the clip. From here on in the sequence, Elsa is the focus. She is making herself the center of her world.

So that first "let it go" serves two important function: (1) to establish the musical motif; and (2) to bring the song from the impassioned realization moment of "Well, now they know" into the private playfulness. So it is the second "let it go" that speaks that playfulness. Listen to it once again.

The vocals perfectly fit the moment. And they do so because of both the notes and, more importantly, how they are delivered. It breaks from the rising triplet and follows two tones: du du dah. This sets up the moment. What delivers it is that there is the tiniest pause between the second and third notes. That pause both diminimishes the strength of the phrase and (in combination to the middle note being the same as the first) creates a 'pop' to the third note that makes the singing match the play in the visauls. It is not only musically clever, the sound of it perfectly fits the character's actions and expressions at the moment of annunciation. Fantastic animating; wonderful singing.

In sum and in short: that little pause is a moment of creative brilliance.

If you want, listen to it a few times, going back enough to get a full lead in, and forward enough to hear how those three notes are the baseline upon which the song builds to its climax. Pay attention to visuals as well as the song. One of the great parts of this sequence is how the visuals and the singing are so intimately tied together. (There are also many small details within the visuals worth pointing out, but that's definitely getting beyond the domain of this blog.)


I am reminded here of the scene from Shakespeare in Love, where Shakespeare is leading rehearsals for the play, and he is chiding Viola for putting too much emotion into the lines about Rosaline, the girl in whom Romeo is in love at the opening of the play. Without looking it up – he says to Viola something of the nature of "Don't over play the lines. You are speaking about a girl Romeo is going to dump like yesterday's news once Juliet comes along. Where are you going to go when he meets the love of his life?"

It is a very organic statement about dramatic performance, recognizing that a performance at one part should – no must – keep in mind the performance in another part. (It works both ways, from how he speaks of Rosaline to how he speaks of Juliet, and from how he speaks of Juliet to how he speaks of Rosaline.) In Frozen, a lot is being accomplished in those three notes; and, the song gains much by the attentive writing, directing, and performance of those three notes.

Am I saying that the song hinges on those notes? That without that performance the song fails? No. But what I am saying is the the attention given those three notes makes the song far superior, aesthetically speaking, than if that attention and performance did not happen. If you need a comparison, you need only look at the Demi Lovato version of the song, which accompanies the end credits of the film. (And the appearance of what is the one of the more uglier sides of Disney today: its saturation marketing – a.k.a. child-viewer-brainwashing – with and of its teen stars.) Here's a link to the official video, where Demi pretends to pathos.

The vocals on the song simply are not as good as in the film: to the lesser as regards voice but to the geater as regards performance. The singing is reduced to a generic pop song. (In truth, the best part of the song is the band.)


So. Conclusions.

1. Attention to detail is of the highest importance. If you schlock your poetry, your poetry will not be as good as it would be if you were giving it the consideration seen in this moment in the song.

There are two sides to this realization (of an obviousness): one looking up; one looking down. As for Looking up: simply, if you want to write great poetry, this is what it takes. This kind of attention to detail. And not detail in isolation or point event: that makes for rococo but banal poetry. It requires attention to detail within the organic consideration of the poem. The reason that moment in "Let It Go" is so brilliant is how it operates within the whole of the song and in integration with the visuals through the whole of the sequence.

Looking the other way, failure to attend to the writing of poetry at this level does not necessarily mean the resulting poetry is bad. But it probably means your poetry is not terribly good. After all, schlocking it is schlocking it. You can convince yourself otherwise, but that is the truth of the matter. And the more sophisticated the reader, the more they can see it.

Which leads us to the second point:

2. It takes sophistication to see these moments; and it takes sophistication to write these moments. I am sure that most people who watch Frozen, however many times they watched it, would not have noticed that moment in the song (even, would not have recognized the effects created from that moment) no matter how many times they've seen the film. Which is simply to say, reading all the poetry in the world can only get you so far as a writer. You have to study your field.

It means studying literature as literature: not as political commentary; not as biography; not as social documents; but as objects crafted out of the medium of language. It also means recognizing that most poetry written and published and performed today (just as most novels written and published today) is not very good.

Which leads directly into:

3. Contemporary poetry culture is not concerned with brilliance. Popular poetry culture and sophistication generally have little to do with each other, and contemporary poetry culture is this in spades. It is not about brilliance in writing. It is not about learning brilliance in writing. For the most part, contemporary poetry culture does not have the sophistication to even notice such brilliance in writing. Poetry culture today is about politics, and biography, and diary, cultural commentary, and pretty much everything that is not making brilliant experiences out of the medium of words. When it comes to it, our contemporary culture of poetry is built on the premise that schlocking it is good enough.

I am currently re-reading Wallace Stevens's The Necessary Angel. In the first essay, "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words," I came upon this moment:

There is not a poet whom we prize living today that does not address himself to an élite. The poet will continue to do this: to address himself to an élite even in a classless society, unless, perhaps, this exposes him to imprisonment or exile. In that event he is likely not to address himself to anyone at all. He may, like Shostakovich, content himself with pretence. He will, nevertheless, still be addressing himself to an élite, for all poets address themselves to someone and it is of the essence of that instinct, and it seems to amount to an instinct, that it should be to an élite, not to a drab but to a woman with the hair of a pythoness, not to a chamber of commerce but to a gallery of one's own, if there are still enough of one's own to fill a gallery. And that √©lite, if it responds, not out of complaissance, but because the poet has quickened it, because he has educed from it that for which it was searching in itself and in the life around it and which it had not yet quite found, will thereafter do for the poet what he cannot do for himself, that is to say, receive his poetry.

There are two kinds of writers in the world . . . . I don't need to go farther than that, but I will add this moment from near the end of "Noble Rider," and leave it floating as a prompt to buy the book.

There is no element more conspicuously absent from contemporary poetry than nobility.

Key word, there, "conspicuously." Those words were published in 1942 (though delivered in a talk at Princeton prior to that). It's been mostly downhill since then.