From “I Want” to “I Am”: The Evolution of the Disney Heroine Song

Disney Heroine Collage

Frozen Shifts the Focus

The pattern started to change with 2013’s Frozen * and the cultural phenomenon that is “Let It Go.” More than just becoming a staple in singing contest auditions, “Let It Go” covers Elsa’s whole journey. 

It is both her “I Want” and “I Am” song because it starts out when Elsa talking about her wishes:

“A kingdom of isolation

And it looks like I’m the queen

The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside

Couldn’t keep it in, heaven knows I’ve tried

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…”

Even as early as the chorus, Elsa discovers her freedom:

“Let it go, let it go

Can’t hold it back anymore

Let it go, let it go

Turn away and slam the door

I don’t care what they’re going to say

Let the storm rage on

The cold never bothered me anyway…

 

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…”

And concludes with her coming into her own, accepting her powers, and standing with pride:

“Here I stand and here I stay

Let the storm rage on

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…

 

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

 

Here I stand in the light of day

Let the storm rage on

The cold never bothered me anyway!”

However empowering the song is, its placement in the film somehow lessens its impact. The song is performed halfway through the film and does not resolve the main conflict. Elsa’s isolating herself in her ice castle actually causes more harm than good and it is only later in the film, when she un-freezes Anna’s heart that the eternal winter ends and she gains better control of her powers. 

She learns that she can live in harmony with others despite her powers and she and Anna gain the happiness they have been dreaming of. But they don’t sing about it.

So while “Let It Go” is still unique as a Disney princess song, when it is sung in the film doesn’t maximize its potential.

 

* Note: As important as Anna is to the Frozen films, this article will focus on Elsa’s songs because these occur at more climactic moments of the films. Anna does get her “I Want” song in Do You Want to Build a Snowman” and her subsequent songs are partial resolutions of her wishes (“For the First Time in Forever,” “Love is an Open Door”) but it’s Elsa’s songs that the films emphasize more explicitly. Though it must be mentioned that the Frozen films already break from the Disney mold by having two female leads.

Jasmine Gets Her Voice

The live-action Aladdin is an interesting case because it expands Jasmine’s role significantly and gives her a powerful solo song in “Speechless.” Like “Let It Go,” “Speechless” covers Jasmine’s character arc from being someone afraid to speak up to one determined to defy the system.

But unlike what happened with “Let It Go,” “Speechless” is split up. Composer Alan Menken understood the importance that song placement had to maximize its impact on the story. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Menken said:

“If it came too early it wasn’t earned, and if we placed the whole song late, it was too late for it. We found it was best to do it in two parts.”

The first part shows her wishes but with some fears and frustrations:

“Here comes a wave

Meant to wash me away

A tide that is taking me under

Swallowing sand

Left with nothing to say

My voice drowned out in the thunder

 

But I can’t cry

And I can’t start to crumble

Whenever they try

To shut me or cut me down

I can’t stay silent

Though they wanna keep me quiet

And I tremble when they try it

All I know is I won’t go speechless…”

Then, the second, more powerful verse is sung at a climactic moment in the film, where she openly challenges all those who would bring her down. The lyrics are more direct and the melody soars as the character realizes her full potential:

“’Cause I

I cannot start to crumble

So come on and try

Try to shut me and cut me down

I won’t be silenced

You can’t keep me quiet

Won’t tremble when you try it

All I know is I won’t go speechless

Speechless…

 

Try to lock me in this cage

I won’t just lay me down and die

I will take these broken wings

And watch me burn across the sky

Hear the echoes saying I

Won’t be silenced

Though you want to see me tremble when you try it

All I know is I won’t go speechless…”

And so, it worked very well to illustrate Jasmine’s growth and empowerment during the film, giving her character a compelling arc, both cinematically and musically. 

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