Last night, some of my daughter's friends were in a neighborhood talent show over by Regency Park, a professional neighborhood in eastern Shanghai, so I took her over to cheer them on. We were treated to the usual medley -- some singing, some dancing, some instrumentals. It's China, so there were more violins than you would find at, say, the Passaic mall talent show, but other than that it was fairly standard. (My daughter's friends sounded pretty terrible and took third place, to give you a sense of the thing.)
And at one point a little Chinese girl, five by the looks of her and resplendent in blue rayon taffeta, took some timid steps out on the stage to the opening bars of "Let It Go." My daughter is ten, so I have heard many amateur renditions of Let It Go, and I knew to wonder if this would be the "translated Mandarin version" or the "phonetic English version."
(As an aside, there is a doctoral dissertation to be written about the long-term cognitive effects of phonetic memorization in the age of YouTube. One of my daughter's friends back in New York could, at the age of 8, rap the entirety of Gangnam Style without otherwise speaking a word of Korean.)
Well, it was the phonetic English version, which in some ways made it less interesting to listen to but more interesting to watch, as the girl was having to concentrate on lyrics whose meaning she clearly grasped, but which didn't exactly come trippingly off the tongue. And she started in with that breathy, strained whisper kids sometimes use when singing, which always sounds so bad when amplified.
So there I was, just hoping she wasn't feeling too anxious, sub-vocalizing the words along with her, da da da this swirling storm inside, couldn't keep it in, heaven knows I tried... And then it was like a magic trick, this little kid starts belting out
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 knooow!
And I saw this tiny creature transformed by a sentiment that the song gave her permission to express, and you could see that sentiment on her face: "Fuck it. I am so done with you people."
Now she was no Ethel Merman (her entire torso would fit in one of Merman's lungs), so it wasn't like the song suddenly got great, but it did suddenly get raw. Children aren't supposed to express that sentiment, that goes double for girls, and double again for Chinese girls, but there she was, letting it go.
And the thing that hit me is that I was witnessing something like global girlhood punk, that Let It Go is, for the young daughters of the current generation, a bit like London Calling was for the adolescent sons of mine, an invitation to pass negative judgement on the world our parents were expecting us to inhabit.
Last spring, back in NYC, my daughter wanted to go see Frozen in the theater. Again. Having gone with her mother, aunt, and two different babysitters, she wanted more. I figured she wanted me to see it too, because it mattered so much to her, so off we went. I'd heard endless repetitions of every joke made by Olaf the Snowman, and had a vague sense that the plot wasn't the usual 'saved by a handsome prince' thing, but other than that I didn't know what I was in for.
Now it was March, and Frozen had been in theaters since the previous November, so I figured it was being kept around to goose Saturday afternoon box office in a slow month. And since this was one of the first gorgeous spring days of the year, I assumed we could walk in after the trailers and still get good seats.
I'd made two mistakes before we even got into the cab, is what I'm trying to say. My first was about timing. That afternoon was the kind of day that Central Park was built for, and we were going to a movie whose release date was last year, and the theater was mobbed. We had trouble finding two seats together (a problem compounded by the fact that the place did initially look half-empty, since many of the patrons' heads did not stick above the seat backs.)
And my second mistake was thinking my daughter wanted me to see it with her. It turns out I had been invited for two reasons: I have a credit card, and ten-year-olds can't hail taxis. And once I'd discharged my twin responsibilities as bursar and chauffeur, my work was done. She had come to commune with her people.
Being in a theater full of under-12 girls during Frozen was like being with the drunks at McSorley's -- once they start singing, there's no stopping them. By March, Disney had released a version with 'Follow the bouncing ball' on-screen lyrics. Our show did not have that feature, which made it clear that that ball was bouncing inside the head of every girl in that room; they sang along to everything.
And while I didn't like the movie, I did love it, because it was a mainstream movie for girls (a Disney movie for girls) that has romantic love in it, without being about romantic love, and it is a movie for girls that assumes that the bond between sisters (and those sister-like friendships girls so often form) are the transformative force in their lives. And I also love it because it has that song.
Disney knew what they had on their hands in Let It Go (fun Frozen trivia: The working title was "Elsa's 'Fuck it' Song"), and there's even a bit of evidence that it scared them. Alone, finally, and able to give full range to her magical powers, Elsa conjures up an ice castle for herself while singing it, and then, in a moment so bizarre that no discussion of the movie version fails to mention it, she transforms her travelling clothes into a slinky cocktail gown of the sort last seen, in animated movies, on Jessica Rabbit.
Having just walked away from her own version of a debutante ball, at which she was the most desirable woman in the room, sexual power is the last thing that would be useful to her alone on a mountain. Her wardrobe malfunction feels so tacked on it's like the animators were saying "Message to any guys who might accidentally be watching this: Please ignore the lyrics. You are not witnessing a young woman cast off her responsibility to be attractive to you."
So I mentioned this parallel between Let It Go and London Calling on the twitters, and I immediately got some guy disputing the comparison, telling me that I'd forgotten to mention that Let It Go was, in his words, 'corporate and anodyne.'
Now there are a lot of reasons you could reasonably dispute my comparison -- generalized punk glorification of decay vs. fairly specific denial of a social contract -- but of all those reasons, the idea that Let It Go is unduly corporate and anodyne are not two of them. Corporate because please, The Clash? That album was produced and distributed by CBS, and their next album abandoned punk in favor of, e.g. Rock The Casbah. Underground they weren't.
I know we're all supposed to support indie art and abhor anything done by big organizations because...well, I can't really remember why we're supposed to believe that, actually. I'm willing to believe that art made by large organizations is likely to be bad, but I am unwilling to believe that it is bad ipso facto. Richard Rorty is my Patronus, and I think art is for what it does, and what Let It Go does is tell girls they are not nuts for feeling like they do; argument on the basis of some non-corporate purity test ignores the actual effect of the music.
As for anodyne, well, I was struck by the feeling that that word does not mean what my respondent thinks it means, and that he had probably never heard that song as received by its intended audience. You don't have to like the lyrics or the music, but I can report second-hand that if you are young and female, that song matters, like Paint it Black mattered, like Go Ask Alice mattered.
Now random people disputing any observation you might care to name is par for the pop-culture hole I was playing, and I was writing out a response to the effect that Let It Go isn't for us (the person offering his unsolicited opinion was another white man, can you believe it?) when it hit me. I suddenly felt I'd gotten a little peek around the cultural corner at what's coming, which is something like the current fight over masculinity and video games, but for music.
By comparing The Clash with Disney music, I had crossed one of those electric fences men erect to keep the culture in-bounds, so I had to be reminded that songs for girls suck, and that rebellion is for dudes. The corollary is that, as Sady Doyle once put it writing about Weezer, in the rock canon "good" music means -- is, canonically -- music guys like.
Now there is plenty of female pop, of course, even power pop, but Joan Jett, god bless her, had to be Lara Croft, tough but also in favor of having sex with you (where "you" was the listener, presumed male), and Alanis had a bigger outburst than Elsa, but her life was ruined by some guy moving on to someone else (a bummer for sure, but get a grip.) Meanwhile, the Runaways and Grace Slick abandoned the mainstream -- they knew there was a price to pay for not caring about their bad reputations, and they were willing to pay it.
And today, because Adele presents black (but white-black, #1137 on Stuff White People Like) and Taylor Swift presents white, we in the bien pensant Left are supposed to adore Adele and disapprove of Swift, but if we're doing breakup songs, I'll take "We Are Never Ever Ever Ever Getting Back Together" on infinite loop over one mopey minute of Adele.
So add Let It Go to that mix (and less importantly, my beloved Icana Pop's "I Love It", Let It Go re-imagined as a breakup song with the Eurovision dial turned up to 11) and at some point the guys are going to figure out that there is a rebellion going on, and that not only are we not part of it, it is in many ways specifically directed at us, women saying that they are going to unilaterally re-negotiate their behavior away from social expectations, including our expectations, and that they are not even going to accompany this with "I don't give a damn 'bout my bad reputation!"; they are instead going to demand to both violate expected behavior and refuse to be cast out from society.
And just to make that possibility extra crazy, maybe it's happening to every girl in the industrialized world at the same time.