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What Is the Meaning of Frozen’s “Let It Go”?

“Let It Go,” the most popular song from Disney’s 2013 animated musical Frozen, has been a smashing success. On YouTube the song has reached almost 160,000,000 views, at the 86th Academy Awards it won the award for Best Original Song, and it is the first song from a Disney animated musical to reach the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100 since 1995. But Beyond that, nearly everyone that I know has at least most of the song memorized.

The song’s prevalence has made it an important aspect of today’s cultural landscape. Consequently, it is also important for examining today’s culture. Indeed, because it is mostly targeted to young people, children and teens, it is also an important puzzle piece for putting together the puzzle that is our culture’s future. As such, we will endeavor to unlock its significance and meaning by examining the song’s setting, content, and context.

Before we can examine the song, we must examine the events within the story which led up to it. At the very beginning of the film, we learn that there are two sisters, princesses, who share a deep love for each other. However, everything goes wrong when Elsa, the older sister, accidentally freezes her younger sister Anna’s head while using her magical powers to create an indoor winter wonderland. The princess’ parents rush Anna off to be healed by some trolls. Unfortunately, all memory of Elsa’s powers must be swept from Anna’s mind in order for her to be healed, so Anna has no memory of what has occurred. After the event, Elsa is kept away from Anna so that she won’t hurt her again, and in the years of separation that follow, a rift grows between them. Unfortunately, before too long, calamity strikes again and the girls’ parents are lost at sea.

When Elsa comes of age, it is time for her coronation. During the course of the festivities, Anna falls in love with and is engaged to the impressive Prince Hans. Elsa, however, believes the two are acting too hastily, and won’t allow it. In the ensuing fight, Elsa’s powers are accidentally exposed. She then loses her composure and her ability to control her powers, resulting in a massive snow storm and eternal winter that freezes the entire kingdom.

Having lost all self control, hurting many people and their livelihoods, she storms into the mountains and begins singing “Let It Go” as she builds a castle of ice. The song begins by establishing the setting:

The snow glows white on the mountain tonight
Not a footprint to be seen
A kingdom of isolation,
And it looks like I’m the queen.

She follows this by acknowledging her inner turmoil and her failure to control herself:

The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside
Couldn’t keep it in, heaven knows I tried

Next she sings about what she had previously been telling herself:

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

Somehow, the fact that the people now know about her power completely changes everything, and instead of trying to regain her composure, she decides to revel in her inner turmoil:

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

Until this point in the movie, I had been completely sucked in, experiencing, not thinking. However, I was now at attention, waiting to see what could be concluded about the film’s creators’ worldviews. The idea that, for some reason, one slip up meant that all self control should be thrown out hit me hard on a personal level. It was completely ludicrous, my mind told me, yet I was guilty of living in sin for years because of this idea. I would fight a certain sin for a while, but then when I would slip up, I would just “let it go” and continue in sin for months before being convicted again and fighting to regain self control, and then the process would repeat again and again each time that I slipped up.

Knowing how much frustration, self-hatred, shame, and helplessness this idea had caused me, I couldn’t help but project my feelings upon Elsa. From this point onward, Elsa was no longer Elsa. She had become me, the part of myself that I hated.

Anyway, having chosen to throw out all composure because she lost control once, Elsa continues by singing:

It’s funny how some distance
Makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me
Can’t get to me at all

Ah! Up until this point, Elsa had been controlled by fear. She had been controlled by fear of what other people would think about her powers. Now she has decided to reject that fear. (I don’t care/What they’re going to say/Let the storm rage on) Interestingly, she had not been controlling her powers for the health and safety of those around her, as an act of love; instead, she had been concealing them because she was afraid that people would think negatively of her if they knew.

She then sings:

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

In the context of the movie, she is saying that it is time for her to see what she can do with her powers, to take them to the limit, that her powers are neither right nor wrong, and that she is now free to use them. (This eventually results in her almost killing her own sister.) However, removed from the context of the story, the lyrics advocate rebellion against the established norm and moral relativism. Furthermore, when removed from the context of the movie, the song concludes that rebellion and relativism lead to freedom.

I have no problem with these lines when limited by the setting established in the film, but what about when people adopt this song as their personal “anthem,” as a friend of mine did? And what about all the little girls running around in princess costumes singing at the top of their lungs that there is no right nor wrong, no rules for them? Obviously, they can’t be singing about their magical powers because the don’t have any, so we must ask what norm they are rebelling against, what limits they are going to push, and what actions they think are neither right nor wrong.

Unfortunately, we cannot answer such questions. Outside of the context of the story, the lyrics could be applied to anything, which is extremely dangerous. Historically speaking, rejection of established norms, relativism, and finding liberation in these things were key elements of Nazism, as Dr. Modris Eksteins explains in his book Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age. Indeed, anti-establishment attitudes and belief in relativism were also key to the beliefs of Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin, according to Paul Johnson in his book Modern Times: The World From the Twenties to the Nineties.

This is not to say that the song advocates these beliefs. It does not. However, when removed from the confines of the story, the song can easily become an anthem in favor of these destructive philosophies, though it was not intended to be one.

Next Elsa sings:

Let it go, let it go
I am one with the wind and sky
Let it go, let it go
You’ll never see me cry
Here I stand
And here I’ll stay
Let the storm rage on

Being one with nature, or the life force, is also a theme prevalent in the modernistic philosophies which helped to pave the way for both world wars. I find this addition to the lyrics – which already advocate rejection of accepted norms and relativism when taken out of context – to make the song almost a caricature of modernism.

Elsa also seems to be ashamed of crying. She is perfectly fine with flaunting her powers, and she doesn’t care what people think about them, but she still cares about what they’d think if they saw her crying. She has not removed her fears, she has only focused them on something other than her powers.

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

Here she breaks from her history. She says that she won’t go back, even though there is a whole city filled with people whose queen has abandoned and hurt them. They need her to end the eternal winter. They need governance, too. However, she will not go back, or so she claims, because the past is in the past. The future, on the other hand, is in the future, and she should devote herself to it and to making the future better than the past or the present.

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

The imagery of empowerment can be found here. Somehow, her break from the past, her throwing off  of responsibility, and her refusal to live by anything other than by what she feels are seen as empowering. When we look at the lives of people who live this sort of lifestyle, they do not find empowerment but pain.

Here I stand
In the light of day
Let the storm rage on,
The cold never bothered me anyway

With that, the song ends. She is no longer concealing her true identity. She is in the light of day, allowing it to rage on. As I sat thinking in the theater at the conclusion of the song, I could not help but note that as sinners, our true identity is not something that we embrace or seek. Instead, we seek to be sanctified, to be remade, to gain a new identity, through Christ.

We have seen the setting for the song, as well as the song itself, so now we need only to examine the song’s context, how the song fits into the story as a whole. The overarching story is this:

As a child, Elsa and Anna are best friends, then Elsa almost kills Anna, after which the two are separated. Elsa then is queened, Anna gets engaged to Hans, Elsa forbids their marriage, the two sisters fight, Elsa reveals her powers and cannot contain them, and finally she goes up the mountain where the song takes place.

After the song, Anna decides to bring her sister back so that the eternal winter might end, but when she finally makes it to Elsa’s ice-castle, Elsa still fears hurting her. Anna persists in trying to bring Elsa back, Elsa becomes angry, and she ends up freezing Anna’s heart. (Perhaps letting her powers go wasn’t such a wise choice.) This time the trolls cannot heal Anna, as only an act of true love can melt the ice around her heart.

Anna is rushed back to the city so that Hans can perform an act of true love, but it turns out that the snake was only out get the throne. Hans imprisons Elsa, but she escapes. Hans pursues her, and Anna sees that he is about kill her, so she jumps in the way, and freezes when she does so, but she manages to block the blow. Elsa is heartbroken, but as she grieves, Anna begins to melt because her sacrificial act constituted an act of true love, thus breaking the curse.

In the light of the story as a whole, “Let It Go” happens during Elsa’s downfall, which results in her freezing her sister’s heart and creating a snow monster to kill Anna and her friends. In fact, Elsa’s fall closely resembles mankind’s fall. We essentially told God, “no rules for me” and ate the fruit. Elsa, too, said, “no rules for me,”  and then used her powers very irresponsibly.

“Let It Go” definitely happens at a turning point in the story, but it is a turn for the worse. This is where the problem is created, the solution to which is the theme of the movie. The high point of the plot occurs when Anna sacrifices herself for Elsa. The plot’s low point is when Elsa freezes Anna’s heart the second time, which correlates with “Let It Go.”

However, “Let It Go” is the artistic high point of the movie, and there is barely any artistic energy surrounding Anna’s sacrificial love. There is an orgiastic amount of musical energy put into this one song, and it is what we will remember about the movie even after we forget the plot, but there is almost no musical energy put into the scene of redemption.

Our culture adores this song. We find it empowering, and it tells us to be authentic, to be our true selves, not to let anyone or anything else, not even morality, determine who we are. The plotline, however, suggests that this song is not empowering or positive in any way. Instead, it correlates with Elsa’s downfall, the pain she causes herself and her sister, and brokenness. Even so, our culture eats it up, saying, “This is good.” The story, however, disagrees.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think people are buying this song because they think that it has a wonderful philosophy. They are buying it because it is artistically excellent, it is catchy, and it is extremely powerful. Still, the philosophy is there, and subconsciously it is extremely easy to connect “No right, no wrong, no rules for me/I’m free” with empowerment and freedom. Additionally, we will remember this song, even after we forget that it corresponds with a negative turn in the plot and after we forget about the sacrificial love.

The song is great within the confines of the film. It fits perfectly. On the other hand, when I hear little girls running around belting out that they are going to test the limits, that there is no right nor wrong, no rules for them, I have to wonder how they will apply this. Art has the ability to profoundly impact people, and the artistic energy of this film points to “Let It Go,” so I have to wonder how it will effect the future.

Discussion — 18 Responses

  • Bob Donohoo April 2, 2014 on 8:00 am

    Time to watch the movie and then talk to my daughter …

    Reply
  • Bob Donohoo April 3, 2014 on 11:04 pm

    Time to watch the movie and then talk to my daughter …

    Reply
  • Bob Donohoo June 26, 2014 on 8:33 am

    Time to watch the movie and then talk to my daughter …

    Reply
  • Bob Donohoo June 26, 2014 on 8:33 am

    Time to watch the movie and then talk to my daughter …

    Reply
  • Bob Donohoo July 5, 2014 on 12:47 am

    Time to watch the movie and then talk to my daughter …

    Reply
  • Alex Lehmann September 8, 2014 on 1:31 am

    Oh boy…makes me think

    Reply
  • Alex Lehmann September 8, 2014 on 1:32 am

    Oh boy…makes me think

    Reply
  • Alex Lehmann October 29, 2014 on 11:00 pm

    Oh boy…makes me think

    Reply
  • Alex Lehmann February 17, 2015 on 7:23 pm

    Oh boy…makes me think

    Reply
  • Alex Lehmann February 20, 2015 on 9:02 am

    Oh boy…makes me think

    Reply
  • Bob Donohoo November 1, 2015 on 9:57 am

    Time to watch the movie and then talk to my daughter …

    Reply
  • Bob Donohoo November 16, 2015 on 5:44 am

    Time to watch the movie and then talk to my daughter …

    Reply
  • Bob Donohoo November 16, 2015 on 7:50 am

    Time to watch the movie and then talk to my daughter …

    Reply
  • Nicolas Ribard March 14, 2016 on 5:40 am

    It is totally too late, but I would like to give a bit different lecture. What happens when she closes the door of the crystale castle? She is alone with here creation, deep into alienation.

    In this sense, “cold doesn’t bother me anyway” is a lie. It is the ultimate defense from desperation: if nobody accepts me, so be it.

    Yes, it is the affirmation of who you are, but without the acceptance of others, alone.

    Sorry for bad english ^^’.

    Reply
  • Scott Wooledge May 28, 2016 on 7:14 pm

    Interesting you project your own experience of failing to control sin on “Let it go.” And it summons Ill feelings. There are more than a few gay people who consider it a joyous song, likened to coming out. No longer is she afraid of her freakish true nature. No longer is she afraid to be exposed. She has been exposed. But rather than feeling humiliation she feels relief. She is letting go of her anxiety and fear. She is accepting who she is, as different abd strange and isolating as it is.

    And it is a fairly universal story. That at some point everyone has to let it go. Accept they may not have been destined to quarterback or president or the skinny blonde supermodel or a doctor or whatever dreams have evolved into unrealistic expectations that haunt you. Let it go and be who you were met to be.

    Reply
  • Ender Sheeper August 15, 2016 on 5:10 pm

    “It’s just a theory… A SONG THEORY! Thanks for reading” is what you should’ve put at the end. Anyone get the reference? Also, I’ve seen many other theories on this song. I just like to speculate with all of these.

    Reply