Every Monday in Listening Closer, Jeffrey Overstreet opens up the art of songcraft, sharing his own musical experiences, interpretations, and epiphanies, while soliciting alternate interpretations and discussion.
Symptoms of a devastating epidemic struck my coworker Julia yesterday. She slumped forward on her desk, pressed her hands against her ears, and groaned, “Oh, it’s still in my head. It’s been there for days. It just keeps going and going and it won’t stop.”
This mysterious and severe affliction has swept across America and around the world. Parents are the population that suffers most.
It’s called “Let It Go,” and scientists have pinpointed Disney’s animated feature Frozen as the origin of the earworm.
To help Julia escape the song’s merciless grip, I quickly wrote her a prescription—specifically, last week’s installment of Listening Closer. It was loaded with links to other catchy songs that have become unpopular, melodies that might worm their way into her head and devour, or at least subdue, the “Let It Go” virus for a while.
But the conversation left me wondering: why “Let It Go”? I think because it’s got a hook. And, like Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” it appeals to anyone who wants to break free of any kind of restrictions, or who wants to escape the expectations and judgments of others. It’s the “I Gotta Be Me” of today. It’s like that 1987 Christian-rock song when the singer, exhausted by the moralism and judgmentalism of her community, shouts,
You lock me up with your expectations
I can’t breathe!
Let me pull down all your high ideals
To sweet earth honest and wide. . .
Of course, the popularity of “Let It Go” suggests that people aren’t paying much attention to the context. The song occurs when Queen Elsa’s magical powers are discovered by her people and she freaks out. Sure, she has good reasons for rebelling: the restrictions placed upon her are unhealthy and dehumanizing. But she reacts with such violence and self-centeredness that she unleashes destruction across an entire kingdom. As she sings this song, she takes a step toward becoming a monster like Narnia’s White Witch:
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!
Then comes this cheery sentiment:
My power flurries through the air into the ground
My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around. . .
Ah, what parents wouldn’t be proud to hear such lines sung by their spirited 5-year-old daughter?
But now I’ve gone and done it. I’ve planted that song in your head. I sincerely apologize.
* * *
Let me change the subject.
I asked my Facebook community, if you could, for one 24-hour period, sneakily replace every single recording of “Let It Go” with another song from another musical, what song would you drop on the world? They responded with a wide, wild variety of suggestions.
But nobody picked my favorite. I have some excellent medicine in mind. It’s a song called “Why We Build the Wall”—from what may well end up as my favorite record of the decade: Anaïs Mitchell’s 2010 album Hadestown.
It gets stuck in my head fairly frequently, but I don’t mind at all. And it has these similarities to that Frozen phenomenon:
- Like “Let It Go,” this song comes from a contemporary adaptation of an ancient myth.
- Like “Let It Go,” it’s sung by characters who are responding poorly to their fears and troubles, making a bad situation worse.
- Like “Let It Go,” it’s catchy, memorable, and it makes you want to sing along.
- And, like “Let It Go,” it invites the attentive listener to hear the signs of sickness in the singer’s perspective. The lyrics make clear the error, and thus the song can act as a sort of corrective.
Perhaps it would help if I set the stage: Are you familiar with that magnificent Greek myth about Orpheus and Eurydice?
Here’s the basic premise: Orpheus, who under the tutelage of Apollo became the most gifted singer in the world, loses his bride—the nymph Eurydice—on their wedding day. She dies and plunges into the underworld. Orpheus descends to try and free her, and strikes a deal with the dark lord Hades: He can bring Eurydice back, but he must walk ahead of her all the way from the underworld to the surface without looking back. Can he do it? Or will the intensity of his love and his doubts snap his head around to search for her?
It’s a tale that gets told again and again.
It’s been the subject of operas by Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini, by Monteverdi, by Cristoph Willibald Gluck, by Jacques Offenback, and by Ernst Krenek. There was a rock opera version in 1975 by Alexander Zhurbin. It’s become a ballet scored by Stravinsky. At the movies, we’ve seen Black Orpheus (1959) and Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001). Perhaps you recall Nick Cave’s great double album Abbatoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus. If you know Arcade Fire’s album Reflektor, then you’ve heard songs based on that story (and you’ve seen Auguste Rodin’s sculpture of Orpheus and Eurydice on the cover). Andrew Bird sang about it (“Orpheo Looks Back,” from Break It Yourself), and so did Zooey Deschanel (“Don’t Look Back,” on Volume Two by She & Him).
But Mitchell’s Hadestown is my favorite manifestation of this story by far. It’s opera that recasts the drama in the sounds of American folk and rock music. And the stage version became an all-star recording that features
- Justin Vernon (Bon Iver, Volcano Choir) as Orpheus
- Anaïs Mitchell as Eurydice
- Ani DiFranco as Persephone
- Greg Brown as Hades
Yes indeed—that’s the legendary folk singer Greg Brown. And he digs down to his deepest notes to bring the Lord of Death to life. Listen to the Hadestown recording of “Why We Build the Wall,” and you’ll see what I mean.
Do you get what’s happening here? “Why We Build the Wall” is sung by the residents of the underworld—a place called Hadestown. It is the anthem of those who live under a curse. Hades’ minions have been brainwashed by Hades into slaving away at the wall of his kingdom, perpetually building it larger and thicker. They believe that the wall will keep them safe, when in fact it imprisons them. They believe that their labors insulate them from a contaminating outside force (namely: poverty), when in fact their labors increase the contaminating forces within (namely: prejudice, hatred, and fear).
Listen to it again—this time in an intimate solo performance. (This one might be more appealing to the kids who like “Let It Go.”)
“Why We Build the Wall” has become a concert favorite for Mitchell’s fans, and she’s included a solo acoustic version on her latest album xoa which is available solely through her official website. Pick that up, and you’ll discover much more of this imaginative, poetic, compelling Vermont-based artist.
* * *
Recently, this song got personal for me.
At the beginning of this column, I mentioned my poor Frozen-frazzled coworker. We work together in the office of University Communications at Seattle Pacific University, spending our days writing and editing in the hopes that we will honestly and powerfully represent the life and work of the University.
But for all of my team’s good efforts, nothing has ever catapulted Seattle Pacific into news headlines like the breaking news of a recent tragedy. A troubled soul from outside of our community came in and opened fire on students, killing one of them. You might expect that the University community went into self-preservation mode. You might expect that the students, faculty, and staff increased the barriers between us and the possibility of outside threats.
That’s not what happened. Several months later, Seattle Pacific welcomed Tent City 3, an encampment of homeless neighbors, onto the University’s property to live in community and conversation with us for memorable months.
As I toured Tent City 3, spoke with residents, and heard stories of the friendships forming between the homeless and the students, I thought of “Why We Build the Wall.” I thought of the song, and how, by giving us a troubling example of fear-based corruption, it encourages us to tear down our walls of denial, to melt our icy barriers of worry and anger, and to open our arms to the stranger, the poor, the immigrant, and all of those who are Other. When we refuse, we expose a far more devastating poverty—a lack of love—at work within ourselves.
Or, as Pastor Eugene Peterson was recently quoted: “The poor are not a problem to be solved but a people to join.”
So let’s sing along with Anaïs Mitchell, Greg Brown, and the people of Hadestown until we can recognize all of the ways in which we let fear divide God’s children into “us” and “them.” Then we can do the good work of casting off our fear. Let it go.