In Random Tracks, I review a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958.
Idina Menzel- “Let It Go”
PEAK: #5 on April 5, 2014
SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: Pharrell Williams’ “Happy”
One of the many weird things about the Hot 100 is when a song’s chart performance doesn’t match up with its massive cultural prominence. The truth of the matter is that most people aren’t ardent followers of the pop charts and all the nitty-gritty that goes into a song’s placement every week. For many outsiders, it doesn’t make sense when a major hit doesn’t perform as well as they think it did. The truth is that throughout Hot 100 history many classic songs we know now weren’t big in their time and for a big part of the ‘90s many big songs weren’t even able to chart. For a song to become a big charting hit, it can’t just be popular with the general public but also popular within the means the industry uses to track its popularity. Yet even knowing all that, it can still feel weird to a chart watcher like yours truly.
When “Let It Go,” the smash ballad from Frozen was at its Hot 100 peak in early 2014, I was 14, in ninth grade, and I remember the song being unavoidable. By that point, I had largely outgrown Disney films and hadn’t seen Frozen when it came out over Thanksgiving 2013 but the song had grown into a big phenomenon outside of the movie. (Me and my sister tried watching Frozen but remember stopping after the “Let It Go” scene.) Even for someone who didn’t see Frozen in theaters, “Let It Go” was a major part of the cultural air. Yet in terms of the Hot 100, “Let It Go” reached #5. That’s certainly not a bad performance but in terms of its absolute cultural dominance, it feels a bit misleading.
Looking at it now, the success of “Let It Go” marks a major shift in the way songs from Disney movies get big on the charts. It still follows the Disney tradition of the big movie song being a ballad but the difference is in what version got big. In the ‘90s, Disney followed a formula of recruiting big-name singers to record pop versions of the movie ballad to get over on the radio. They still did that with “Let It Go” but now in an age where listeners have a more direct impact on the charts through downloads and streaming, they overwhelmingly preferred the original movie version sung by a Broadway veteran over the radio-friendly pop version sung by an established pop star.
Idina Mentzel was born in Manhattan to a therapist mom and a pajama salesman dad but spent much of her childhood years on Long Island. (On the day of Mentzel’s birth, the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” was the #1 song in America. She later adopted Menzel as her last name to reflect her family’s pronunciation of the name.) At 15, Menzel got her start in music by singing at local weddings and bar mitzvahs but was really interested in theater studying drama at New York University. Though she graduated from NYU in 1992, it wasn’t until 1996 when Menzel got her big break on Broadway playing Maureen Johnson in Rent, the classic Johnathan Larson musical about struggling Lower Manhattan artists during the AIDS crisis. Menzel was quickly seen as a breakout star in Rent getting nominated for a Best Actress in a Musical Tony.
She left Rent soon after signing with Hollywood Records in an attempt to start a singing career. Despite performing at places like Lilith Fair, her Broadway success didn’t translate to a pop music crowd with her debut album, 1997’s Still I Can’t Be Me, making very little impact leading Hollywood Records to immediately drop her. Menzel would release two other albums in the ‘00s with only her third, 2008’s I Stand, making an impact being her first charting album peaking at #58. But in the meantime, Menzel wouldn’t get back into the public eye until returning to Broadway in 2003 when she starred in another massive hit Wicked originating the role of Elphaba. Her performance got her nominated again for a Tony and this time winning.
When she left Wicked, Menzel began shifting to TV and movies. Menzel had taken several small roles at first but broke out by reprising her role of Maureen Johnson in the much-maligned 2005 film adaptation of Rent while also appearing in the successful 2007 Disney musical film Enchanted as Nancy Tremaine. On TV, she had a big guest spot on Fox’s hit musical drama Glee playing Shelby Corcoran, a rival glee coach, a role she played on the show for three years starting in 2010. Notably, for this review, Menzel’s spot on Glee got her featured on several covers with the main cast which gave Menzel her first appearances on the Hot 100 getting as high as #20 for instance with their 2010 cover of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face,” Menzel’s highest-charting song before “Let It Go.” (The highest-charting single from the Glee cast is their 2009 version of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” which peaked at #4. It’s a 4.)
Much like Idina Menzel, Kristen Anderson and Robert Lopez are also veterans of musical theater only difference is their work is behind the scenes. Robert Lopez in particular had enjoyed great success on Broadway co-writing the music and lyrics for the hit musicals Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon which won him a few Tonys. With his wife Kristen Anderson, the two formed a collaborative partnership writing for musicals, kid shows, and movies including the music for Disney’s 2011 film Winnie the Pooh along with the musical version of Finding Nemo. With that partnership, they were an easy pick by Disney to write the music for their upcoming movie based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale The Snow Queen.
“Let It Go” came about as Kristen and Robert were spending a day outdoors in Prospect Park near their Brooklyn home when they started sharing lines while also listening to a variety of artists for influences. After quickly coming up with some lyrics, the couple went back to their home to finish up the song before sending their demo to Disney. The song is sung in Frozen by Menzel’s Queen Elsa character as she escapes her kingdom after the people turned on her for exposing her real powers. All alone, Elsa embraces being her true self free letting herself go from other people’s expectations of her.
For Menzel, she got the role of Elsa almost by chance. A few years earlier, she had auditioned for the lead role in Disney’s Tangled but didn’t make the cut. While she wasn’t picked for the movie, its casting director secretly recorded her audition performance on her phone which was rediscovered when Disney was casting for Frozen. “Let It Go” was written entirely with Menzel in mind adjusting it to her wide vocal range to shifting the key up from the original G major to A-flat major by Menzel’s order to give it a more innocent and child-like feel. Musically, “Let It Go” has the kind of majestic sweep you expect from a Disney ballad with its twinkling pianos, magical sounds, sweeping strings, a nice buildup to the chorus, and lots of switch-ups on the bridge.
Menzel’s background on Broadway makes a lot of sense as to why “Let It Go” sounds the way it does. She performs the song in the way a great theater singer would hitting all the big impressive notes while acting through the song by conveying the emotions of the character you’re portraying as an internal monologue. Much of why the song has resonated is because of Menzel’s performance selling the feelings of Elsa being free to be herself and not worrying anymore about what her detractors might think. (It also helps that the lyrics are vague enough for people to apply to their own situations.) Menzel’s voice rises and falls with the song starting small before building up and exploding on the chorus while saving her biggest note for the end on “Let the storm rage onnnnnnn.” I also like how she ends the chorus with “The cold never bothered me anyway” in a sort of calm down at the end after all the drama as a sign that she didn’t care about people’s opinions to begin with.
I don’t have the same kind of acclaim for “Let It Go” that many others have. For me, it’s mainly not being in the Disney audience along with the massive overplay the song got at its peak. Granted, for people with kids or are around kids it must have been hell hearing it played every minute of the day so I should consider myself lucky. But looking past that, there’s no denying its power and effectiveness. It’s a well-performed song with a chorus that forever imprints itself on your brain the moment you hear it. For someone who likes good songcraft and performance, it does the job.
Still sticking to its playbook, Disney put together a pop friendlier version of “Let It Go” with Kristen and Robert picking Demi Lovato to perform the pop version. In Lovato’s version, the song is heavily re-arranged from lowering the key to its original G major, starting right at the chorus, and adjusting some of the lyrics. Like many of the other pop versions of Disney songs, it sounds fine enough and accomplishes its objective of fitting into Top 40 radio trends of the day but is ultimately inessential to the movie version. Had this come out in the ‘90s, Lovato’s “Let It Go” would have probably been the one to get all the chart success but by this point, listeners were now able to pick the version they wanted to make into a hit. As a result, Lovato’s version, released a month before Frozen’s release, stiffed at radio peaking at #38 in January 2014. (Lovato’s highest-charting single, 2017’s “Sorry Not Sorry,” peaked at #6. It’s a 3.)
Around the time that Lovato’s version peaked, Disney began seeing the attention towards Menzel’s version and started pushing it as a single showing that listeners were way more interested in that version. From there, Menzel’s “Let It Go” became a massive seller selling over 3.5 million copies in the US largely through downloads. Ultimately, it’s those sales that helped get “Let It Go” to #5 on the Hot 100 as radio, usually a big handicap for songs from animated films, wasn’t as big on Menzel’s version. Streaming was around in 2014 and counted by then for the Hot 100 but it wasn’t as big then as it is now. In today’s charting landscape where streaming largely dictates a hit, it’s easy to imagine “Let It Go” existing as the #1 hit we all think it is.
Frozen was an undeniable hit at the box office grossing over $1 billion worldwide making it the highest-grossing animated film ever until the 2019 Lion King remake overtook it. In North America, Frozen grossed $400 million making it the 3rd highest-grossing movie of 2013 behind only The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Iron Man 3. Its soundtrack was also huge spending 13 non-consecutive weeks at #1 on the album charts going four times platinum just edging out Taylor Swift’s 1989 as the best-selling album of 2014 and spawning three more mid-charting songs. Undoubtedly, much of that soundtrack success was driven by people liking “Let It Go.”
What gave “Let It Go” its biggest boost on the Hot 100 was the 2014 Oscars where it was up for Best Original Song. At the ceremony, Menzel delivered a show-stopping performance of the song preceded by one-time #1 artist John Travolta’s famous introduction of her as “the wickedly talented one and only Adele Dazeem.” Soon after, the song won Best Original Song against competition like Pharrell Williams’ own animated film pop smash “Happy” from Despicable Me 2 helping Robert Lopez become one of the few people to achieve an EGOT. Accepting the award, the upbeat Lopez couple ran through a bunch of thanks before dedicating the song to their daughters.
A week after the ceremony, “Let It Go” broke into the Top 10 reaching its #5 peak in April, a month after the Oscars, right as “Happy” was in the middle of its 10 week run at #1. This made Idina Menzel the first Tony award winner to get a Top 10 hit. “Let It Go” also became the first Disney film song to hit the Top 10 in almost two decades after Vanessa Williams’ version of “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas in 1995. (Williams’ version of “Colors of the Wind” peaked at #4. It’s a 6.)
Since “Let It Go,” Idina Menzel has remained very active. She’s put out three albums including two Christmas ones and continues to perform but hasn’t had much chart success. Her only charting song on the Hot 100 that doesn’t have anything to do with Frozen or Glee is her 2014 version of the hugely problematic holiday standard “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Michael Bublé and that peaked at #78. But it’s not like Menzel needs the pop charts to stay relevant in the public eye. Amid the success of Frozen, she was back on Broadway as the lead in the musical If/Then which once again gave her another Tony nomination. She’s also still active in movies playing for instance Adam Sandler’s wife in the hugely entertaining 2019 thriller Uncut Gems, the stepmother in 2021’s widely panned Cinderella adaptation on Amazon Prime, and is reprising her role from Enchanted for its upcoming sequel Disenchanted due out later this year.
While Menzel hasn’t made many hits, she did make her most recent appearance on the Hot 100 by reprising her role as Elsa in the Frozen sequel Frozen 2. Like the first movie, Frozen 2 also featured a majestic sweeping ballad, “Into The Unknown,” written by Kristen Anderson and Robert Lopez for Menzel to sing alongside the Norwegian singer AURORA. Despite the similarities and Frozen 2 being another big hit, “Let It Go” proved to be lightning in a bottle as “Into The Unknown” did not become another cultural phenomenon being nominated for another Best Original Song Oscar losing to Elton John and not lasting long on the Hot 100 only peaking at #46. It’s Menzel’s highest-charting hit post-“Let It Go.”
While “Let It Go” may not have gone to #1, it did show a new way forward for Disney songs to get big on the charts. Disney still gets pop singers to perform versions of their film songs but they don’t hit as much as they used to. When faced between the movie or pop versions, listeners are overwhelmingly preferring the versions they’ve come to know and love from watching the movie. Right now, the biggest Disney song is a song without a pop version, a song that’s even more out of place for what normally constitutes a hit Disney song. The only difference is that now with streaming, we’re able to get a better reflection of just how much people like these songs than we did even eight years ago when “Let It Go” was everywhere.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Idina Menzel singing “Let It Go” on stage with past and future The Ones of the ‘10s subject Taylor Swift as a special guest during Swift’s 2015 concert in Tampa during her 1989 tour:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Channing Tatum lip-syncing to “Let It Go” in full Elsa getup on a 2016 episode of Lip Sync Battle:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the 2020 Audi commercial where Game of Thrones actress Maisie Williams and a bunch of people sing “Let It Go:”
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from a 2020 episode of the Apple TV show Ted Lasso, a show I’ve been meaning to watch, where one of the characters sings “Let It Go” at karaoke:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Amid the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, one of the few bright spots to come out is a video that went viral of a Ukrainian girl in a bomb shelter singing “Let It Go” in Ukrainian garnering the support of Idina Menzel as well as her country. Here’s that video: