Thursday, 21 January 2010




‘Those poor unfortunate souls,’ exclaims Ursula, the sea-witch, with obvious distaste. Her vignette with Ariel is a self-contained narrative mythos standing amid the multiple archetypal tropes that litter The Little Mermaid like sea-shells on the sand. It is a common re-staging of the Christian ‘pact with the devil’ theme, even though the song is not directly Christian, steering away from that parable especially in the film’s happy ending (another primal archetype).

The music is exquisite, constantly vacillating in its tone between motherly tutorship and understated threat. In fact, this is one of the most varied songs in the Disney canon, so flexible that it remains equally catchy when transposed into new genres, effortlessly shifting from waltz and Operatic cantata to Ariel’s own lyric aria and the final Masonic call to the under-gods (sparsely broken by intermezzos of dialogue).While other Disney songs focus on the destructive qualities of evil, Poor Unfortunate Souls tackles the more subtle question of its seductive power, and the song is drenched with self-irony as Ursula, putting on her elaborate act over the low keys of her hymn, switches personalities to reflect the fears and desires in the gaze of Ariel. Like all great Disney villains, Ursula compounds her malevolence with an irresistible, inveigling personal charm – but the words she speaks have an extraordinary depth.

‘Those poor unfortunate souls’ – here are perhaps the most poignant words ever uttered in a Disney film. The register is that of a speaker who is external to humanity and to ‘the souls’ that compose it – it is as though nature herself were looking at her subjects. From a Christian point of view, these words acknowledge the bitter heritage of original sin – the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, in Hamlet’s words, the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. Ursula, like nature, states these lines with mock compassion, drawing a gulf between the transcendental (God or the gods, nature personified, the devil, the supernatural, the force of fortune), which she represents, and the earthly, in those poor unfortunate souls whom she is so strikingly indifferent towards (worms, who are literally crushed and trapped in the ground of Ursula’s lair). The word ‘unfortunate,’ to the extent that fortune is a force beyond our control and a sister concept to representations of divine will or judgment, becomes a bitter metaphor to mean un-transcendental – and, therefore, natural. Thus ‘unfortunate’ and ‘natural’ contaminate each other in their meanings, lending an aura of melancholy and compassion to these four words which remains unmatched in the entire Disney canon.

Turning from the established condition to the suggestive potential, what is Ursula actually selling? What is she offering? In no other Disney film (except perhaps for Aladdin) does the villain represent such a fundamental catalyst for the fulfilment of the hero/ine. If Ariel cannot agree to Ursula’s pact and become human, there is no overriding her father’s authority, no reaching out to Prince Eric, no possibility for common grounds and, ultimately, no fateful happy ending. Though Ursula operates out of self-interest, the pact (or p/act) is not evil in and of itself. What Ursula offers is the possibility for Ariel to assume her full power. Such an assumption is necessary for Ariel to reach her happy ending, because her happy ending is precisely a state of independent agency, one in which her inner will has broken free from the shackles of family (her father), culture (her fish-friends) and even nature, in her condition as a mermaid. Ursula is selling the power to transcend those very natural limits which she represents in her lyric and which lend the song its title, those fateful destinies which surround Ariel as indistinct worms on every side – those poor, unfortunate souls.

Thus the song, in its entirety, becomes a potent metaphor for the human condition, torn between a deterministic condition of suffering and a will to break the rules and go beyond whatever the world around us (re)presents as destiny. The terror of assuming our own power is even greater than that of remaining in a state of suffering – this is why other traditions portray it as ‘selling your soul,’ the most frightening of scenarios, or by punitive parables such as that of King Midas. Our powers are so limitless that they scare us. If you negotiate with the transcendental, if you barter with the supernatural, then by definition you do not know what the price will be. Hence the root of the proverb, ‘Be careful what you wish for, because it may come true.’ As we look into Ursula’s mirror, we see the forces which bind and determine us, we see society, family, culture, morality, even nature, and we see them all for what they are – vaporous, feather-slight, powerless constructions which can be demolished with a brush of the finger. Like the cauldron of the sea-witch, the freedom that we subsequently stare into is terrifying – there are no referents, no points to hold on to, no anchors for identity, only the liberation of our power, which is unbounded. Is it a choice worth making? Will we know the price of what we have gained – and, as importantly, what we have lost – until we have crossed forever the line of our free will?

The double theme in Ursula’s song, the opposition of nature and natural laws against the existential void of our infinite power (the latter symbolised by the inebriatingly powerful figure of Ariel), is not a dialectic – Ursula is not an external agent ‘selling’ something, she is just an aspect of Ariel’s own free will. At the most, a projection of her terror. But Ursula and Ariel are not polarized figures, they are not yin and yan or alpha and omega or light and dark. They coexist in the same awareness, in the same ‘oneness,’ each a condition for the other – the ‘transcendental’ as a projection produced by the earthly (or, those who live on earth), and the ‘earthly’ as a category produced by the individual to describe her surroundings, retrospectively produced after the assumption of her power. The message of this song is lacerating – you are omnipotent. So be careful.

Monday, 18 January 2010



(Incidentally check out THE FEMALE VERSION of this song, which I hold in equally high esteem).

Obviously part of the reason why I’m placing this song so high up is that it describes a narcissist, and I am myself a narcissist, so inevitably our interests communicate. Other than personal bias, though, there are a number of reasons why this song made it to second. As all the other songs on this list, it is funny, catchy and charming, effectively shifting from solo vocalists to chorus. Obviously the meat of the message is one of split personalities – Gaston and that little scrawny guy who tries to cheer him up are two aspects of the same self, representing how we secretly see ourselves and how we secretly fear we are (the Loser’s servile attitude, ostensibly so selfless, is in fact an apology for his shortcomings). The song is an exploration of the interdependence of these two poles, each requiring the validation they reciprocally offer to the other. It doubles up to yield a social reading as well, with Gaston and the Loser representing two power poles (alpha and omega), and the dichotomy internal to the human psyche carrying over to its wider social structures: Father and son, leader and follower, captain and sailor, winner and loser, star and outcast, and so on.

That being said, the song would not be so exceptional if Gaston weren’t so profoundly endearing. What I like about this guy is his eternal jubilation, his indestructible joie de vivre for being, truly and totally, his own glorious self. The song is meant to be cautionary – there is a Gaston in all of us. But this is something which I find exhilarating as much as it is worrying. It means that in all of us there is an instinct towards an innate, profound joy of living, one which I wouldn’t call immature as much as primordial, a circular ‘Hurrah’ which precedes the symbolic and starts from the self to go back to the self. It is insufficient from a social point of view, yes – but, throughout the (often painful) process of our social maturation, it is also revitalising and protective. Proof of this is the emotive progression of the song. Gaston starts out ‘looking so low in the dumps,’ depressed after having been rejected by the object of his love (a situation we’ve all been through, I may add). Yet as they start singing for him and reminding him of his identity, his bad mood reluctantly, gradually dissolves before his inexhaustible exuberance. He is initially recalcitrant, but slowly he is drawn into their chorus, throwing out casual sentences like ‘As a specimen, yes, I’m intimidating’ or ‘As you see I’ve got biceps to spare.’ In the end he completely surrenders to his irresistible narcissism and therefore metaphorically dives into his infinite joy of living by diving into a brawl (the one where ‘nobody bites like Gaston’).

Towards the end of the song, Gaston grabs the Loser and starts dancing with him in a duet which, of course, affirms the interdependence of the two poles, but which is also a really funny cameo. Gaston is so unashamed. Not only is he so inherently positive that even the world’s toughest rejections cannot keep him down, he celebrates this positivity with no worry for any public consequence – in the funniest, most delightful and even most ridiculous of choreographies. How can you not love a guy like this?

Sunday, 17 January 2010



...And we're on to the top 3! :)

So all the classic Disney fairy tales have a love song, and almost all of them are quite lovely, to be honest. What is it that distinguishes Once Upon a Dream from all its alternatives so much that not only it beats them all, but it earns a whopping third place in this list? In terms of lyrics and even animation, the song is actually quite simple. What makes it so affecting is its bizarrely metatextual quality. The song can be read as Aurora telling her imaginary (is he imaginary?) prince about their connection. Yet it can also be read as the narrator him/herself speaking to the fairy tale that s/he is narrating. The expression itself ‘fairy tale’ is dubious – it designates a story that is not true, in everything from its history to its message, so much so that in slang use the term means precisely ‘not true.’ The concept is incredibly complicated – and the song itself, in its metatextual inception, yields to an infinity of readings.

Obviously Once Upon a Dream recognises the ‘untruth’ status of its message – ‘And I know it’s true that visions are seldom all they seem,’ go the lyrics, and the background itself, at the beginning, shows a square tree – testimony to the song’s artificiality and detachment from the material/natural world (they are in a garden, not a forest). Not only Aurora knows about the deceptive nature of ‘visions,’ but the song itself foregrounds it. Aurora is walking in a dream even as she speaks about a dream, and the vaguely Edenic resonance of her overture below a tree serves to ground the video in the primordial roots of myth. Her setting is a dream, and it is also the raw world of the symbolic (if the two are distinct).

The core line of the song: ‘I know you, I’ve walked with you once upon a dream.’ ‘I’ is Aurora and ‘you’ is the prince, but ‘I’ is also the spectator and ‘you’ is the fairy tale rolling before him/her, or, plastically, the ‘I’ is the narrative that has walked with ‘you,’ the fairy tale, to its conclusion many times before. The planes of the song are multiple, and the brilliant expression ‘Once upon a dream’ exemplifies this – it is narrative, but at the same time it is a reflection on narrative (the fairy-tale-defining phrase, Once upon a time). ‘Once upon a time’ occurs ‘upon a dream,’ suggesting that the fairy tale, which by definition is no more than a dream, is itself contained by/within a dream. Not just dream, but meta-dream. Their double nature is reflected as Aurora and her prince start dancing over a lake and their image is mirrored in reverse – their own re-presentation, the tale that addresses itself, and which couple is real, which one is the illusion? Perhaps the reflected image, precisely by being no more than a projection, an image, is more real than the real couple (or, a more accurate and therefore more real reflection of what fairy tales are). The imaginary image, and what a convoluted concept that is! Still, even though the fairy tale is not true, the power of its ideals is so great and its myth so rooted in our history that the genre infinitely repeats itself across the generations, re-narrating these fairy tales in different ways and through different mediums over the ages – that’s why the spectator and the narrative can tell this story, ‘I know you.’ Because they do already know it. And even though they know that its nature is deceptive, that ‘visions are seldom all they seem,’ they embrace it and accept its deceptiveness as a familiarity – ‘But if I know you, I know what you’ll do.’ They already know the function of the story.

The song closes by going back to a note of ambiguity – ‘You’ll love me at once, they way you did once upon a dream.’ The song goes back to its initial double status – to the epistemological angst about what stable truth we can know and where we can find it. The fairy tale is not true, but as an untruth, it is one of the truest things in our history. Its instability is one of the most stable things in our imaginary (and one of the most recurring). The text does not solve this anxiety, and in fact couches it in one of the sweetest and most tranquilising songs in the Disney repertoire – making of Once Upon a Dream not just the best fairy-tale love song in the genre, but one of the most complex and disturbing of all the Disney songs, and truly superb in its ambivalent execution.

Thursday, 14 January 2010




Among the multiple Disney songs which celebrate Dionysian revelry, I wanna be like you is my distant favourite, outdoing for sheer richness and euphoria even such successful classics as Lion King’s Hakuna Matata. Music’s role of ‘intoxication and self-forgetfulness,’ in the words of Nietzsche, is fully demonstrated as all the characters are helplessly drawn into the hypnotic rhythm. The Nietzschean god of music is Dionysus, who is incarnated here in King Louie, and who ‘tames [men’s] opposition with whips of madness’ (Walter F. Otto). Baloo, whose in-groove cry is ‘Get mad, baby,’ finds this out to his expense. Like a shaman in a rain-dance amid the American Indians, or like a young girl swirling amid the bass-lines of a trance beat, Baloo forgets himself utterly and becomes no more than a pulse in the communal ecstasy. The power of the Dionysian representation is given emphasis by the Apollonian background which serves as its counterpoise – dusty ruins, bricks and statues from a civilisation now presumably extinct. Mowgli surrenders to Louie’s chaos on the literal plane, and civilisation itself crumbles before the anarchic apes on the symbolic one.

The core principle of Dionysian revelry is non-differentiation – in the common ecstasy of the group dance, we dissolve as conscious selves and become one, all and the same (by contrast, and for reference, Apollo stands for individualisation). The song brilliantly represents this by a game of mirrors – the identity of all the characters is blurred with that of all the others. Louie desires to be the double of Mowgli, who spends the song mirroring the apes and is thus their double, but Louie is also the parody of the French dynasty of Louis kings – a mirror and puppet of authority. Louie in turn has another double in the small ape who parodies and makes a fool of him, and Bagheera and Baloo make for a similar parody of each other as they represent the ‘serious’ and ‘comedic’ saviours of Mowgli (roles which are reversed as Bagheera unwittingly becomes a comic relief himself throughout his slapstick attempts at rescuing the child). Baloo tries to become an ape and becomes a double for King Louie, so that in his folly he surrenders to the figure he was trying to combat, and Louie finds a partner and equal in a figure which patently has nothing to do with him. The video makes this most explicit in a shot which shows us Louie’s apes dancing together – all self-similar, all dancing in mirroring couples. Mowgli later joins a chimp in one of these couples, effectively becoming a chimp – he has ‘become like you.’

Dionysos king was never offered greater reverence by Disney than in this song, where the fantastic, stamp-your-feet Jazz ballad is rendered through an inveigling and utterly fascinating song-about-singing (compare to Gogol Bordello’s Start Wearing Purple for a non-Disney iteration of the same song). By the end of the piece, all the characters say ‘I wanna be like you,’ but the ‘I’ and the ‘you’ have become completely blurred (in perfect Dionysian tradition), and all order and tradition are made to collapse. Even language, that inexhaustible and unexpendable background structure, caves in before the euphoric chaos, and the characters only speak by means of inarticulate sounds. Love of life, fear of death, joy and terror, ecstasy and climax, all of the infinite properties which belong to this eternal deity are so well expressed and so delightfully encapsulated in this amazing song, that I have no hesitation in assigning it my fourth place.




World-famous and catchy like hell, the hymn of the dwarves is perhaps the most Marxist of the Disney songs – something which offsets it heavily against the later hyper-individualism of the Pixar movies. The dwarves, homogeneous in their handicap (of stature) and equal in their labour, patently represent the proletariat. The first strofa reveals this most explicitly – ‘To dig is what we like to do’ serves to assert the necessity of labour in a healthy lifestyle, and ‘it ain’t no trick to get rich quick’ to commend real labour as the source of honest remuneration.

The song is about the inherently communal nature of the proletariat, as they work, share and live together in equality – there is a parallel to be drawn with the representation of poor people sticking together in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The video closes with the dwarves marching together with a red sunset as a backdrop (note the choice of colour) and practically into an Edenic spring. The suggestion is that nature belongs to the proletariat and the song draws a link between the two, expanding the purely social register to a more spiritual one.

The irony of the later pun in the call ‘Hey ho’ (‘Hey whore’ in the lingo which itself belongs or belonged to a working class group) reiterates the power of this hymn: the proletariat is noble in its a priori ignoble condition. They are dignified in deprivation, legitimised in their vulgarity, golden in their dirt. The song is therefore fascinatingly ambivalent – ‘hey ho’ as an hymn and an insult at the same time. The existential note which vibrates in the middle of the lyrics – ‘But we don’t know what we dig ‘em for’ – further adds layers to a song of impressive and often understated richness.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010




Well, here’s the other really sad song in Disney after When Somebody Loved Me. While the lyric in Toy Story 2 takes a look at private grief, this one turns its attention to public sorrow. As a reflection on the suffering of the oppressed, the video is incredibly touching – all of the prisoners are old people, women, children, or injured individuals, suffering from basic human needs like hunger or cold. Considering that the film is intended for children, this piece does a fantastic job at sensitizing audiences to the deprivations of those below, as opposed to providing a simple escapist fantasy the way that many animation films seem to do today.

The song is less than a minute and a half long, but it’s remarkably well-executed. The second strofa states, ‘I’m inclined to believe, if we weren’t so down we’d up and leave,’ and this is a realistic, albeit melancholy statement. In a surprising rhetorical twist, the song then continues with ‘We’d up and fly if we had wings for flying,’ turning the realism into wishful thinking, and implying that what seems so tangible and accessible is in fact no less unreachable – hence the conclusive misery of the immediately successive line, ‘Can’t you see the tears I’m crying.’

I’ve placed this song higher up than When Somebody Love Me for a reason. Even though WSLM is, in my opinion, more directly poignant, Not in Nottingham is more complex – noteworthy, this, considering it’s a third of the other song’s length. By far the most brilliant touch is the opening, where the narrator is revealed to be in prison with the others. For one thing, this breaks down the barrier between the prisoners and the initially distant audience of their story – the rooster seemed our partner, sharing our separation from the story, on our same plane of diegesis, and the fact that he too can be affected by social oppression brings us to a level where we are no different from those prisoners (or, at least, we subsist in their same world). Furthermore, the rooster in prison opens the way to a wealth of possible interpretations on the impoverishment of myth as the outcome of social repression, or incarcerated singing as a metaphor for unhappiness stemming from a life of deprivation. The spirit does not flourish where the matter of the body is not fertile (or, starved). Admittedly this is a very broad reading, but the song allows it, and this gives us a measure of its richness.

Monday, 11 January 2010




Not a very original choice for my seventh position, I’ll admit. Mary Poppins has one of the best soundtracks in the entire Disney filmography, so it’s already a minor miracle that only one of her songs got into the list. Supercali is the most famous of them, and also the most interesting – essentially, it is a song about speech, or about enunciation. The first lyric encapsulates practically all of the song – ‘Because I was afraid to speak when I was just a lad, me father gave me [some gross shit I can’t identify] and told me I was bad. But then one day I learnt the word that saved me, don’t you knows, the biggest word you’ve ever heard and this is how it goes.’ The word Supercali itself is meaningless – what matters is that the kid has ‘learnt how to speak,’ so to speak.

Society remunerates good (or Super!) speech, and the song recognises the status of speech as a form of power – one of the men earns distinction as ‘a clever gent’ by saying Supercali, another ‘conquers’ his wife by it. In a remarkably subtle twist, it also warns us of the dangers inherent in power by admonishing to use it with care, ‘or it could change your life.’

In this parable on speech as power and the powers of speech, the word Supercalifragilistiexpiralidocious is itself fascinating. Its length makes it symbolic for speech itself – it is supposed to include all letters and words, it encompasses everything that can be said (and more, if we believe the only meaningful syllables in it – the ‘Super’ at the beginning). Simultaneously, though, it means nothing and therefore says nothing! Thus the circularity of speech is represented by a word which includes all discourses while standing for the meaning of none. ‘Super’ (Latin for ‘above’) stands for transcendence, suggesting that meaning is a performance which transcends its own flat words, but if the word is only meaningful when it transcends itself, then it is never meaningful, because the moment that it transcends itself, it is no longer itself!

The word’s flexible meaning(ful/less)ness is the condition for the song that sings it, or even the blog by which we discuss it – meaning that it is thanks to the possibilities opened by Supercalifragilistiexpiralidocious that we can speak of Supercalifragilistiexpiralidocious, even though we can never actually speak of Supercalifragilistiexpiralidocious because our article is not saying Supercalifragilistiexpiralidocious. The delightfully composed musical refrain lends even greater sleight of hand to a song of remarkable power (and one fucking convoluted explanation, I know).


Film: TOY STORY 2.


The Nostalgia Critic once placed ‘every goddamn Disney movie ever made’ at the third place in a list of the saddest moments in film history, and there’s some sense behind that. From Bambi onwards, there’s some pretty depressing stuff in there. The most heartbreaking of all songs is, I think, the candid and simple love ballad from Toy Story 2. The parallel song from its predecessor falls into the same category (You’ve got a friend in me), but it’s nowhere near as powerful.

The video for the song tracks the story of Jessie as she goes from being the most cherished companion of her little girl to a useless commodity, one which the girl abandons mindlessly by the side of the road (a metaphor made literal, really – Jessie really is abandoned by the sidewalk). The fact that she’s a toy drives home how depersonalised we become to someone else when that someone stops loving us. The song follows the trajectory of a very natural and very real narrative, and this is exactly what makes it so touching. There’s little to say because there’s little to interpret – someone loved us, then they didn’t, and now our heart is broken. You can be a teenage girlfriend, a dumped husband, a child of divorced parents, an old lady who’s waiting for her children, or just a toy – it will still mean the world to us. The song’s capacity to encapsulate our little great love in its very simple lyrics and video makes it, really, a little great song – and one of the two saddest in the whole Disney repertoire. You’ll find the other one in this list as well, but a little further up.

Sunday, 10 January 2010




An unusual choice for our ninth position. Cheerio is a song you probably have never heard, or even heard of. In fact it never made it into the final movie – it was cut for reasons of space. It has one hell of a competition within the 101 Dalmatians and I was torn between this one and Cruella De Vil’s song, which is also fantastic.

Ultimately I opted for Cheerio if only because it is, to my knowledge, the only war song in the entire Disney canon. The lyrics are those of marching soldiers who go to war, claiming their affection for the friends they leave behind and telling their loved ones (mothers or partners) that they shall always be faithful to them. Thus, the hip and delightful tune has an undertone of melancholy which, if you listen closely, is really quite cutting. The subtext – and a very strong subtext at that – is in the speaker’s unstated words, the ‘I may not come back’ that hovers at the tip of the tongue and at the back of the mind of every soldier – and this explains the vein of sadness behind a music and text which is, in appearance, vibrantly cheerful. Here is a surprisingly touching, very subtle song, and its contingent anonymity is not quite enough to rob it of a legitimate position on this list.

Saturday, 9 January 2010


So! For anyone who doesn't know, I've been working in Disneyland Paris for the past ten months or so, and since I've finally left the place, I can't stop humming Disney songs every three minutes wherever I go. Call this my way of exorcising them - for the next ten days, I'm gonna draw a list of the ten best songs in the Disney canon. With commentaries, obviously, otherwise I would not be I.

Oi begorrah! To begin with, then!

Film: DUMBO.

Link to the song

Why not start with Dumbo. The gist of this song is that Dumbo gets out of the circus and presents himself to these crows, but they do not believe he can fly. The song might be a little higher up in this list if it weren’t so friggin’ racist. Of course that serves to make the song more poignant – the point is that, scorned by the dominant social classes, Dumbo turns to the minorities (the crows, who are so patently a travesty of black Americans that I wouldn’t be surprised if they started rapping). Yet even the minorities reject him, and the song emphasises his solitude as a phenomenon of the stage (in fact it closes on an image of the little elephant being sad, which come to think of it is really depressing. Fuckin’ ‘ell, now I’m getting depressed just by writing this!).

The song is very cleverly executed, built as it is entirely on puns, and there is a certain suggestion that seeing ‘an elephant fly’ is itself a pun (meaning, a ‘gigantic fly’). Or at least, it is a phrase struggling to become a pun (like Dumbo is struggling to be accepted) against the resistance of linguistic construction. So the point would be that ‘I been done seeing about everything’ when language (or the rules of language) are transcended and meaning is achieved at its margins, by breaking rather than respecting its rules. This suggests an interest in the tension between the ossification and renovation of meaning in language (and its parallel with the social acceptance of individuals within a codified society), but the song never explores this theme in real depth, and its point ultimately remains suggestive rather than illuminating. This, alongside the racism, is what leaves it down in the tenth place, without escalating any further up.

I need a beer.