Last week I was emailed by a lovely childcare worker who thanked me for helping to make Frozen. After the initial pang of being reminded of that time, what I first wanted to say was 'I really don't deserve any credit for the film as I hardly contributed to it at all' – which is true; to this day I don't know if any of my work made it down the pipeline, or what use it may have been to anyone if it had. But instead I thanked her for her email, and told her it had been a very difficult film for a lot of the crew, and the fact it turned out to be valued by people is nice to hear.
What I didn't tell her was that I have gone out of my way not to see the film. I thought I was getting over it, but that pang when I read her email signified otherwise.
I don't want to get into the self-gratifying details of what made the production so hard to endure, because most of it doesn't matter anymore, and airing it all on the Internet won't serve any purpose but to feed the animation gossip machine. Goodness knows we don't need any more of that. But, personally at least, it was my worst show, and I've done my shift on the low-budget TV circuit so I think I say that from an informed place.
A great deal of its unpleasantness, in my case, is because of my professional upbringing. On the first day of animation school our Persian-Swedish life drawing teacher told us he didn't hold with this New World 'pat on the back' nonsense: he was going to tell us what was wrong with our drawings and not say something was good when it wasn't. That set the tone for the next two years. Canadian TV was a continuation of the same, as there was neither time nor budget to faff about with niceties. I was at home in his pragmatic world; no matter how uninspiring the content of the show, I knew I was a constructive member of a team of convivial people who called a spade a spade and got 'er done, and the rough times were made passable by suffering together. Frozen's leadership, on the other hand, was a case study in the perils of being too nice by half.
I admit I am partially to blame for how it went. When I started, I had just come back from three weeks in the UK, long enough to get back in the groove of engaging conversation, intellectual stimulation, and social norms that made sense to me – I felt like I'd finally got up to speed in my element, and returning to LA was like hitting a stone wall. The culture shock was profoundly alienating, and I had to wrap up my inner self very tightly just to get by. I took on a demeanour that kept people at arm's length so they wouldn't lift the lid on the misery. Frustration with life in general was exacerbated by the poor communication and indecision of the production, on top of systemic and ethical problems with the studio which no one else seemed to notice. I resorted to humour, but that was the wrong way to go: in some places (Canada, Britain) delivering criticism with a bit of levity is a way of defusing it; in LA (or at least, in this part of it) it was twisting the knife, and I was some sort of monster for delivering it so cruelly. Attempts at wit fell flat or were regarded as hostile. My corners bruised the sensitive flowers I brushed up against. It was inevitable – when you try to cram a square peg in a round hole, the hole will get hurt. But it was the peg who got the serious talking-to and a reputation for having an attitude problem.
It was not lost on me that it was generally considered wonderful to have Elsa in the movie, but no one wanted her on the crew.
Into this stewpot of bad chemistry stepped the magic of Sarah Slean. Backing up a bit: By now, everyone in the universe has heard That Song. You know the one, you clicked on a link about Frozen, it's That Song. When I first heard it at Disney I was not blown away as everyone else was, or at least claimed to be; certainly not as much as John Lasseter who, it was said, listened to it every day in his car, and acted it out for the animation crew. It had long ago been established that my tastes were quite a long way from the tastes of the studio in general and the audience it catered to, so this was just another one of those things. It did get to be annoying, though, when it was played incessantly, especially when one has the mental image of John Lasseter lip-synching a song 'written by an accountant, for a drag queen' in a meeting room down the hall. Now it's a mega-hit and there isn't a corner of the world I can run to where it won't jump out of the muzak at me. Go figure.*
*Incidentally, has anyone paid attention to what it says? 'No right, no wrong, no rules for me, I'm free!' – basically 'screw the ethics carefully constructed over thousands of years of human cohabitation, I'm gonna be as bad as I like!' This is what our four-year-old daughters will grow up singing? I can see how you could project a feminist/queer rejection of the status quo onto it, but ... that's not in the song, the song is just plain individualist anarchy. Its enormous popularity, combined with my associated imagery and experience with the studio's creative leadership, made David Mitchell's column on the New Fascism very entertaining reading.
Back to Sarah Slean: I'd been clued into her having a new album by an episode of Q which, as is her way with popping up in my life, and for reasons unrelated to this story, came along at exactly the right time. As it was unavailable in the States, I ordered the CD to be sent to where I'd be staying the next time I was in Canada, so at the height of Frozen frustration I returned with the precious thing and listened to the first disc in bed, in the dark, where I could give it its full due. It was great, though poppier than I was expecting, and just as I was wondering what to make of it, the last track came on and spoke straight to me.
"Society Song" is my "Let it Go." It's the song of an intelligent, independent woman who sees through the bullshit around her but rises above it instead of getting suckered in or kicking it in the nads and running away. It's poetic, meaningful, musically and lyrically sophisticated, and charismatic, and it gave me a defiant theme song around which my frustration and spirit could crystallize in a positive, constructive way. I did have riches they could never see, and something better up my sleeve, because four years previously I'd been set free by being given a story that made everything happening at Disney inconsequential, and knew I could leave at any time for a perfectly happy life back in BC. They were trying to manipulate me by assuming that I, as so many others, lived for Disney and would do anything to save my job there, but I was past that, and that was something I needed to hold onto. Another important thing to remember is that vengeance is rarely worth the trouble, and often the best way to get back at those giving you a hard time is to have your own priorities that have nothing to do with them.
I can't say "Society Song" made me leave Disney, the way "Lucky Me" turned my life around in 2007, but it certainly was never far from my mind or my headphones, and its validating effect reset and strengthened my inner compass. It certainly got me through the end of my time on Frozen, and while other trials awaited me, that one didn't bring me down. So, thank you, Sarah Slean, yet again my Angel of Music.
I am a little bit in love with the video for the song but I recommend you listen to it for the first time without watching – it imposes a narrative on what are basically abstract lyrics, so limits one's perception. Then watch the video, because it's fab.