‘Frozen’ At No. 1: Why Menzel’s Vocal Character Reigns Supreme

In October 2013, Disney released a preview single from the soundtrack of its latest animated film. The movie was Frozen, and the song, of course, was “Let It Go.”

Since then, the soundtrack of that motion picture has experienced immense success. Frozen has spent six non-consecutive weeks at the No. 1 Billboard position thus far, making it the first motion picture soundtrack to accomplish this since Titanic. In February, it reached one million record sales, making it the first LP to do so in 2014. The unstoppable original soundtrack even bumped out Beyonce’s latest release, making it the last thing to mess with Beyonce and live since forever.

“Let It Go” won best song at the Academy Awards and, just last week, broke into Billboard‘s top 10. Its infectious energy and spirit has made it tremendously popular with adults and children of all ages. Plus, it’s the perfect type of song for in-shower acoustics, which is a thing that I totally heard from a friend.

But this is where it gets interesting: the single released back in October isn’t the same song as the one that just became an Oscar winner and a record-breaking radio hit.  This “Let It Go” is by Idina Menzel, a former Broadway performer, whereas the pre-released “Let It Go” was by Demi Lovato, one of the many Disney-prodigy actor/songstresses of the decade.

Both versions are on the Frozen soundtrack, both are sung as solo ballads in essentially the same style, and neither singer was responsible for writing the song. The tracks were recorded at approximately the same time in the same studio with the same producers, and Disney oversaw both to the same degree.

So, why is Menzel’s clearly so much better?

This isn’t really an issue of subjectivity: Menzel’s version has sold close to two million downloads already since the movie’s release, while Lovato’s has sold just over 700 , 000 in almost twice the time. It’s possible that Menzel, being the actual voice of Elsa, has a lot to do with it. It’s worth noting, however, that Lovato has had a studio career for six years longer (despite being younger than this columnist, yikes), and not for Menzel’s lack of trying. According to Menzel, she’s been “signed and dropped a million times” in her years-long pursuit of a record career. The time she spent at the cusp of pop fame, however, is over now, as the former star of Wicked andRent has finally become a household name, even if nobody can pronounce it correctly. Lovato’s original, on the other hand, has taken a backseat.

Okay, now I’m going to move into subjective territory, but it’s ultimately to make a point about how the music market objectively considers timbre. Timbre is the “tonal color” of a voice or a musical instrument­-it differentiates one musical sound from another of the same volume and pitch. It’s why you could have Freddie Mercury and Robert Plant (two British rock singers from the ’70s with similarly fantastic vocal ranges) belt out the same note in the same octave and yet always be able to tell the two apart. More so than timbre, though, I’m talking about a singer’s vocal “character,” by which I mean an incorporation of timbre along with other qualities a singer’s tone can possess. Have you ever listened to a song because you liked the singer’s accent? How about the singer’s attitude? There are all sorts of emotion and bravado that a person’s voice can convey that don’t rely upon whether the tune itself is in minor or major key. All of these factors are considered (or at least intuited) in a well-sung song, and it’s difficult to quantify them in any way that doesn’t just sound like your opinion. Still, in the case of Menzel and Lovato, there is a general consensus.

It’s my belief that music listeners look for unique “vocal character” in their singers and sometimes value it even above virtuosity. That near-indescribable feature of a person’s voice that makes it “interesting” is the reason behind so very much of the way the industry gets shaped. In fact, it’s often the reason that there’s so little overlap between the exceptionally talented and trained vocalists on Broadway and the college-age singers in the Top 40. In this happy case, though, a far more unique vocal character accompanies Menzel’s experience and skill, which is why, in my correct opinion, Menzel’s version was the “Let It Go” that won out in the end.