I wrote earlier about how I quite enjoyed the dual-layered match between Zootopia’s theme song, Shakira’s “Try Everything”, and both the film’s overt story of an ambitious young woman overcoming long odds as well as its rather more interesting and surprising subtext about modern race relations. The song gripped me at a personal level, too, in part because it provided decades-due redemption for a another Disney-related song that may have subconsciously weighed me down since childhood.
I didn’t realize that at first. I only knew my compulsion to listen to the song on repeat the day after I saw the film, walking my usual commute while on the verge of tears for most of it. I lack a formal education in musical appreciation, so only in awkward layman’s language can I describe how, in particular, Shakira’s delivery of the repeating line I wanna try even though I could fail makes my throat catch, every time.
Structurally, I love the song due to its cleverly self-illustrating nature. the eight short syllables from “try” onward seem like a controlled stumble off the edge of the verse rather than flowing as expected to the end, with “I could fail” jarringly failing to rhyme with any line nearby. In this, the song itself makes itself sound fallible, even vulnerable — but then it keeps going, proving true to its own word.
As for why the semantic read of that verse affects me as profoundly as it does: originally I had written at length here about how very close to home I found the song’s surface message. As the title suggests, the lyrics of “Try Everything” celebrate the merits of scattershot application of oneself to a broad field of projects. It exhorts aiming for success but accepting frequent failure in the name of constant learning — learning not just how to get better at things, but what things are worth getting better at.
Even though its diagetic role in the film makes it the theme for Zootopia’s young protagonist, just beginning her career in the big city, the song nevertheless struck me right in my own mid-career freelancing heart. While naive but determined little Judy Hopps listened to the song on her iPod during the movie’s first act, I turned to my wife and desperately whispered It’s me. This song is about me. In the dark of theater I could just make out her “Your statement is clearly nonsense but you clearly find personal truth in it anyway and that’s cool” face, and this made me feel very happy.
However, on further reflection, I realized a much more specific and personal connection I may have subconsciously made, one whose explanation will require a little more personal history-telling as regards animated Disney entertainment. When I was twelve, the age when all media is the most awesome ever, my family paid a premium to add the Disney Channel to our cable package. I loved it, even though I’m pretty sure today that it must have been objectively quite terrible. Disney was still in its pre-Little Mermaid lost years, making bank more on the nostalgia its name evoked than on creating anything fresh.
One of the terrible things I liked on the Disney Channel was Sport Goofy, a regular program that, according to algorithms known only to some underpaid film-editor, variously chopped up and remixed Disney’s deep catalog of mid-20th century theatrical shorts depicting Goofy doing sports stuff. You can see the level of care that went into its production from this intro:
I remember that theme song, “You Can Always be Number One”, as longer than heard in that clip, and having different lyrics as well. I rather suspect that it existed in various lengths in order to properly accompany however much Sport Goofy the channel’s day-to-day programmers needed to caulk onto the schedule as filler. All that to one side: I heard that song over and over again, and so many other songs like it growing up, all of which had a similar message: You can’t lose. Work hard and be true to yourself and you will always win. This matches up neatly with my memories of the 1980s’ American zeitgeist, the message that winners never lose that ignores every case where someone can exhibit excellence and worthiness and lose anyway, whether by a lesser-privileged start, single-file competition against someone just as good, or just plain old rotten luck.
A doomed psychology, this, which within a generation would produce enough disillusioned, confused, and angry Americans to validate Donald Trump’s presidential ambitions. I don’t quite fit into that category, but I grew up in a family that does, and find it difficult not to recall that old Disney song as emblematic of a dangerously wrongheaded time, one which grew into a such a disappointing future for so many.
But where “You Can Always be Number One” literally contains lyrics like “Just play the very best you can and there’s no way you can lose”, “Try Everything” expresses the joy of losing, without a shred of irony. Every loss, every making of “those new mistakes” (as its own lyrics put it), gains us knowledge and self-discovery — at least to those willing to see it.
I’m old and experienced enough that this message didn’t exactly have news for me, but I can’t recall it ever expressed so frankly and joyfully in a song meant for children. And as such, while I won’t say that repeated exposure to that treacly old Disney Channel song made my early life worse, I feel absolutely certain today that “Try Everything”, as soon as I heard it, threw open the doors of the musty memory-closet the older song moldered in, shining new light on it and in so doing relieved me of a tiny weight I hadn’t known I’d carried for so long.
There may be a lot of scary stuff out there, but the cartoons have gotten a lot better. I feel pretty good thinking about all the twelve-year-olds watching Zootopia today — maybe not a great film, but so bold and surprising in so many ways, including the theme song that bookends it. I have to stay hopeful.