“I Am” Songs and Structural Villainy in American Musicals

Most American musicals identify the hero and the villain through two distinct types of songs: The “I Want” song and the “I Am” song, respectively.

They’re both pretty much exactly what they say they are. “I Want” songs focus on something the hero wants. It’s often a pretty vague “want,” such as “I want adventure” or “I want to be Not Here.” For example:

Villains, by contrast, tend to get “I Am” songs. These are also as advertised: It’s a song about who the villain is or what sort of obstacle they’re placing in the path of the hero. For example:

  • Poor Unfortunate Souls” from The Little Mermaid (“They weren’t kidding when they called me, well, a witch”)
  • Be Prepared” from The Lion King (“It’s great that we’ll soon be connected/To a king who’ll be all-time adored”)
  • Dentist!” from Little Shop of Horrors (“Son, be a dentist…you have a talent for causing things pain”)

Some of the best “I Am” songs parallel the “I Want” songs. For instance, in The Lion King, both the “I Want” song and the “I Am” song focus on the singer’s desire to be king, but in utterly different ways: Simba’s is full of big-idea potential, while Scar’s is an image of a world under total control. Similarly, both “Part of Your World” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls” focus on want and solution, respectively. In a sense, both sets of songs set up a desire and propose the wrong solution, respectively.

So much for musicals in which the villain is another person. But what if the villain is structural?

These musicals, too, tend to give their villains an “I Am” song. Since there is no individual villain to sing the “I Am” song, however, the “I Am” tends to get expressed through other characters – often, those who have themselves fallen victim to the lies required to maintain the structural villainy.

In these musicals, the “I Want” and “I Am” songs tend to fall much closer together. In Hairspray, for example, they fall back to back. The show opens with “Good Morning Baltimore,” introducing heroine Tracy Turnblad and her dream of being a famous dancer (“I know every step, I know every song, I know there’s a place where I belong….”). It’s followed immediately by “The Nicest Kids in Town,” the theme to the Corny Collins Show – the setting in which the show’s major conflict, over segregation, takes place.

The villain in “The Nicest Kids in Town” isn’t any of the dancers on the show – not even Amber von Tussle, who functions as an antagonist throughout the musical. It’s segregation, as driven home by the song’s bridge:

Nice white kids who like to lead the way,

And once a month we have our Negro Day!

And I’m the man who keeps it spinnin’ round,

Mr. Corny Collins with the latest, greatest Baltimore sound

It’s easy to see the villain of Hairspray not as segregation writ large, but as the individual character of Velma von Tussle – a reading that Velma’s song, “(The Legend of) Miss Baltimore Crabs,” would seem to support, as it functions as an “I Am” song.

Yet “Miss Baltimore Crabs” is less an “I Am” song than an “I Was” song, focusing entirely on Velma’s past success. The song lacks any indication that the singer intends to persist in their villainy (indeed, it underscores how Velma’s villain opportunities are now past), nor does it offer a wrong solution to the hero. “The Nicest Kids in Town” does both, entrenching a segregated show format while also suggesting to Tracy that the way to become the dance star she wishes to be is to leverage her whiteness to access opportunities like The Corny Collins Show that are denied to black Baltimore teens.

Disney’s Encanto brings the “I Want” and “I Am” songs even closer together by placing most of the “I Am” song with the musical’s hero. Encanto’s opener, “The Family Madrigal,” features heroine Mirabel singing about who each of her family members is – defined exclusively through each family member’s magical gift, the very thing that obscures their individual personhood within the family and burdens them individually.

The “I Am” moment of the song is once again driven home by the bridge, sung by Mirabel’s Abuela:

We swear to always help those around us,

And earn the miracle that somehow found us.

The town keeps growing, the world keeps turning,

But work and dedication will keep the miracle burning,

And each new generation will keep the miracle burning.

Abuela sings the bridge not because she is the villain, but because she is the character who has fallen most deeply for the lies expressed by the villain: That each family member matters because of their magical gift, not because of who they are as a person; that miracles must be “earned”; and that “work and dedication” rather than love are the foundation for the “miracle” that is the mutual safety and support of the town.

Mirabel’s “I Want,” meanwhile, is expressed not by any direct statements in the song, but by Mirabel’s constant dodging of the town children’s question: “But what’s your gift?” Mirabel wants to be defined by her family’s magical gifts precisely because she doesn’t have one of her own. (As in many musicals, our heroine doesn’t clearly state her “I Want” until the “call to adventure” at the end of Act I – here, when Mirabel sings “Waiting on a Miracle.”)

At least two other songs in Encanto feel like candidates for “I Am” songs: “Surface Pressure,” sung by Mirabel’s sister Luisa and “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” which is entirely about Bruno’s supposed villainy.

“Surface Pressure” fails the “I Am” test by breaking into Luisa’s dream of an alternative world in the bride, one that is neither an expression of an intent to continue in her current path nor offers a wrong solution to Mirabel: “But wait, if I could shake the crushing weight of expectations would that free some room up for joy?”

“We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” by contrast, does function as an “I Am” song – but the villain isn’t Bruno, who doesn’t actually have any lines in the song. Rather, the villain is once again the “crushing weight of expectations” heaped onto one of the Madrigals (here, Bruno) by others’ interpretation of his magical gift (“it’s a heavy lift with a gift so humbling….”). Stories describing Bruno as the villain are a red herring; the villain of the piece is, again, the belief that it is what one can do rather than who one is that makes one lovable (or not).

The restructuring of “I Want” and “I Am” songs to highlight structural rather than individual villains is perhaps one of the most interesting elements of modern musicals – and one that offers a whole new world of opportunities for musical storytelling.

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