Why Mulan’s “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” became a pump-up playlist must-have

The soundtrack of Disney’s 1998 Mulan is full of gems. There’s the lilting and plaintive “Reflection,” an I-want song that’s developed a second life as a coming-out anthem. There’s the campy burlesque of “A Girl Worth Fighting For,” and the impossible-to-stop-humming “Honor to Us All.”

But perhaps most iconic is the Rocky-esque training montage song “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” which blares out as Mulan and her army bros are transformed from a bunch of incompetent neophytes into fully prepared and unstoppable warriors in two minutes flat. On “Let’s get down to business,” they can’t even heft their staffs convincingly, but look at them go! By the time they get to that final “mysterious as the dark side of the moon,” they’re running confidently through storms of arrows and splitting stone blocks with a single blow! “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” scores a training montage that was indelibly engraved into the minds of a generation, and as such, it holds a special place in the culture.

When I was in high school in the early ’00s, every single girl’s sports team at my school had “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” on its pump-up playlist. Star Wars’ Daisy Ridley had it on hers when she was prepping for the action shoots in The Force Awakens. If you’re a millennial or younger, there’s a fair chance you know someone who has it on their workout playlist, too. “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” was essentially “The Eye of the Tiger” for every captain of the junior varsity field hockey team circa 2004.

“I’ll Make a Man Out of You” does not appear in Disney’s live-action Mulan, which is not a musical. (One character does quote a line from the song, and there’s also an instrumental version of “Reflection” playing in the background of some scenes.) But the new movie offers us a perfect chance to look back at the animated classic — and one of the most enduring and beloved offerings in its celebrated soundtrack. So let’s get down to business and figure out what makes “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” work so well.

The Mulan soundtrack was originally meant to be scored by Stephen Schwartz, the Broadway composer and lyricist who would go on to score Wicked, and his plans included a comedy song titled “We’ll Make a Man Out of You.” But then Schwartz got poached by Dreamworks to provide the score for Prince of Egypt, and left Disney scrambling to fill his shoes. Reportedly, Schwartz’s “We’ll Make a Man Out of You” has no relation to the “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” in the finished Mulan.

To replace Schwartz, Disney did some matchmaking. The lyricist David Zippel had worked for Disney before, writing lyrics for Alan Menken’s Hercules score. Composer Matthew Wilder was a young up-and-comer that Disney’s talent scouts had spotted at a Canadian theater festival. Disney put the pair together and told them to get to work.

Neither Zippel nor Wilder had any real familiarity with Chinese music, which would be basically par for the course when it came to the cultural expertise of Mulan’s creative team: This was Disney’s first movie about China, and it was made almost entirely by Westerners. Nevertheless, the pair began researching Asian military cadences and pulling sounds from a library of Asian samples. In 2018, Wilder told Entertainment Weekly that with “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” he was aiming for the sound of a “Chinese marching American band.”

Zippel and Wilder didn’t entirely land the Chinese part of the sound mix they were going for, says Charlie Harding, a songwriter and one of the hosts of Vox’s Switched on Pop podcast. Chinese drums are traditionally skin drums, but “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” opens with a Yankee Doodle-ish military drum roll on contemporary Western snare drums. “It’s such a musical mismatch to the culture it’s describing,” Harding says.

The marching band element absolutely comes through, however, and Harding says that’s part of what makes the song work so well as a pre-sports ritual. “A marching band is what you hear before a football game, right?” he says. “It’s preparing you for battle, for conflict.”

And “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” also shares a key trait with its fellow pump-up song “The Eye of the Tiger”: its syncopation. “It’s very Broadway,” Harding says, “but there’s really great inflection.”

That opening instrumental line of “Eye of the Tiger” carefully matches the stressed notes of the melody to the downbeats of the rhythm set by the pulsing bass guitar: “BAUM! Baum baum BAUM! Baum baum BAUM! Baum baum bauuuuuuum.” That’s what makes the song so inspiring it that it changes Rocky’s life. According to Harding, a more classic arrangement would have put the notes of the melody between the downbeats — say, “Baum! [downbeat] Baum baum baum! [downbeat]” — but that version of the song would never have had the power to push Rocky up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum. It would lie flat.

In “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” think of that opening line, and the way the stressed syllables fall with such satisfying precision onto the downbeats of the main melody: “Let’s get down to business / to defeat the Huns.” You can also sing the line with the melody arranged between the beats, as “Let’s get down [downbeat] to business” — but that would be way less fun. That version of the song wouldn’t sound inspiring at all.

“The syllabic emphasis matches the rhythmic emphasis,” says Harding, “and the in-between words create this propulsive momentum. It’s a very clever way of matching words to rhythm that develops rhythmic interest.”

And because of that syncopation, when you hear “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” you feel immediately excited and energized. Or at least, Disney executives did when they heard it: They ended up approving the very first draft of the song that Zippel and Wilder brought in to them.

Once the movie came out, a generation of girl’s sports teams had the same response. So now, as Mulan makes her live-action American debut on Disney+, even Rei from Star Wars has to pay her training montage song all due respect. Looks like “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” really does have all the strength of a great typhoon.

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