Peeling back the layers of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s surprising TikTok hit.
Last week, the song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from Disney’s new sleeper hit Encanto surpassed Frozen’s smash hit “Let It Go” to become the highest-charting Disney single since 1995. The song, a classic musical theater ensemble number, is a lively, layered salsa about a creepy uncle and his habit of telling doom-and-gloom prophecies.
Because it relies heavily on the musical’s context, “Bruno” bears little resemblance to more typical Disney chart-toppers like “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” and “Colors of the Wind,” which were intentionally generic in order to serve as marketable hits for their films. “Bruno” instead serves as the mouthpiece for a lovably dysfunctional Colombian family and their darkest plot-related secrets.
But despite, or perhaps because of, its weirdness, “Bruno” has passed them all, climbing even higher to land at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in its fourth week on the chart — making it the highest-charting Disney song since Aladdin’s 1993 hit “A Whole New World.”
So how’d that happen?
The simple answer probably isn’t as surprising as it would have been a few years ago: TikTok, the platform that embraced and boosted such runaway viral hits as “The Box,” “Blinding Lights,” and that one sea shanty, has worked its magic on Encanto.
The platform has fallen hard for “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” in particular, though Lin-Manuel Miranda’s song score for the animated musical has received plenty of love all around. “Surface Pressure,” arguably the film’s best song, sits at No. 10 on the Hot 100 as of January 25, making Encanto the first Disney film to produce multiple top 10 hits, while other songs from the movie are floating around lower down on the chart. (Though “Bruno” is the film’s structural centerpiece, Disney chose a quieter ballad, “Dos Oruguitas,” as Encanto’s Oscar submission for Best Song.)
It’s not that unusual for the nerdier, less pop-flavored Disney hits to become beloved among fans. But the combination of “Bruno” being a complex ensemble number meant to convey plot rather than general themes, as well as being a hit delivered primarily through TikTok rather than mainstream radio, thus spurring Encanto itself on to become a slow-burning sleeper hit for Disney, might need a little explaining. So: Let’s talk about “Bruno”!
“Bruno” is a kind of modernized salsa. Salsa music — the broad description for a wide variety of mainly Afro-Cuban musical styles — is built on rhythmic patterns that layer on top of each other to create the high-energy beats of Latin songs. Every rhythmic pattern within those layers is distinct but equally important. This structure pairs extremely well with a common feature of musical theater in which each character has their own competing, even conflicting part within the same song. Miranda capitalizes on this affinity to great effect in “Bruno,” giving every character their own distinct perspective on Bruno and their own individual rhythmic pattern to match. (They also get their own individualized choreography, based on Colombian folk dance and other Latin dances.) The musical theater influences on Miranda’s songwriting are obvious here as throughout the film. But it’s the Latin stylistic influences that make the biggest impression.
Sergio Ospina Romero is a musicologist at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music and an affiliate of its Latin American Music Center. He agrees that the layered structure is the key to “Bruno’s” success. It’s “simple” but “ingenious,” he told me — “a repetitive harmonic progression in C minor but which serves as a vehicle for different verses, each one exhibiting a unique melody, rhythm, timbre, texture, character and, over all, a distinct personality.”
“On top of this,” he added, “the story within the song is streamlined enough as to take us to a thematic climax that is mirrored by the song’s musical climax: the moment in which all the previous verses reappear together simultaneously, almost as in a mashup.”
That structure in turn inadvertently makes “Bruno” a perfect song for TikTok virality because it’s broken into subsections by character, all of which are individually catchy. It’s easy, then, for TikTok audiences to pick a different entry point into “Bruno” — lots of people start at the beginning, while others find Camilo’s “7-foot frame, rats along his back!” verse or Dolores’s furtive tiptoeing section to be the highlight. Some simply get earwormed by the whole song.
“Bruno” has also served as the hook for Encanto itself, turning a film that had a jittery, underwhelming Thanksgiving release, a lukewarm critical reception, and an atypical lack of support from Disney’s marketing team into a surprise sleeper hit. Between Covid-19 lockdowns, the influx of families turning to Disney+ over the holidays, and the memetic pull of “Bruno,” Encanto became something of a New Year’s miracle. It’s significant that before it topped the Hot 100, “Bruno” topped the streaming charts — a clear sign that the internet was fueling the song’s success — all of it gradually pushing Encanto toward a $100 million domestic profit over the course of January.
But while Bruno’s structure may contribute to its virality, the “mashup” feeling doesn’t end there. The song’s overall musicality features a mix of modernized Latin styles and sounds that reminded Ospina Romero of other global Latin hits like “Despacito” and Marc Anthony’s 1999 “I Need to Know.” While the song has stirred different kinds of engagement than these mainstreamed pop hits, Ospina Romero observed that it’s also indicative of a broader modern aesthetic, “synthesizing a collective — almost global — taste.” Much has been written about the song’s international popularity, and the effort to translate it into dozens of languages. (I’d like to give a special shout-out here to the Danish voice actor who sings “Now look at my head!” like his entire life is ruined.)
But the very qualities that make “Bruno” such a portable global hit may also be flaws, depending on your perspective.
“The movies are inescapably American, based on American assumptions, American hopes, and American fears,” the Atlantic’s Tom McTague writes of Encanto and its spiritual and creative twin Moana, which features more or less the same creative team and similar themes of an undervalued girl restoring something broken about her family and its culture.
In “Bruno,” Americanization translates to a cultural blending — one that results in an updated, poppy version of traditional music. “The music takes significant advantage of 21st-century models in the Latin-pop music industry,” Ospina Romero told me, “especially those who have managed to reimagine and rework the traditional sound of Cuban ‘guajiras’ and Cuban ‘son’ according to modern pop (read ‘Anglo’) sensibilities.”
The result is something that initially disappointed him when he first heard the songs for Encanto. “When I first saw the movie I was disappointed with the music overall, and took it as a lost opportunity to bring to the forefront some really cool Colombian rhythms, that are barely hinted [at] and somewhat inauthentically stated, like vallenato (in ‘The Family Madrigal’) and bambuco (in ‘Waiting on a Miracle’).”
As for “Bruno” specifically, “it is not traditional Colombia music at all, really, except for Pepa’s and Félix’s cumbia dance moves (funny enough to a Miami-kind of Latin beat) and, more importantly, for the huge cultural significance that salsa has in Colombia, particularly in the city of Cali.”
Miranda is no stranger to this sort of critique, having arguably created stage musicals that aren’t fully historically accurate or entirely culturally authentic. He’s also inadvertently become symbolic of an outdated cultural centrism that doesn’t sit well with many people, especially given that Miranda is often treated as the face of progressive, diverse Latin culture.
Still, while Miranda seemed to draw the most criticism from audiences, both before and after the film’s release, he’s just one of many creatives responsible for Encanto, including Germaine Franco, who wrote the film’s instrumental score with care for representing indigenous Colombian music and instruments. And anyway, concerns about authenticity might be beside the point with a song like “Bruno,” which contains more narrative than most of the film’s other songs.
“That’s, to me, the fascinating thing with ‘Bruno,’” Ospina Romero added. “That even without pursuing any kind of Colombian authenticity, it managed to captivate Colombians and people around the planet much more than the seemingly purposefully ‘Colombian’ tunes, including Carlos Vives’ song [‘Columbia, Mi Encanto’].”
Is that just the magic Miranda touch? Possibly. It could also be that the song’s multiple entry points lend themselves to repeated engagement, which lends itself to virality, which lends itself to a hit. Or maybe “Bruno” is just one of the first big fleeting trends of 2022.
In any case: Hey, it’s catchy, it’s fun, it’s different — and best of all, it gives us something to talk about.