In 2021, the Billboard Hot 100 was topped by an array of bespoke popular song forms: power-torch balladry (“Drivers License,” “All Too Well”), bubbly ’80s-style synthpop (“Save Your Tears,” “Stay”), Chicago drill-slash-New Orleans bounce (“Up”), flamenco-inflected hip-pop (“Montero”), classic pop-punk (“Good 4 U”), comic trap (“Way 2 Sexy,” “Industry Baby”), and even ukulele rap (“Rapstar”).
For 2022, if you had “Latin showtunes fugue” on your Bingo card, come up and get your prize. The first new No. 1 song of the year—“We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” a contrapuntal ensemble song from Disney’s Colombian fable Encanto, built out of a Cuban guajira—was not something anyone could have predicted just a month ago. There we were, taking down the tree while bathing in the warmth of Adele’s “Easy on Me,” the seemingly inevitable, virtually eternal (10 weeks at No. 1!) culture-dominator. And now, here we are: Our beloved British balladeer has been ejected by six first-time chart-toppers: actor-vocalists Carolina Gaitán, Mauro Castillo, Adassa, Rhenzy Feliz, Diane Guerrero and Stephanie Beatriz, plus the rest of the cast of Encanto—the largest credited group of artists on a single No. 1 hit in Hot 100 history. (“Easy,” nothing: It takes a small army to take down Adele.) Together, they have not only propelled the Encanto soundtrack to the top of the Billboard 200 album chart (now in its third week), but they’ve also scored the first No. 1 song from a Disney animated film since Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle’s “A Whole New World” from Aladdin, 29 long years ago.
All this is most delicious for the only person behind “Bruno” that’s working solo: its songwriter, a would-be EGOT who’s got the Emmy, Grammy and Tony(s) and might be about to earn his long-coveted Oscar. (But not for this song—more on that in a sec.) He can now say to all those snarky, TikTok-ing Zoomers, who turned on him in the 2020s: How ya like me now?
Yes, whether this thrills or exasperates you, it must be said: Lin-Manuel Miranda is indeed a genius. I am one of those olds who feels that the overexposed playwright-composer-actor-director-singer-rapper-guy that, okay, should maybe stop casting himself in his own projects earned all those prizes for a reason. But he is far from commercially bulletproof. Among Miranda’s 2021 endeavors, the film adaptation of his Tony-winning musical In the Heights was a much-debated, COVID-era box-office failure; his other ’21 animated-film soundtrack, to Sony’s Vivo, while a solid Netflix hit, has been largely forgotten six months later; his directorial debut, a superb stage-to-screen adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s Tick, Tick…Boom! is so far mostly a succès d’estime that has delighted showtunes nerds but done little to improve the fortunes of the movie-musical. (It’s hard to say, since Boom! is also on Netflix, which doesn’t release viewership data, but Nielsen has not reported Squid Game-size ratings.) As for the Billboard charts, the soundtracks to these non-Encanto films were all nonentities. Only Heights briefly made the Billboard 200, and it missed the album chart’s Top 40.
All of this is to say, Lin-Manuel Miranda may be the reason “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is a great song, but he’s not why it’s sitting atop the Hot 100 right now. It’s not only his first No. 1 as a songwriter—it’s his first Top 10 pop hit, period. (His second, the Encanto bop “Surface Pressure,” performed by actress Jessica Darrow, is in the Top 10 right now; it’s currently No. 9.) Prior to 2022, the best Miranda had done was the one-off single “Almost Like Praying,” a 2017 benefit for Puerto Rican relief after the devastation of Hurricane Maria, which sold well as a digital download but peaked on the big chart at No. 20. An EGOT is not an EGOTH; the Hot 100 is not part of the equation, and showtunes success is no guarantee of chart command.
As I chronicled in an episode of my Hit Parade podcast, it has been decades since Broadway composers had a major chart impact, back in the era of My Fair Lady, The Music Man or Camelot. Even then, many Great White Way legends did not score hits. It might surprise you to learn that Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein scored their first and only writing credit on a Hot 100 No. 1 in 2019, via an interpolation of The Sound of Music’s “My Favorite Things” in Ariana Grande’s smash “7 Rings.” And Lin-Manuel Miranda’s friend, forebear, and mentor, Stephen Sondheim, scored precious few hits, basically flukes: an instrumental cover of West Side Story’s “Tonight” by pianist duo Ferrante and Teicher, No. 8 in 1961; and, more famously, Judy Collins’s cover of his A Little Night Music classic “Send in the Clowns,” No. 19 in 1977. Acutely aware of his showtunes trivia, Miranda himself compared “Bruno” to “Clowns” in People magazine last month: “I feel like this is my ‘Send in the Clowns,’ which was the late Stephen Sondheim’s biggest hit and probably the most random of an incredible career and life making music. But I’ll take it!”
If the songwriter can’t explain his chart-topper’s success—he had to be told by his own second grader that “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” was all the kids’ favorite Encanto song—can anybody? The point of this Slate series is explaining why a song is No. 1, and in the case of “Bruno,” I’ve got company. An array of reporters, critics and musicologists has spent the last month trying to explain how a Broadway-style ensemble song from an animated feature, sung by mostly Colombian vocalists with no hitmaking experience, managed to scale the charts in the age of Cardi B, The Weeknd, and Dua Lipa. (I myself was approached by a USA Today reporter about three weeks ago, when “Bruno” was only at No. 5. I’m glad he didn’t quote the part when I told him I doubted it would go much higher. Whoops.) These analyses largely focus on the song itself and presume there was something fundamentally hit-bound about “Bruno,” as if decoding its mysteries will reveal why it was destined for No. 1. If only the charts always reflected a song’s intrinsic qualities! Catchiness alone can’t explain this—catchy songs fall short in Billboard all the time.
To me, the “Bruno” story is less about the song’s greatness and more about how the charts function. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s earworm is No. 1 for, more or less, the same reason Mariah Carey’s 1994 Christmas chestnut went to No. 1 in 2019. Our metrics have evolved in the age of streaming and social virality, to the benefit of some very culturally specific songs.
Mind you, the elements of the song do help. “Bruno’s” sense of mystery—about an estranged member of Encanto’s Madrigal family, whose magical power is future prognostication—is enveloping, even if you haven’t seen the movie. Among No. 1 hits named after a slippery, enigmatic figure, Bruno might as well be Mrs. Robinson, Jessie, Macarena, or Ms. Jackson—a kind of MacGuffin that propels the song. Which, in this case, is a goddamned hook-delivering machine. The refrain alone, “We don’t talk about Bruno/ No, no, no,” is universally appealing: singable by kids, danceable by adults. As The New York Times reported, when consulting with the Disney film’s directors, Miranda chose the character’s name himself just for its rhythmic qualities. “Definitely Bruno,” Miranda instructed co-director Jared Bush, when given a list of potential names. “I couldn’t figure out why he was so definitive,” Bush told the Times, “until two days later when we heard, ‘Bruno, no, no, no.’” (I love that anecdote.) But there are little pleasures baked into the verses, too: the tactile, whispery way Adassa as Dolores sings, “I can always hear him sorta muttering and mumbling/ I associate him with the sound of falling sand” (clever way to get Gen-Z’s attention with some ASMR, Lin). There’s the spooky way Rhenzy Feliz’s Camilo sings, “Yeah, he sees your dreams/Feasts on your screams”—you can hear him lurching his arms around like a “Thriller” zombie. And then there’s the centerpiece, the verse by Diane Guerrero’s diva Isabela, where nearly all the music drops out to give her a spotlight against plucked strings: “He told me/ That the life of my dreams/ Would be promised/ And someday be mine.” Musically, this is an old LMM standby—props to my pals at the Switched on Pop podcast, who nailed Isabela’s section as full of Hamilton tropes, including the yearning melisma of “Satisfied” and the all-music dropout trick from “Wait for It” or “My Shot.”
Some commentators, the Switched guys included, have cited “Bruno” as another milestone in the crossover of Latin music on the Anglo pop charts. Without question, post-“Despacito,” it is much easier for a salsa-adjacent jam like “Bruno,” built out of a classic Cuban piano montuno, to scale the Hot 100. Since “Despacito,” we’ve seen Latin music glom onto centrist radio pop and hip-hop on No. 1s like Camila Cabello’s “Havana” featuring Young Thug and Cardi B’s “I Like It” featuring Bad Bunny and J. Balvin. But really, “Bruno” is Latin music with training wheels for non-Spanish-speakers, old-school and friendly, more Rodgers and Hammerstein than reggaetón. Billboard has determined that “Bruno,” sung entirely in English, does not qualify for its Hot Latin Songs chart; and while certain English-first jams like Cardi’s “I Like It” have scored major spins at Latin radio, “Bruno” isn’t currently on the Latin Airplay chart, either. Miranda’s pop-salsa would sound incongruous on La Mega FM or La Ley 100.5 next to Rauw Alejandro or Don Omar.
One other Encanto track, however, has qualified for Hot Latin Songs, since it’s entirely in Spanish: “Dos Oruguitas,” a tender ballad sung by Sebastián Yatra, a frequent Latin chart-topper better known for his reggaetón jams. On this week’s Latin chart, thanks largely to streaming data, “Dos Oruguitas” is No. 2. (On the Hot 100, it’s only gotten as high as No. 36.)
This song is further evidence of just how unpredictable the success of “Bruno” was for everyone. Disney submitted only “Dos Oruguitas” to the Motion Picture Academy, hence it’s the only Encanto song eligible for the Best Song Oscar. In the film, the lovely ballad, which translates as “Two Little Caterpillars,” soundtracks a flashback recounting how Abeula, the Madrigal family matriarch, lost her husband. Lin-Manuel Miranda penned it as a kind of would-be Colombian folk song; it is to Encanto what “Edelweiss” is to The Sound of Music. If Miranda completes his EGOT in March, it will be with “Dos Oruguitas,” not “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.” Yet the viral and chart success of “Bruno” might well power “Oruguitas” to the win.
Choosing the ballad as the promotional focus is a kind of Disney tradition. During the studio’s ’90s renaissance, it was “Beauty and the Beast” (No. 9, 1992), not the showstopping “Be Our Guest,” that won the Oscar and cracked the Top 10 from Beauty and the Beast. “A Whole New World” (No. 1, 1993), not the exuberant “Friend Like Me,” won the gold for Aladdin. And The Lion King’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” (No. 4, 1994) did the trick for that film, not the perky “Hakuna Matata.” To ensure chart success, Disney would routinely record two versions of an animated feature’s signature ballad for the soundtrack: a diegetic version sung by the original voice cast, and a (frankly, boring) adult-contemporary ballad voiced by a pop hitmaker: Celine Dion, Peabo Bryson, Elton John, Vanessa Williams. In the digital era, however, the public began rebelling against this marketing gambit. For 2013’s Frozen, Disney recorded the power anthem “Let It Go” in both flavors—Idina Menzel for the movie, Demi Lovato for the radio—and the public, now empowered in the digital era to not only purchase the soundtrack but download whichever track they preferred, picked Menzel over Lovato by a four-to-one ratio. Lovato’s “Let It Go” topped out at No. 38 on the Hot 100, while Menzel’s peaked at No. 5, right after the 2014 Oscars, where she sang and the Kristen Anderson-Lopez-Robert Lopez composition won.
It’s easy to see how “Let It Go”—the ultimate Disney power-ballad, the “Defying Gravity” of the ’10s—was going to be a hit one way or another. But “We Don’t Talk About Bruno?” There is literally no precedent for a six-vocalist Disney patter song becoming a hit on this scale. This is where the data comes in. The three factors that make up the Hot 100, streams, radio and sales, show how the business model has evolved for Disney music not just since the ’90s, but even in the last decade.
When “Let It Go” peaked eight years ago, the dollar-download was still king. Spotify had only been in America about three years, and sales and airplay were still the top factors on the Hot 100. Streaming counted then, but not as much. Digital consumption is important for children’s music in particular, because these songs chart with a built-in handicap: meager radio play. Accordingly, “Let It Go” got to No. 5 on the Hot 100 largely through sales. Radio airplay for Menzel’s belter was very limited, but it sold about three million downloads (and would ultimately go on to sell more than eight million). Those sales were a powerful counterweight to radio’s indifference. Now, streaming rules the charts, and we can track how culturally resonant a song is every time a kid opens up Spotify and hits play. To say nothing of TikTok, another indicator of virality that doesn’t count directly for the Hot 100 but has a huge knock-on effect on streams and sales—the chart is, more than ever, a heat index.
In early January, a couple of weeks after Encanto appeared on Disney+ (another thing that didn’t exist in 2014), “Bruno” exploded from No. 50 to No˘ 5 on the Hot 100; it was streamed more than any other song that week, about 25 million times. This week, as “Bruno” leaps to No. 1, Billboard reports that its streams are up to 35 million—all those weeks of Disney+ play and TikTok love have snowballed. As with “Let It Go” in 2014, airplay for “Bruno” in 2022 is anemic—a radio audience of just 1.5 million, too small to even make this week’s Radio Songs chart. But the song’s streams are so massive, it doesn’t matter.
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In other words, the eight million Americans who downloaded “Let It Go” back in 2013-14 may have played it a lot. (I mean, most of them were kids! Of course they did.) But all those plays were not tracked, only the initial sale. Whereas the hundreds of millions of streams that “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” has amassed in the past month have all factored into the chart. Again, it’s like what happened to holiday music. As I explained in the wake of Carey’s late-blooming success with “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” until the last decade, holiday songs were a bad fit for the Billboard charts. Deeply beloved music that only had about five weeks a year to make an impact, airplay limited to certain radio formats, and sales that could only go so high (you’re not going to buy “White Christmas” or “Last Christmas” every year). It took streaming—plus evolution in a whole lot of other Billboard rules and industry practices, from breaking apart the album to allowing perennial songs to come back to the chart—to make Christmas music the annual chart juggernaut it probably always should have been. It’s even made us remember just how much we loved Andy Williams and Brenda Lee.
Which brings us back to 2022, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new perennial. Every time his son, and thousands more second-graders across the country, hit play on “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” they’re telling Disney and the rest of the music business, “This song right here—this is the hit.” Which really makes you think: Could other Disney ensemble songs have been this popular? Beauty and the Beast’s “Be Our Guest”? Cinderella’s “Work Song (Cinderelly, Cinderelly)”? Dumbo’s “When I See an Elephant Fly”? Heck, all the way back to “Heigh-Ho” from Snow White’s Seven Dwarfs?! None of these multi-vocalist classics charted in their day. Not because they didn’t connect with audiences—I’ll bet that you can sing most if not all of them—but because we didn’t have the tools to measure just how deeply they penetrated. Maybe “Bruno” going to No. 1 vindicates all of them. Maybe now, it’ll be with us forever—like la familia Madrigal says about Bruno, its fate is sealed when its prophecy is read.
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