A polyphonic salsa show tune with lyrics an AI might have spit out (“I associate him with the sound of falling sand!”) is the first great pop-music mystery of 2022. This week, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” from the Disney animated film Encanto, has dethroned Adele to take the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100. In recent history, no comparable song exists to explain its success. The ubiquity of “Bruno” is strange and a bit menacing, like the magical uncle described by the lyrics.
Yet “We Don’t Talk About Bruno”—written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and performed by an ensemble that includes Carolina Gaitán, Mauro Castillo, Adassa, Rhenzy Feliz, Diane Guerrero, and Stephanie Beatriz—can also be thought of as the culmination of several trends, making it the most 2022 song possible. Understanding its popularity helps explain a number of things about what else has been big in music, and culture, lately.
The Disney of It All
Though Disney has generated lots of legendary music over the years, “Bruno” is the first No. 1 from one of its animated films since Aladdin’s “A Whole New World” in 1993. The new song is charting higher than Frozen’s “Let It Go” did in 2014 and higher than The Lion King’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” did in 1994. Perhaps it is doing so because Disney is so culturally dominant right now. In 2019, before the pandemic drove audiences from theaters, the studio—whose holdings include Marvel and Star Wars—released seven of the year’s top-10 highest grossing movies. Disney+ has since come to conquer home entertainment: Of the top 15 streaming movies of 2021, Disney originated 11.
Given those realities, how surprising is it that the studio can deliver a pop smash? Many of the same factors that explain Disney’s sway—the studio’s sheer size and reach; its collection of top creative talents and business minds; the kidult tastes of the mass audience—transcend film and TV. Yet even the studio may have been surprised by the success of this particular song. Encanto was released in November to a just-okay box-office reception. The studio submitted other cuts from the soundtrack for Oscars consideration. So Disney really didn’t simply decide “Bruno” would be inescapable—its consumers did.
Latin Pop’s Rise
Those consumers’ preferences have been informed by Latin pop’s growing status as a global powerhouse. Though the U.S. version of “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is sung in English, Encanto is set in Colombia, and the song is made by artists of Latin heritage. Although the song moves through a number of musical styles over its runtime, Miranda and co-producer Mike Elizondo foregrounded Cuban piano sounds and a cha-cha feel—accentuated by that “No, no, no” refrain. Such sonic elements have long coursed through the American musical landscape, but in recent years, their presence has become more overt and widely celebrated on the Hot 100.
“I don’t think this song could have been No. 1 six years ago, pre-‘Despacito,’” Leila Cobo, a Billboard vice president and the company’s Latin-industry lead, told me, referencing the Daddy Yankee and Luis Fonsi reggaeton hit that spent 16 weeks on top of the Hot 100 in 2017. The post-“Despacito” landscape has seen songs such as J Balvin’s “Mi Gente” and Camila Cabello’s “Havana” catch on with both audiences who speak Spanish and those who don’t. “Bruno” fits into this landscape, and Cobo said she was especially moved that the song’s characters really sound Colombian. “You go to watch a movie like Encanto and you realize that for [audiences], it is no longer an anomaly to have someone who speaks English with a slight accent,” she said.
TikTok Tongue Twisters
Like so many hits of recent years, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” has inspired legions of amusing TikToks, creating a viral feedback loop. The song is not quite associated with one mega meme, though. Different people are latching on to different segments of the song, choosing which of the characters and dances to riff on. Thanks to Miranda’s knack for music that seems to unfold like a colorful pop-up book, the song happens to have all of the features that TikTok cherishes: theatricality, specificity, humor, surprise, and an invitation to roleplay.
You could also argue that “Bruno” is part of the larger tradition that predates TikTok: the novelty hit. (Think “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” or “Monster Mash.”) Novelty hits often stand apart from contemporary pop trends, build on a core of musical simplicity, and add a WTF twist. Talking with Billboard’s Pop Shop podcast about his intricate lyrics, Miranda mentioned Mary Poppins’s “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” as a point of comparison while noting that kids, in particular, love a tongue twister. When a song is both alluring and odd, it demands to be decoded—which means lots of replay value.
At first listen, the meaning of “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is pretty unclear. The song advances a larger, complex plot by expressing an extremely particular concept: The estranged uncle of a supernaturally powerful family used to tell gloomy prophecies that turned out to be true, and said family doesn’t like to talk about all of that anymore. But within the context of Encanto, or with repeated plays of the song, the overarching narrative starts to feel simpler. The members of a clan are gossiping about an outcast who is disliked for reasons that, the listener begins to suspect, are not entirely fair.
Some commentators have written about how this concept triggered a strong emotional reaction in them. Bruno could be thought of as a stand-in for someone with misunderstood mental-health conditions, or as someone who just doesn’t belong. Many people have experienced group dynamics in which rumors, shaming, and silence beat out dialogue and empathy. As much as the clockwork catchiness of the song is creating the fascination with it, relatable themes about marginalization and family dynamics may be pulling listeners back to the song too.
The Streaming Era
A broader technological shift underlies, unites, and trumps all of the above explanations. Streaming platforms such as Spotify track not only that a particular work of entertainment gets played, but also how frequently it gets played. This is a recent development, and it will be reshaping our common definition of popularity for a while to come.
Imagine if, in the ’90s, every time a kid demanded their parents blast the Lion King CD in the car on the way to school, it was recorded in chart data. Might “Circle of Life” have outranked Sheryl Crow? On the Pop Shop podcast, the hosts Katie Atkinson and Keith Caulfield contextualized the “Bruno” phenomenon by noting that Christmas carols now swarm the charts every December, and that old music seems to be outperforming new music. Listener habits may or may not be changing, but our ability to measure them definitely is.
Streaming thus helps children’s music do well on the charts. It also means that the actual popularity of Latin music—pure listenership, not just sales and radio play, which can be heavily tied to record-company priorities—can now be understood. It means, too, that songs with TikTok-baiting quirks (think “Old Town Road”) or an intense emotional spark (see “Drivers License,” one year ago) can seem to come out of nowhere and overtake everything else. We live in an era when obsession is probably the most important force in popular culture. And for a whole mess of reasons, “Bruno” demands another listen, and another.