This week, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno”—a song from the soundtrack to Disney’s latest animated film, Encanto—climbed toward the top of the music charts, nestling itself among the likes of Lil Nas X and Adele on the Billboard Hot 100 and Spotify’s most-played tracks. The song sets one of the film’s dramatic climaxes, consisting of a revolving door of magical characters interjecting a whirlwind of melodies. It all culminates in the film’s protagonist, Mirabel, piecing together one of the movie’s central mysteries: What’s the deal with Bruno?
There are many aspects of this track contributing to its rising popularity, weeks after Encanto’s release: Not only is the song narratively compelling, but it’s also a total bop. The music is a remarkable mixture of Broadway and Latin American influences, with a particularly distinctive rhythm. While the characters each sing the catchy and tight melodies we’ve come to expect from Lin-Manuel Miranda, they almost always avoid singing on the beat. The song’s repeating bass line also constantly teases our expectations; of the 30 notes that make up this lick, only two align with the beat! This pervasive off-the-beat-ness is precisely why we can’t help grooving to this song; when music evades the beat, it evokes a feeling of motion in listeners, tugging on our own centers of gravity as it narrowly avoids coinciding with where we expect it to land.
The trajectory of “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is equally dramatic. The song rotates through a series of verses, with different members of Mirabel’s family each singing different melodies. However, unbeknownst to the listener, Miranda has composed each of these melodies to work together. As the song rips toward its climax, we hear a tornado of lines mashed together as the characters sing their individual melodies at the same time. The moment produces an unexpected and sensational musical high point, and it cleverly references similar overlapping dramatic pinnacles in Les Misérables, West Side Story, and even Sesame Street’s famous breakfast conflict.
But the song is more than just a danceable and catchy tune. The movie Encanto is about an enchanted family losing its magical powers due to some unseen force. As Mirabel struggles to understand this force, she interrogates each of her relatives about her absent, fortunetelling uncle Bruno. But the song isn’t really “about” Bruno in the same way the movie isn’t really “about” magic. Instead, the movie is actually about unresolved intergenerational trauma (especially in migrant and politically oppressed cultures), while the song actually lays bare the characters’ own frustrations, shortcomings, and prejudices.
For instance, the first verse finds Mirabel’s aunt Pepa and uncle Félix blaming Bruno for predicting rain at their wedding. However, Pepa’s own magical powers control the weather; the underlying meaning behind her verse is less about Bruno’s alleged curse on her wedding, and more about the couple’s underlying frustrations with Pepa’s inability to control her own power (“in doing so he floods my brain”).
Perhaps the most compelling moments in the song are those sung by Dolores, Mirabel’s cousin, whose magical ears allow her to hear every movement and conversation within miles. The family, however, treats Dolores like a magical courier service, asking her only to mechanically report on events and ignoring her feelings and input. In “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” Dolores’ verse recounts what she’s heard and deduced about her supposedly absent uncle. In the scant 19 seconds that she sings, her circuitous and roundabout lyrics reveal that she still hears Bruno around the house (“I can always hear him sort of muttering and mumbling”) and that he tried to use his gift to help the family (“it’s a heavy lift with a gift so humbling”), but he became alienated from his mother and siblings when his prophecies failed to align with their expectations (“grappling with prophecies they couldn’t understand”). But while Dolores drops these narrative bombshells, the music is too fast and too soft for us to fully understand her. Delivered at twice the speed of any other verse, she whispers her syllables (compare the full-throated Pepa with the muted Dolores), making her words difficult, if not impossible, to comprehend. By being too fast and too soft, the music cleverly forces the audience into the same relationship with Dolores that she has with the rest of the family: She is trying to tell us the truth about Bruno, but we’re unable to fully understand her.
As the track continues, the song embeds its own hidden musical prophecies. When Mirabel’s too-perfect sister Isabela delivers her verse, she recounts Bruno’s prediction that her own power and happiness will continue to grow (“He told me that the life of my dreams … would someday be mine”). While these lines initially seem boastful and vapid, this passage eventually plays a key role in Isabela’s transformation later in the film. In Isabela’s song “What Else Can I Do?” Mirabel helps her sister realize that her life has been restricted by her family’s unrealistic expectations (“What could I do if I just knew it didn’t need to be perfect?”). As Isabela confesses “I’m so sick of pretty, I want something true,” Mirabel recapitulates her sister’s verse from “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” to encourage Isabela to embrace her own wants and needs. Here, Mirabel musically reinterprets Bruno’s prophecy, showing Isabela how she can finally attain “the life of her dreams.”
Even the key of “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” hides information about the plot’s final resolution. The song is in the key of C—that is, the note C serves as its central home pitch—a key that has already played an important role in the soundtrack, with scenes that highlight familial love and connection set in this key. In contrast, songs that highlight Mirabel’s growing distance from her family (“The Family Madrigal” and “Waiting on a Miracle”) foreground the note C-sharp as a pitch one note away from C; these moments musically show Mirabel being pulled away from her family’s key of C. Conversely, when the family confronts its problems and trauma later in the film, the music moves back into the key of C. “What Else Can I Do?” moves to that key during Isabela’s crucial breakthrough, and Abuela (Mirabel’s intransigent grandmother) has her own breakthrough in the ballad “Dos Oruguitas” in that key. “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” describes the family’s problems while foreshadowing their solutions, and by using the key of C, the music is making an explicit connection between these solutions and the ultimate resolutions of the family’s trauma.
In a lot of ways, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is a surprising candidate for this distinction of the first Disney song since Frozen’s megahit “Let It Go” to reach the top 5 on Billboard’s Hot 100. After all, it’s not a love ballad, it’s not a solo anthem, nor is it even in a mainstream pop style. But the song is so cool for so many reasons—musical, lyrical, and narrative—giving us all many reasons to talk about (and sing about, and make TikToks about) “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.”
Correction, Jan. 13, 2022: This piece originally misspelled the name Mirabel.