The success of Disney’s Encanto is surprising, but for a different reason than most movies nowadays.
The light-hearted fantasy flick, with its themes of togetherness and family, did somehow find an audience during COVID-19 restrictions. That is notable, but not out of the norm for a cultural juggernaut that churns out hits at an astounding rate.
Instead, what’s most astounding about Encanto is the success Disney has managed to find outside the movie industry, and instead on the music charts.
Last week, the movie’s most popular song (We Don’t Talk About Bruno, about the main character’s ostracized uncle) reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 — the best performance from a Disney animated film in more than 26 years, outpacing even 2013’s viral earworm Let It Go.
In fact, six songs from Encanto soundtrack are currently on Billboard’s top 100 list, while the album itself is the first movie soundtrack to hit No. 1 since 2019.
WATCH | Disney’s We Don’t Talk About Bruno:
The film’s musical success is even more impressive considering which songs it’s competing against. We Don’t Talk About Bruno bumped Adele’s long-awaited 30 out of a six-week run at the top spot, and is currently No. 1 in both Spotify’s Top 50 Canadian and American playlists. In so doing, it’s even beat out new music by the platform’s most streamed artist of 2022: the Weeknd.
So how did Encanto — a film that follows teenager Mirabel Madrigal on a journey to discover how she is unique and valuable — do it? Simple: though the film is in many ways geared toward children, it has also caught the attention of older audiences.
In composer Lin-Manuel Miranda’s view, a large part of that is due to representation, and a focus on family (Mirabel is the sole non-magical member of her own), especially at a time when connecting with others comes at a premium.
“We’ve all been locked up for two years,” Miranda told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “The notion of a bunch of voices happening within one home feels very resonant, with hindsight.”
There’s another element to the movie’s success: TikTok. As the social platform has become a tastemaker in the music industry, it has also changed the way music finds an audience. And that change works perfectly for Encanto.
“A student of mine said, ‘Mr. Amante, you need to sing We Don’t Talk About Bruno on TikTok,'” Saskatchewan high school teacher Paul Amante — and occasional TikToker — explained. “Then I watched the movie, and I was addicted.”
Amante isn’t alone; a huge number of users have created posts using Encanto songs on the app. He explained that the the film’s music lends itself to success there for several reasons.
First is the aural complexity of the music itself. Most of the songs feature many voices, and multiple competing melodies — a perfect formula for engagement on a platform that allows creators to “duet,” and add on, to other users’ videos.
And that complexity is especially true of Bruno.
“Each character that sings on this song has a totally, totally different melody … Everyone has a different melody, a different cadence,” Amante said. “And I think that’s so cool.”
A madrigal by the Madrigals
That technique of many voices singing at once, known as polyphony in music, was intentional. Bruno even features a section where the Madrigal family all sings their own melodies at the same time — reminiscent of the “madrigal” style of arrangement, popular during the Renaissance and early Baroque periods.
It both hints at the movie’s theme, and makes the song more fun to sing along to. And that co-operative quality has led to hundreds of thousands of TikTok videos using Encanto‘s tracks.
Brian Fauteaux, an associate professor of popular music and media studies at the University of Alberta, said that while Encanto‘s success on TikTok has definitely leant itself to its success, it also makes it difficult to compare Disney’s past success on the charts.
6:09Encanto’s We Don’t Talk About Bruno is a runaway hit. A musicologist explains what makes it work
“If we’re thinking of even comparisons to some of Disney’s earlier hits, it was a very different media environment, very reliant on radio play and the Billboard metrics,” Fauteux said. Now, they factor in and account for plays on TikTok and YouTube, platforms that encourage people to build on and add to existing content.
“So it’s hard to totally compare the chart activity of some of these songs, when you have so many people playing and replaying and sharing their own version, versus something that would have been really reliant on record sales and radio activity,” he said.
That influence has already started to upset which music gets popular. In 2021, largely because of TikTok, the popularity of catalogue music (songs older than 18 months) swelled. It rose nearly 20 per cent, and now accounts for nearly 70 per cent of the industry’s market share at the expense of new music releases.
A song’s success now largely depends on how easy it is for people to develop their own content using it. That, Fauteux explained, could be helping what are effectively children’s songs gain mainstream success.
Amante, who is Filipino, says there is another element to Encanto‘s popularity. He said the film, which depicts a Colombian family, drew him in with its emphasis on representation, and the diversity of that representation.
Due to the historical Spanish colonization of the Philippines, there is a lasting Spanish influence on the country’s people and culture. And for Amante, seeing a film that was unapologetic and prideful in its celebration of the diversity of Spanish culture helped him feel seen.
“I think the very fact that Mirabel has my nose really struck me and little things like that do struck me,” Amante said. “Because I don’t see my nose represented on media, and my nose — we’ve been made fun of for our noses for the longest time, so it’s great to see my nose celebrated.”
Josanne Buchanan, a cultural consultant at Disney, Nickelodeon and Netflix, said that celebration also helps the movie — and its songs — feel relevant and valuable to adults. Hearing songs with such obvious influence from — and respect for — Latin culture helps them transcend any single demographic, and find a wide enough audience to shoot to the top of the charts.
“With the development of virtual communities … we’re seeing that cartoon characters, animated characters, are not just for children,” Buchanan said. “They are something that anyone can enjoy and learn from.”