Disney’s latest animated movie spawns a surprise and massive hit song
It blew up on TikTok. It hit #1 on every major streaming platform. It’s #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 (at the time of this post’s release) between Glass Animals and Ed Sheeran. The album from which it came bumped Adele’s 30 out of the top spot. It’s stuck in the heads of parents everywhere, most of whom aren’t even complaining about it.
About the only place you won’t hear it is your radio.
It’s time to talk about Bruno, specifically “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” the surprise smash from Disney’s Encanto.
The song is already the biggest hit of the 21st century from a Disney animated film, surpassing Frozen’s “Let It Go”. It’s already matched the #4 Hot 100 chart peak of “Colors of the Wind” by Vanessa Williams (1995) and Elton John’s “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” (1994). Unlike these soft-rock stalwarts, however, “Bruno” hit #4 without any meaningful spins on FM radio.
Is “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” too big for radio to ignore?
There are two extreme philosophies relevant to this question. Both are big mistakes.
- “If the numbers say it’s a hit, it’s a hit and we must play it.”
- “It doesn’t matter how many people love it, if it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t fit”
To understand why these rigid mindsets lead to poor decisions, let’s examine two hits of the streaming era, including another Disney animated classic.
Mistake #1: The numbers say it’s a hit
Back in the day, Disney recruited big names to belt out movie ballads to garner radio airplay, from Elton John and Phil Collins to Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson. Disney has also tactically released two versions of songs, one featuring the voice actors in the film and the other from a big-name pop star designed to draw airplay. Frozen employed this tactic with both Idina Menzel and Demi Lovato recording “Let It Go”.
2014 broke that model.
Frozen was the first Disney animated blockbuster when audio and video streaming were widely available to preschoolers. Voting with their fingers, the kids made the Idina Menzel original—not the Demi Lovato remake—the hit version. “Let It Go” reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and became the 21st biggest song of 2014, all without meaningful airplay.
A few Integr8 New Music Research clients did test Menzel’s “Let It Go” in 2014. Within their target demographics, they found some listeners loved it, some listeners hated it, and a lot of (presumably child-free) listeners said, “what the hell is this?”
How could such a massive hit bomb in callout?
First, the demographic that was most passionate about Frozen, 2- to 12-year-olds, aren’t in radio music research, but their YouTube and Spotify streams count just as much as any other user’s streams count.
Second, those fans who loved “Let It Go” really loved it—and played it over and over and over and over. (My kid was six during Frozen. Arendelle still haunts me.). Streaming doesn’t measure how many different listeners play a song, it measures how many plays a song gets. Ten people playing a song one time is the same as one person playing a song 10 times.
Therefore, despite the massive streaming metrics, radio was right to avoid Elsa’s ode to ice. Parents didn’t want to hear “Let It Go” on the radio. They listened to the radio to get away from “Let It Go.”
The lesson for radio? Just because a song has huge streaming numbers doesn’t mean it’s a huge hit among your listeners. A niche appeal song can rack up massive streaming plays, but radio needs songs that a massive segment of the audience enjoys.
Mistake #2: It doesn’t sound like it fits
Fast forward to 2019. A song blew up on a new video platform called TikTok. Then, the song saw massive streaming on Spotify. But when the song started charting on Billboard, radio wasn’t sure what to make of it. It was from an unknown Hip Hop artist, but the song was about being…a cowboy? It was barely two minutes long. It sampled Nine Inch Nails.
How was this song going to sound between “Havana” and “Perfect”?
It seems obvious now, but in March 2019, even Billboard didn’t know what to do with “Old Town Road,” notoriously banishing the track from its Hot Country Songs chart. Understandably, radio programmers were hesitant to trust that a viral Country Trap song would appeal to a mainstream audience. Hindsight told us they did. “Old Town Road” famously spent 19 record-breaking weeks at #1 and Lil Nas X has gone on to become a major hitmaker.
When Integr8 New Music Research clients tested “Old Town Road”, they found their research confirmed that most listeners already knew Old Town Road and, although it had its haters, far more listeners loved it.
Lil Nas X wasn’t alone. Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” and “Bad Guy” from Billie Eilish both turned out to be mass-appeal hits, despite sounding starkly different than other hits and taking then non-traditional routes to becoming hits. Had radio stations eschewed these songs and stuck to what sounded safe, they would have been playing Taylor Swift songs that no longer garnered the appeal of her earlier hits.
It’s easy to spot hits when mothers and daughters agree on what’s big. But at times when a new generation is emerging with its own idea of what’s popular, CHR has often fallen into the trap of thinking the format is about Pop music, not popular music. That’s how Michael Bolton dominated early 90s radio.
But unlike Hip Hop or Country, listeners expect a Contemporary Hit Radio station to keep them up to speed on the biggest contemporary hits, regardless of the sonic foundation of the song.
The lesson for radio? If you’re a hit music station, a song fits if it’s a mass appeal hit. Playing it too safe today undermines listener’s expectations of a hit music station, namely keeping them up to date on today’s biggest hits. That sonic conservatism almost killed the entire CHR format in the early 1990s.
Which brings us back to Bruno.
Why “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” might be different than “Let It Go”
It’s not a ballad. It’s an upbeat song sung by the cast ensemble. Disney might be the most surprised of anyone by this break in tradition. They submitted “Dos Oruguitas” (“Two Caterpillars”) for the Grammy nomination and may well have expected it to be the film’s musical signature.
It’s musically intriguing and incurably catchy. Composed by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Bruno” incorporates elements of Columbian Cumbia and Hip Hop, as well as more hooks than in a single song from ABBA, making Bruno more musically complex and even more catchy than a typical Disney ditty.
It may have appeal beyond Disney’s core demo. This question is the pivotal one for radio. My observations suggest that:
- Teenagers love the entire soundtrack;
- Parents are happy that they can share the musical talent Miranda brought to Hamilton without the inappropriate language;
- Other parents happily sing along when their kids stream Encanto for the 87th time—and are delighted there’s a Disney soundtrack they don’t hate;
- It’s huge among Disney’s adult fandom;
- It has inspired TikToks, exposing the song to teens and child-free young adults.
The song may also be benefiting from lucky timing. Encanto wasn’t a massive hit in theaters when it debuted in November 2021 but has blossomed on Disney+. Between COVID outbreaks and winter weather, many schools and preschools have closed unexpectedly, leaving many parents trying to entertain their kids while also working from home. Encanto is entertaining those kids, while the parents are finding the soundtrack stuck in their heads and—for once—liking it.
Sometimes, timing is everything on why a song is relevant.
“We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is undoubtedly having a moment of popular cultural relevance. But radio?
How to decide
If you have access to new music research, test it. Has the song’s viral growth already made it as familiar as some of the newer songs from your core artists? Do those listeners who know it love it? Do they significantly outnumber any listeners who hate it?
In that case, play it—assuming you’re a CHR or Hot AC station.
It won’t go into your gold library. You should pull it as soon as it shows signs of losing its buzz or garnering backlash. But for the time it is relevant to a mass audience, it’s a hit.
If, however, most of your listeners don’t know the song, or if a lot of your listeners hate it, then you’ll know the song’s appeal is limited to a niche audience and the song is not a mass-appeal hit. You should not play it no matter how massive the streaming metrics look, nor should you try to make it a hit on your own as you would do with the new release from a proven core artist.
Herein lays the balance between the two extremes of approaching left field hits: CHR should not ignore a song simply because it doesn’t sound like the typical song on the station. At the same time, those songs need to prove themselves elsewhere before CHR explores adding them.
Radio is no longer the only medium where a song can become a hit. However, radio is the king of validating that a song is a hit.
POSTSCRIPT: I first learned of “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from my 14-year-old, who long ago became too cool for Disney, but shared the song with me after hearing it from friends because our family’s orange tabby cat is named Bruno.
Unlike the Madrigal family, we talk about our Bruno. A Lot.