Last year in January, the runaway pop hit was a song about learning to drive. Now, a year later, the charts are all about being stuck at home with your family. We’re regressing! Of course, what we’re talking about here is the mega-success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s soundtrack to the Disney animated musical Encanto, about a Colombian family with a magical house, riven by fault lines of family secrets. The breakaway hit from the movie has, somehow, been “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” a group number in which the magical Madrigals and various townspeople all sing about their shunned relative, Bruno (John Leguizamo), whose gift of premonition turned him into a real Cassandra-like bummer (“He told me my fish would die, the next day, dead!” goes its best line.) “Bruno” reached number four on the Billboard chart last week, managing to climb even higher than Idina Menzel’s high-belted “Let It Go.” But this week, there’s a new impressive chart feat from Encanto: The soundtrack is back for a second week as the number one album, and another song from the movie, “Surface Pressure,” has broken into the top ten, making this the first Disney movie to have multiple top-ten hits. Congrats to everyone involved on the success, but the key thrill here is that “Surface Pressure,” the actual best song in Encanto, is getting the attention it deserves. Finally we have an excuse to talk about the best Madrigal family member.
In Encanto, Luisa Madrigal (Jessica Darrow) is the middle child between the too-perfect Isabela, who can enchant up lots of foliage, and Mirabel, the movie’s protagonist, who has no powers at all. Luisa has the gift of super-strength, and has the classic middle-child duties of trying to go around pleasing everyone, except in her case pleasing people involves moving large objects around for them. Once Mirabel starts to investigate whether something’s gone wrong with the family’s magic, she ends up checking in on Luisa, who has developed a twitch from all the pressure of holding things together and in her song, “Surface Pressure,” admits to feeling “pressure like a drip, drip, drip, that’ll never stop.” Bilge Ebiri, Vulture’s other “Surface Pressure” die-hard, praised the song in his review of Encanto as one of the movie’s most likely breakout number, and it’s easy to see why. The song kicks off with a thrumming beat that Miranda’s typically dexterous lyrics skitter between, referencing everyone from Hercules being like “Yo, I don’t wanna fight Cerberus” to the sinking of the Titanic (when is Encanto? Please don’t bother yourself with such concerns). In the bridge, suddenly we break out of the water for a second for Luisa to ponder what could happen if she could “shake the crushing weight / Of expectations” and simply relax, before the beat kicks back in and pulls her down into that same drip, drip, drip all over again.
It’s not too much of a surprise that Miranda is very good at writing about the stress of being an overachiever, considering that comes up in Hamilton (see “Non-Stop”) and In the Heights (this is pretty much a sequel to “Breathe”), though you can probably find most of the song’s DNA in his lyrics to the songs in Bring It On: The Musical, for which Tom Kitt wrote the music (especially “What I Was Born to Do” and “One Perfect Moment,” which is basically an extended version of the bridge from “Surface Pressure”). Am I just bringing this up because I love to talk about Bring It On: The Musical, the Broadway musical with a cast that included future Tony winner Adrienne Warren, West Side Story breakout Ariana DeBose, and Jason Gotay, who plays a creepy teacher in the Gossip Girl reboot, and a cast recording that is full of songs that are perfect for blaring through your earphones at the gym (especially if your name is also Jackson because they shout “Go Jackson” a lot)? Yes, probably, but still, listen to that soundtrack, and tell me it isn’t the origin of “Surface Pressure.”
Speaking of the song that this blog post is actually about, what a joy for “Surface Pressure” to rise up in the rankings so that we can all acknowledge that both it and Luisa are the heroes of Encanto. Fittingly, for a song about a middle child, it’s taking a little time to take off, but we can all start to acknowledge that it’s a crucial part of the movie’s whole structure. The song acts, simultaneously, as an encapsulation of her whole character, and as the movie’s entry into the idea that everyone in the Madrigal family, not just non-magical Mirabel, is laboring underneath the expectations set before them. Mirabel has an “I Want” song in “Waiting for a Miracle,” but since the movie’s really about her learning how to help other characters’ wants, it makes sense that “Surface Pressure” stands out as a clearer one (later on, Isabela also gets a solo through “What Else Can I Do?” in which she expresses herself by way of discovering she can make ugly plants, too).
As with every story about Encanto, we should also acknowledge that Disney messed up big-time and decided to only submit the act-two love song “Dos Oruguitas” for awards contention, ignoring both “Bruno” and “Surface Pressure.” (And this, after pushing Frozen II’s “Into the Unknown” instead of the superior “Show Yourself!”) That might be a canny move because “Oruguitas” is designed to pull at everyone’s heartstrings, though at this point Disney is surely regretting not being able to have anyone perform viral-clip friendly “Bruno” or “Surface Pressure” live at the Oscars. Perhaps it’s fitting, because of course the song from the middle child isn’t getting the recognition and is just doing all the heavy lifting on its own.