Welcome to Thanks, I Love It, our series highlighting something onscreen we’re obsessed with this week.
It’s been a big year for Lin-Manuel Miranda. He won an Emmy for the video-recording of his Broadway hit Hamilton. His other Broadway hit, In The Heights, was cheered by critics as a joyous movie musical. Then came his fantastic feature directorial debut with another Broadway musical adaptation, tick, tick…Boom! And he’s turned out not one, but two animated movie musicals. In Vivo, Miranda not only lent his voice to the eponymous kinkajou but also co-wrote its songs. Then, last but not least, came Encanto, a spectacular Disney musical in which he gets a story by credit and full credit for all its songs, silly, sweet, and sentimental. So, yeah. Big year. Yet in all of this, my absolute favorite Miranda creation of 2021 is hands down the crushing bop that is “Surface Pressure.”
Encanto centers on the magical family Madrigal, where everyone except plucky protagonist Mirabel possesses a superpower. But as the third generation comes of age, cracks begin to appear in the facade of their enchanted casita, pushing Mirabel into an investigation into what’s dwindling their magic. She turns to her older sister Luisa, who is muscle-bound and mighty. But Mirabel’s simple question of “what’s wrong” pushes the strong big sister into a meltdown musical number, where Luisa admits her fears and vulnerability.
Sung by Jessica Darrow, “Surface Pressure” begins with a series of affirmations.
“I’m the strong one
I’m not nervous
I’m as tough as the crust of the earth is
I move mountains
I move churches
And I glow ’cause I know what my worth is”
But as the song moves on, Luisa crumbles, confessing:
“Under the surface
I feel berserk as a tightrope walker in a three-ring circus
Under the surface
Was Hercules ever like ‘Yo, I don’t wanna fight Cerberus?’
Under the surface
I’m prеtty sure I’m worthless if I can’t be of sеrvice”
While enjoying the imaginative execution of this song, which illustrates the weight of the world that Luisa feels on her brawny shoulders, this last line hit me like a ton of bricks. She goes on to sing, deceptively coolly, of the “drip, drip, drip that’ll never stop.” (Woah.) She sings of the burden of responsibility in being the strong one, and in having to keep your shit together because it feels like everyone’s depending on you. So one little crack will bring the whole house down. And it made me break into tears.
It’s a sentiment that’s connecting to women on TikTok, who have been using an audio excerpt of “Surface Pressure” to show how they relate to Luisa’s internal struggle. Over the song, some users include captions of anecdotes about carrying the emotional weight of being an older sister. Others lipsync to express how this kid’s movie went abruptly for our necks. The overall mood of this collection of videos is aptly summarized by elkomixx, whose post has the song play as she lays face down on the floor as above this caption looms, “When you realize this song isn’t actually trending and your FYP is just calling you out as an older sister with gifted kid burnout.”
Yeah. That part.
Turns out, Miranda wasn’t speaking for his own experience in the song. Instead, Luisa’s number is intended as a tribute to his big sister.
He told Variety:
“I’m the baby of the family. I have a sister who’s six years older, and she got a raw deal. That song is my love letter and apology to my sister for having it easier. I watched my sister deal with the pressure of being the oldest and carrying burdens I never had to carry. I remember my parents woke my sister up to put together a He-Man playset for Christmas before I woke up. They wanted it to be fully assembled when I woke up on Christmas morning. I put all of that angst and all of those moments into Luisa.”
Bold, buff, beautiful, with a beguiling swagger, Luisa is tribute. She’s a dazzling vision of feminine strength, whether she’s swatting boulders with her hips or shouldering a drove of donkeys. But this song makes her messier, more complicated, more real, and thereby a terrific representation of what it means to be a big sister.
Of course, there are joys in being an older sister. You get to watch your sibling grow up and be their confidante and their guide in the weirder aspects of the world. You get to do stuff first (and let’s be honest feel pretty smug about it). But you also feel this weight of being the one who’s supposed to set the example, be strong, or mature, or smart, or together, or whatever. It’s a pressure that can drip, drip, drip, fueled by responsibility, expectation, and even compliments. Because — as Luisa expresses — the gifts that define us can begin to feel like a trap. Like if we aren’t always strong, we’ve failed everyone.
While there’s a lot of lovely songs in Encanto, there are none that hit harder than that.
So, cheers to Luisa, to her real-life inspiration, and to every big sister who felt the wind knocked out of them by this supreme sucker punch of a song. And thanks for that, Lin. Really.