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The Speed Bump

Those chipmunk-pitched songs you hear on TikTok are more than just a viral craze. They’re the latest big thing in the music biz. Here’s what their success says about remix culture, artists’ control over their own work, and why we want everything so fast these days.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Miguel’s “Sure Thing” was destined to be a cult hit. The 2010 single from his debut album, All I Want Is You, topped out at no. 36 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the months after its release. With love-conquers-all lyrics over a mid-tempo beat and sparse electric guitar, the song was bound to pop up at the odd wedding or on playlists exchanged between Tinder matches, but ultimately it seemed to have run its course.

That is, until something curious happened: It reentered the charts, 12-plus years after its original release. That may not seem like a novel occurrence after songs by Fleetwood Mac and Kate Bush have found new lives in recent years, and it’s no secret that TikTok virality is the hottest ticket to a hit single. But “Sure Thing” got a massive boost because of one of pop music’s latest big trends: the sped-up remix, one that simply takes the original song and makes it faster, adding little—and sometimes nothing—else. Think of it in comparison to watching Netflix or listening to audiobooks at 1.25x playback speed.

In Miguel’s case, the sped-up remix bumped “Sure Thing” from 81 to 105 bpm and became a wildly popular audio on TikTok. On the surface, it’s the same song, just faster, complete with Miguel’s croon pitched up to a helium tone. But listeners responded: first on TikTok, then on streaming platforms, then on the charts. In April 2023, “Sure Thing” hit no. 15 on the Hot 100. It was a new peak for the single—and was tied for the highest peak of any song of Miguel’s career.

All because someone thought it would be cool if Miguel sounded more like a chipmunk than, well, Miguel.

Perhaps you’ve encountered this trend in the wild: You might notice a sped-up song accompanying a DIY craft video or a makeup experiment. Let Steve Lacy’s helium voice guide you through a video about “celebrities who didn’t let fame change them.” Maybe it’s a new song that got the sped-up treatment. Maybe it’s an old song. Maybe it’s a sped-up remix that the original artist released themselves. Maybe it was uploaded by an anonymous TikTok account. Regardless, these remixes are spreading their reach beyond TikTok and into record labels, pop radio, and the Billboard charts. In January, SZA released a remix pack for her hit “Kill Bill” that included a sped-up version. In late 2022, R&B breakthrough Summer Walker put out a sped-up version of her 2018 mixtape, Last Day of Summer, after a few of the remixed songs popped off on TikTok. Spotify, The Ringer’s parent company, has an official “sped up songs” playlist with 100 songs and 1.4 million likes.

Amber Grimes, executive vice president and general manager of the record label LVRN, which represents Walker, says that social media trends are just another aspect of the music industry now. “It’s just too late in the game to be questioning Gen Z or questioning TikTok,” she says. “It’s more of whatever they say goes, and it’s about how you respond to it.”

But what’s with the need for speed, anyway? The concept of speeding songs up is not new—chipmunk soul and nightcore have long existed, as have pitched-up vocals. But the current iteration of sped-up songs is specifically arriving at the crossroads of the “slowed + reverb” phenomenon (which itself was inspired by chopped-and-screwed music) and hyperpop (the kinetic and often abrasive genre pioneered by Sophie and PC Music). These movements are now more mainstream than ever; hyperpop duo 100 Gecs recently charted on the Billboard 200 with their major-label debut album, and hit songs like PinkPantheress and Ice Spice’s “Boy’s a Liar Pt. 2” borrow elements from experimental pop.

Larry Rosin, president of the audio-focused market research firm Edison Research, relates the latest sped-up trend to pop culture’s overall inclination toward shorter songs in recent years. A 2018 study of Billboard Hot 100 hits found that the duration of hit songs had been falling for most of the 2010s. In 2020, data researchers at UCLA found that the mean duration of songs was approaching the lowest it had been since 1930.

“If you go back to the Beatles’ early records in the ’60s, the average pop song was two minutes long,” Rosin says. “The average just started creeping up and up and up and just got longer and longer. At the same time, the songs tended to actually be more repetitive. … I just think it stands to reason that someone would come along on TikTok and just cut it down to a minute and move on to the next one.”

Rosin also related the phenomenon to a history of radio stations shortening or speeding up songs, likely to fit in more ads or maintain scheduled blocks of programming. (Syndicated TV is known to do this, as well. You’re not hearing things if you think Rachel Green’s voice on Nick at Nite is slightly high-pitched.) Similarly, Lina Abascal, author of Never Be Alone Again: How Bloghouse United the Internet and the Dancefloor, says the trend could be due to a fixation on a specific part of a song that TikTok users want to fit into a short video. “By speeding up a song, you have more opportunity to fit in more lyrics, and maybe the way the trend is, every time a certain word is repeated, you do a certain thing,” she says, describing some kind of dance or challenge that might be related to a song on TikTok. Lacy would know this well: In October, a video surfaced showing one of his crowds singing along to the hook of “Bad Habit,” then going silent during the verse—the implication being that even though the song topped the Hot 100 chart, many in the audience didn’t know much beyond the part that blew up on TikTok. “Why did y’all stop?” he teased the crowd. “Let’s get the second verse, come on.”

Sped-up songs could also be attributed to an influx of sped-up media in the past half decade. While adjustable playback speed has long been a feature of podcast apps—many listeners prefer to consume shows at 1.25x or 1.5xNetflix started testing a feature to adjust playback speed in 2019. The feature was applauded by some in the disabled community, as adjusting playback speed can be useful for subscribers who are deaf, hard of hearing, or blind. But some filmmakers were incensed by the decision. “Distributors don’t get to change the way the content is presented,” Judd Apatow, who has since directed the Netflix original film The Bubble, said at the time. “Doing so is a breaking of trust and won’t be tolerated by the people who provide it.” The Incredibles director Brad Bird called it a “spectacularly bad idea, and another cut to the already bleeding-out cinema experience.” The feature is now implemented for Netflix on laptop or mobile devices, and while Netflix stats are famously hard to come by, the fact that the feature was tested before becoming widespread indicates that the company found there was a market for it.

Sped-up songs, however, are likely not coming about because of accessibility concerns or so that listeners can get through music faster. But TikTok also has an adjustable playback-speed button, and there are many music software apps available that allow users to remix a song in a matter of seconds. With TikTok having so much control over popular music, similar questions about artists’ intent and “art” vs. “content” are being raised. Remixing songs and posting them on the internet is not new, but virality has never had more influence on mainstream pop than it does now, for better and for worse.

That Lacy clip might lead one to wonder whether people listen to sped-up songs outside of 30-second TikTok clips. The Spotify playlist leads us to believe that yes, they do, though the play counts of sped-up remixes usually pale in comparison with those of the originals. British pop artist RAYE’s sped-up single “Escapism” has been omnipresent on TikTok for months, but the original has still outplayed the remix on Spotify by almost 300 million streams. Abascal says that viral sped-up remixes are not a likely avenue for attracting new listeners long-term. “[If] they just know one of the lyrics and the dance, that’s probably not someone ripe for becoming a fan of the artist,” she says.

R&B vocalist Justine Skye recently had a sped-up hit with 2014’s “Collide,” and after putting out an official sped-up remix in 2022, she released the compilation album Dark Side in January. It features some of her favorite songs from throughout her career and three versions of “Collide”: the original (which includes a verse from Tyga), a sped-up version, and a solo version.

Skye says she’s grateful for all the attention she’s gotten since “Collide” blew up—she even performed the nine-year-old song on Jimmy Kimmel Live! in January. She calls the sensation “one of the biggest things that has happened to me musically” and notes that her Spotify listener numbers have skyrocketed as a result. The original and sped-up versions of “Collide” are her first two songs to top 100 million plays on the platform. Still, she’s torn about how fans can get a version of their liking to go viral. “Obviously, you want to make the consumer happy, but the artists have put so much time and effort and care into creating something for people to just completely disregard it and just distort it into whatever they want. That isn’t enjoyable always for the person that’s making it,” she says.

Walker, best known for the 2019 critical and commercial success Over It, was at first apprehensive about the idea of a sped-up version of Last Day of Summer since a slow, sultry sound is so central to the mixtape. “When I first heard it, I was like no because this is actually my favorite project and I thought I sounded like a chipmunk,” Walker says in an email. “But I saw all the support on Twitter and that this is just what the younger generation likes so I stopped fighting it. And the original is still there so it’s just an option for whoever wants it.”

“We’ve made sure to explain that it doesn’t hurt. The other project is still there,” Grimes says. “It’s of a trend now to have all these different versions of your songs.” But Walker maintains her preference. “I will always choose the original version,” she says, but adds that if her fans like sped-up songs, then she loves them too.

Cults, an indie-pop duo that broke out with a Pitchfork Best New Music distinction in 2011, were aware of TikTok remixes because a slowed-down version of their single “Always Forever” went viral in 2020. But when the deep cut “Gilded Lily,” on 2017’s Offering, started doing numbers in 2022, they thought it must have been a mistake. “[Our manager] was like, ‘I think you guys should start playing [‘Gilded Lily’]. We don’t know what’s going on, but you should probably start playing the song on the road,’” Cults vocalist Madeline Follin recalls.

“I said, ‘We’ll play it, but you’re wrong,’” instrumentalist Brian Oblivion adds. “I was like, ‘This is the last track off of our debatably least-listened-to record.’ Like, I highly doubt that anybody cares.”

Now, “Gilded Lily” and “Always Forever” are two of Cults’ three songs to break nine-digit listens on Spotify. “Gilded Lily - Sped Up” currently sits at more than 44 million plays. “I just put it into Logic, and we sped it up 10 percent and sent it back to them. The whole thing took less than three minutes,” Oblivion says. “We’ve worked so hard in the past on remixes, to see varying degrees of success, and then to be able to make this instantaneous different version of a song that resonates with people in a way that they find really valuable, it’s pretty cool.”

With so many remixes floating around on the internet, tracking down the TikTok creators who sped up these songs in the first place can be difficult. For instance, after Netflix released the Addams Family spinoff series Wednesday in November 2022, a scene of Jenna Ortega’s titular protagonist dancing to a sped-up version of Lady Gaga’s “Bloody Mary” went viral. (The Born This Way album track was not the song that was originally used in the series—that would be the Cramps’ “Goo Goo Muck.”) The oldest TikTok I can find with sped-up “Bloody Mary” audio is from the account @aria.edits3 in August 2022, before Wednesday came out. On the day the series was released, an edit by @n0gitsxne featured a section of the sped-up song that’s different from what accompanied the August video; the new video included clips of Ortega dancing. The audio from that video has been used in 4.4 million other videos, including a post from Gaga herself re-creating the Wednesday dance, while the @aria.edits3 audio has been used about 84,000 times.

Sometimes, the remixer ends up with credit for their work, as the producer VANO 3000 did for his edit of a BADBADNOTGOOD and Samuel T. Herring song. His remix received an Adult Swim placement in 2021 in addition to uploads on TikTok and YouTube. But other times, figuring out who’s responsible for the idea to speed up a song is trickier. Cults ran into this obstacle when trying to track down the person behind the sped-up version of “Gilded Lily.” “We’ll never find the patient zero,” Oblivion says. “We just have no idea how it started, or where the tipping point was or anything. It’s really difficult to trace.” While they recreated the sped-up version of “Gilded Lily” themselves, they felt the slowed-down, viral version of “Always Forever” was too much of a proper remix to release without the remixer’s consent. (You’ll notice on the Spotify “sped up songs” playlist that the majority of the songs are designated as “sped-up versions” rather than as remixes, indirectly signaling a difference between the two.) “We just left it to whoever that person was that made it,” Follin says. “It did feel like that person owned that concept with our song. But I don’t feel like the people doing that own the whole idea of doing it. It doesn’t feel amazing to have somebody getting the listens on something that you made, even with their idea.” In Walker’s case, she and her team were sure to thank TikTok creator @whereisreese on Walker’s social media for creating the dance trend that went along with the sped-up version of Last Day of Summer cut “Karma,” though that user didn’t create the remix itself. “It was very important to make sure that we acknowledged the dance creator,” Grimes says. “And make sure that we respect him and appreciate him for the trend to go along with the song. Songs just don’t go viral on their own.”

Cults also brought up that the financial structure of the platforms where unlicensed remixes are hosted hasn’t been made clear to them. “We had the conversation, and we never really got a straight answer,” Oblivion says. “We don’t even know, do people make money off this? Through all the plays that they get on songs that they’re speeding up and slowing down at different ratios on YouTube and TikTok, are they getting paid?” According to digital music distributor TuneCore, artists can upload music to TikTok’s streaming platform and receive payments on a per-video basis, rather than per view. Meaning that there would be more revenue for a song used in millions of videos than for a song used in one video that was viewed millions of times. Artists are also able to select which section of their song they’d like to be featured on TikTok. However, monetizing music on the platform is difficult without a distributor through a record label or a subscription to something like TuneCore.

Labels and streaming services are still figuring out how to respond to the use of their content on TikTok. Bloomberg reported in December that multiple brands were facing lawsuits from record labels over songs the brands were using in TikToks and Instagram Reels. Ostensibly, they’re using unlicensed music in ads, but the democratized nature of these platforms has blurred the line between hopping on a trend and launching an ad campaign. In October, CNN published a piece on several IP- and copyright-related lawsuits that had been popping up due to TikTok content. One lawsuit was related to a fan-created Bridgerton musical that had gone viral. Netflix was originally supportive of the project but sued when the creators took the musical onstage for profit. The suit was eventually settled. The whole thing is reminiscent of that Matthew McConaughey scene in The Wolf of Wall Street: Social media, like the stock market, is fairy dust that doesn’t exist on the elemental chart. But when it cuts into your share of the profits, it becomes real.

“It’s not enough to just lean in on social media anymore,” Grimes says. “I think you have to optimize your channels everywhere. And that’s really what we were doing with [Last Day of Summer]: just optimizing it, making sure that everything was available for everyone, for whoever wanted to hear it, and whatever revenue comes from that, whatever love comes from that, whatever future trends come from that—the only way you’ll find out is if it’s available.”

When it comes to the actual sound of sped-up songs, Abascal says they might be tapping into a rush similar to what’s built EDM and other dance communities. “I think that sound is kind of like a happy hardcore, very silly, euphoric, and playful sound that I do think for some people could be very annoying, and for other people, it’s just very enticing and kind of that ecstasy feeling,” she says. Cults’ Follin related the phenomenon to using a record player with variable speed, and she says the feeling of ecstasy can be amplified by the feeling of novelty. “I remember that Neil Young Trans record, there’s a certain song that I preferred to listen to sped up,” she says. “It felt exciting. And I showed everybody, ‘Look at what I just discovered. This sounds so much better sped up.’”

But when an artistic decision is so tied to a social media trend, it’s hard not to wonder whether it counts as an artistic decision at all. With listeners and viewers having so much control over the way they can experience art, where does an artist’s intent fit in? New York magazine podcast critic Nicholas Quah, who’s written about watching TV shows sped up, says that meeting an artist on their terms will always be valuable and that great art can assert itself by simply being great art. “I used to be a pro-advocate of consumer preference, more power to the consumer, however they want to consume more stuff in art,” he says. “But the fact of the matter is that there’s some experiences that really do demand to be taken in its complete authorial intent. And I do also think that authorial intent has to be earned and that authority has to be asserted and given justification for. If it’s good, it will demand you to take it the way that directors want you to take their art.”

As for how sped-up songs should be classified, Abascal sees them more as “content” than “art.” She says she would consider a “legitimate remix” to have multiple elements altered in an artistic way, rather than just changed speed. “Not to say that some people might not legitimately enjoy this music,” she says. “But I do think simply speeding up a song is more of a race to get likes or a race to be more likely to be included in a TikTok trend than an artistic reinterpretation of a song.” Still, she acknowledges that artists are not able to control what listeners will do with a song after it’s released. “Once you make something, you put it into the universe, people are going to do whatever they want with it,” she adds. “It’s no longer in your hands.”

Cults’ Oblivion doesn’t see that phenomenon as a negative. He enjoyed that fans essentially chose “Gilded Lily” to be a single five years after the fact, when the band wouldn’t have even considered it. “Maybe the future of music is more collaborative in that way,” he says. “They’re picking the songs that they want to listen to, and they’re picking the speeds they want to listen to them at. It takes a lot of pressure off of us, and it gives us a lot of faith that we can just do what we do, and people will hear it and interpret it and react to it without having to shove it down their throat.”

No matter how dominant a social media trend is, there’s always something fleeting about it. Let’s not forget that TikTok came from a merger with the once-trendy lip-synching app, which is already a relic of internet history. When I recently interviewed the pop musician Caroline Polachek, who has also had experience with TikTok virality, she said of artists finding fame on the platform, “I don’t think that this model is going to last very long. I feel like we’re going to see something else come along.” What’s enduring is the way entertainment moves at the will of social media, whether it’s the Snyder cut, reedits of Stranger Things, or sped-up songs. While we have no way of predicting what the next big trend will be, or how inexplicable it will be, we can assume that the industry will be inclined to abide. And it’ll come at us fast.

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