Lately, there’s been a winning formula for viral sounds on TikTok: Take a catchy pop song, and make it even catchier by ramping up the tempo and pitch by around 130%-150%. Also known as a Nightcore remix, everything from Fergie’s already infectious Fergalicious to Nelly Furtado’s downtempo Say it Right have gained newfound popularity on the platform in the form of warp-speed edits.
In this format, even new singles are breaking through to a mainstream audience. This year, a sped-up remix of Joseline Hernandez’s Vegas (I Wanna Ride) dominated TikTok FYPs everywhere, with more than 800,000 videos created to the sound. But despite the popularity of the edit, when clips of the original song emerged online, reactions were mixed. “The original feels so slow it’s making me anxious,” reads the top comment on a TikTok video showcasing Hernandez’s song and video. “I thought that the sped-up [version] was the original” reads another.
Granted, if you’ve only heard the TikTok remix of Vegas, then the original track takes a while to come into focus. But when it does, an entirely different song reveals itself. Where the TikTok remix has a speed and BPM that evokes a cardiac arrest — the original is simply arresting. Sensual vocals are layered over a hypnotic trap beat that feels eerie, yet mesmerising. But these are details that get erased in the song’s translation to viral soundbite.
We no longer just want the best songs; we want the best bits of the best songs — made even ‘better’ through auditory enhancements.
The trend of sped-up music is not just limited to TikTok; it’s solidified its place in recreational listening. On YouTube, Hernandez’s music video for Vegas has 8 million views, compared to 19 million on an upload of the sped-up edit. Due to copyright restrictions, the remix of Vegas isn’t available on Spotify. But the song has still been eclipsed in number of streams by indie artist Hiko, who uploaded a ‘sped up’ cover of the song. The cover also appears on a Spotify playlist entitled ‘Sped up TikTok songs 2022’— which currently has over 172,000 saves.
The popularity of the genre represents a shift in the way we’re consuming music. Increasingly, songs are becoming disassembled into a series of high-impact short bursts. We no longer just want the best songs; we want the best bits of the best songs — made even ‘better’ through auditory enhancements.
“Music, especially fast-paced music, elicits a lot of activity in the brain," says Emmelyne Jack, a PhD student in Neurology at The University of Melbourne.
“Music listening increases the release of a neurotransmitter called dopamine, the ‘happy hormone’ often associated with pleasure. Whenever we listen to a song we like (and we tend to like music with regular patterns, high tempos, and a bright contour) we are essentially rewarding ourselves on a neuro-chemical level,” she says. Although Emmelyne points out that there’s not much research into the impact of high-speed music in particular, we do know that overstimulation can lead to shorter attention spans and difficulty focusing.
From afar, the trend of listening to pop songs at near double speed borders on the absurd. However, our increasing appetite for dopamine-stimulating audio is not terribly surprising. As Judy Berman writes for Time, the boredom of the pandemic and our skyrocketing screen times have heralded the return of maximalism in many facets of our culture. In the past few years, colourful pattern-clashing ‘dopamine dressing’ has dominated fashion, and we’ve welcomed the return of in-your-face trashy nostalgia.
The message is clear: we want novelty, not subtlety. In an era of sensory onslaught, sped-up songs seem to be music’s answer to maximalist shifts in our culture, and to waning attention spans online. But what does this mean for musicians, especially smaller artists who rely on social media to find an audience?
“For me, I’d say that TikTok is a place of pressure,” says Angie Colman, a Perth/Boorloo-based musician who's signed to a small independent label. “TikTok is definitely something that my manager asks me to keep on top of because the platform is so important for finding new music.” She says.
“I have certainly noticed shrinking attention spans…when my band and I write songs now, we really think about those starting few seconds, or at least having a 20-second section of a song that is ‘perfect’.”
This focus on creating music in short, catchy bursts is evidence of how music is becoming increasingly disembodied and fragmented. It’s entirely possible that a 20-second audio clip could be widely recognisable on TikTok, while the artist, or even the rest of the song, remains largely unknown. (In fact, this phenomenon is already occurring). I asked Angie how she would feel if a sped-up remix of her song went viral:
“I think I’d be stoked…but I would hope that it would translate to someone discovering my music,” she says. “But I know a lot of artists who would struggle with their art being repurposed without their permission.”
New technology has always changed the way we listen to music. As Angie points out, “Back in the day, you’d buy a vinyl album and have to physically move the needle to skip a song. Now, it’s instantaneous.”
But despite the constant stream of stimulation available at our fingertips, Angie believes that people do want to slow down. That's when she hopes they'll find her music, which she describes as ‘sad girl country rock’. Music maximalism may be the moment, but the range of human moods and emotions will always be expansive. While shrinking attention spans are an undeniable reality of our era, there will always be demand for music that connects with different parts of us — not just our dopamine receptors.