Sped-up versions of existing songs are becoming more popular than the original versions. But who’s behind the trend?
I’m listening to the accelerated, chipmunk voice of the British singer Raye on Escapism, a rebound-sex anthem that’s currently climbing UK pop charts. Raye actually has a low, brassy singing voice, but I’m not listening to her official version. This one is paced 150% faster than the original song, making it sound like Raye has just inhaled helium and is spitting out her lyrics like an auctioneer on Adderall.
Who wants to listen to a song that sounds like a triple shot of espresso? Perhaps more people than you might think.
The Escapism remix can be found on Sped Up Songs, a Spotify-produced playlist liked by more than 975,000 people. It runs over four hours and manipulates songs such as Steve Lacey’s recent TikTok anthem Bad Habits and older hits like Ellie Goulding’s Lights and Summertime Sadness by Lana Del Rey.
On YouTube, users upload hours-long videos of sped-up songs. One from last year has over 4.9m views and features 2000s pop songs loved by millennials – including Nelly Furtado’s Say It Right and Jennifer Lopez’s On the Floor – made faster to suit Gen Z’s preference for turbocharged beats.
On TikTok, the hashtag “spedupsounds” has 9.6bn views, as users dance along to I Wish by Skee-Lo and Thundercat’s Them Changes at whiplash-inducing BPMs. Wednesday Addams, Netflix’s massively popular series, kickstarted a trend where users recreated Jenny Ortega’s viral choreography. Their moves were set to a breathless, sped-up version of Lady Gaga’s Bloody Mary.
Though that song was released in 2011, the TikTok craze saw its popularity soar in 2022. Sped-up songs have the potential to breathe new life – and push new listeners – to older songs that might otherwise be forgotten. So, as Billboard has reported, these kinds of remixes “drive songs up the charts” and are especially lucrative for catalogue material, or songs that have been out for more than 18 months.
“People are discovering the main version from the sped-up or slowed one,” Nima Nasseri, global head of A&R strategy for Universal Music Group, told the trade publication. “Instead of spending $50,000 for a remix from a big-name DJ, you’re spending relatively minimal amounts [on a sped-up rendition] and getting much more in reach and return.”
But who makes these remixes – and who benefits from the trend? It’s a murky business that leaves industry-watchers skeptical of potential deals between labels and streaming services. One Spotify playlist, called “sped up nightcore”, has a DIY look to it, with lowercase titling and a stock photo of a lightning bolt as its avatar. But Billboard found that the playlist only posts remixes of songs from Warner Music Group. It averages over 12 million listeners a month and 2 million listeners a day. WMG did not respond to requests for comment from Billboard and the Guardian on any collaboration with Spotify. (A representative for Spotify did not respond to a list of questions sent by the Guardian.)
So what’s behind the trend? It has roots in nightcore, the official name given to sped-up songs. Two Norwegian high school students, Thomas S Nilsen and Steffen Ojala Soderholm, “pioneered” the sound during a class project in 2002. Though the pair never ended up working in the music industry, they recently reunited in a New York Times profile, where they described writing an original song for school with the music software eJay Dance 3. According to the profile, that tune had “squeaky vocals and a heart-attack-inducing BPM of 170”. They got a C+ on the project but made an LP with a similar sound that ultimately spread through the mid-aughts globally.
Nightcore bloomed on YouTube, Limewire, and other online forums, ultimately finding its way into the work of mainstream hyperpop artists like Charlie XCX and the late Sophie. “Anyone can make nightcore and that’s what’s so fun about it,” Songying Wang, a producer known on YouTube as AxionX, told the New York Times.
So now 15-year-olds like Esteve Corominas Rodriguez, who lives in the coastal town of Cambrils, Spain, create hundreds of nightcore remixes on TikTok.
“I first saw the [genre] on YouTube and I thought: why not do it on TikTok?” Rodriguez told the Guardian. His account, @Spxedupsongs, now has 5 million followers on the platform.
Rodriguez regularly churns out hurried versions of songs like My Humps by the Black Eyed Peas (240,00 views), Judas by Lady Gaga (watched 255,000 times), and Meghan Trainor’s No (with over 630,000 tuning in). His work has also landed on a sped-up Spotify playlist created by a French digital promotion consulting agency called Temps Plein Music. “I know the community we have loves to see it [on Spotify], too,” Rodriguez added.
Sped-up samples have deep roots in hip-hop culture. The early 2000s saw the proliferation of “chipmunk soul”, where artists including Kanye West and DipSet sampled accelerated versions of R&B hits, making singers’ voices sound like the animated Alvin and his crew. Then out of Newark came the “Jersey Club” sound, bouncy songs that pulse between 130 and 140 beats per minute. “This is not new at all: hip-hop people have been doing this for decades,” said Peter Kerre, a New York-based artist known as DJ XPect.
Damon Krukowski, former drummer of the dreampop band Galaxie 500 – who, ironically, is known for his dreamy, downtempo songs – is also an organizer for the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW). The group advocates for fair royalties from streaming services, and has worked with Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib to introduce a resolution in the House to establish a fair system of compensation for artists. He told the Guardian that he was concerned with the mechanics behind who exactly makes (and profits) from Spotify’s sped-up songs.
“Everybody should make whatever music they want to at whatever tempo,” Krukowski said. “But what we are watching carefully is the way these platforms are controlling our interactions with our listeners. They are controlling the ways that we can make a living through our recorded work.”
Spotify’s embrace of nightcore is frustratingly reminiscent of another “new” music production trend that was not so new after all. “Slowed + reverb” has been called a “gentrified” version of “chopped & screwed”, a style created by the 90s Houston-based DJ Screw. Consider it nightcore’s slowed-down cousin: producers pull down a song’s tempo to 60 or 70 quarter-note beats per minute, then add some skips, scratches, and stop-time moments. It’s a TikTok staple, with over 1.3m views on the app, and 623,000 followers on Spotify’s “slowed and reverbed” playlist.
If sped-up and slowed down music is a quick way for labels to monetize old music, then what does that mean for future tracks? Krukowski described the trend as little more than “a corporate ploy”.
“All of us out here trying to make new music are losing out,” he said. “Labels don’t have to go out and find new artists. They can just create three to five versions of what they already have, knowing people will respond to what they’re reselling.”