The Art of Listening: Justin Bieber 800 per cent slower

On the ambient potential of a teen pop star.

Children grow up quickly these days but none more so than little Justin Bieber, who has announced plans to publish his memoirs at the tender age of 16. If you've noticed a preponderance of helmet-haired youths in your neighbourhood recently, Bieber may well be the reason. The Canadian teen is a global superstar, popular largely with children, many of whom ape his peculiar hairstyle, in which the hair is brushed forward over the forehead and ears, giving the impression of a man three times his age trying to hide a receding hairline.

It is a grievous journalistic cliché to write about an artist's look for lack of anything to say about his or her music, but Bieber's sheer fame, quantifiable by all manner of digital means, threatens to make normal critical faculties redundant: seven hit singles from his debut album; 314,613,808 YouTube views of his song "Baby"; 5,053,803 followers on Twitter; 10,818,838 Facebook users who "like" Bieber. In the face of this data onslaught, the aggregator website Metacritic is able to muster only the feeble statement that his most recent release, the My World 2.0 album, has had "generally favourable reviews".

Bieber is our latest Art of Listening subject, not for his own music, but for what others have done with it. Fittingly for a global superstar whose fame rests largely in the digital ether, his recent country-tinged ballad "U Smile" has been put through the digital mangle (this is a technical term) by a musician named Nick Pittsinger and stretched so that it plays 800 per cent more slowly than the original.

Using a piece of software called PaulStretch, Pittsinger maintained the song's pitch so that what results, rather than a turgid lower-end growl, is a surprisingly pleasant collection of ambient noises. Some listeners have compared the new track favourably to the music of the Icelandic band Sigur Rós - but that only goes to show how music that is marketed as ambient or "experimental" can often be based on conventional chord progressions and song structures. One reason for Sigur Rós's popularity is that their songs still have simple hooks and recognisable choruses, despite their slowness.

The salient feature of "U Smile 800 Per Cent Slower" is Bieber's castrato-like wail, extended into a seemingly endless, crystal-clear peal
that arches over the entire 35-minute track and morphs too slowly to form recognisable syllables. It's as if he had been suspended in time - his teenage charm turned into inchoate moans, languishing amid a series of ill-defined whooshes of sound.

But perhaps this is how Bieber, who seems to be moving through life 800 per cent faster than the rest of us, experiences the world around him. Our hurrying to and from work, our moments of panic about how we will pay the next month's rent, or whether our jobs will still be here a year from now, merge into an indistinct, smeary backdrop to the life of this boy who has already amassed more capital than most people on the planet will see in their entire snail's-pace existence.

None of this should be confused with the practice of "i-dosing", which was fearlessly exposed by a recent investigative feature in the Daily Mail. According to the Mail's reporter, i-dosing is a craze whereby American teenagers "change their brains in the same way as [taking] real-life narcotics" by listening to clips of ambient music that feature binaural beats - two tones played at slightly different frequencies in either ear. "The craze has so far been popular among teenagers in the US," the Mail says, "but given how easily available the videos are, it is just a matter of time before it catches on in Brit­ain." Let's hope that young Bieber fans aren't tempted by such nefarious pursuits.

You can read more Art of Listening columns here

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, France turns right

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We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge