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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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution