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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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear