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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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder