It’s no secret we’re currently living in an age where our attention spans have diminished significantly. Consequently, almost every piece of media we consume is reflective of this, marketed into content and reduced to its barest, most succinct form in order to be as palatable as possible. Online platforms like TikTok have capitalized on the attention economy, especially when it comes to the most recent fad of faster, higher-pitched edits of popular songs.
These sped-up remixes reinforce TikTok’s emphasis on dopamine-rush simplification as an ideal intake, allowing viewers to enjoy a snippet of a song at a quicker rate, soundtrack a trendy dance, turn a sad song into a happy one, or elevate the appeal of a thirst trap. The popularity of this trend has also helped boost older songs that didn’t get much airplay when initially released. Such was the case of “Bloody Mary,” a deep cut from Lady Gaga’s Born This Way that received a huge increase in Spotify streams after TikTok users boosted a sped-up remix of the song in recreating Jenna Ortega’s viral Wednesday dance.
Despite its momentary chokehold on the Internet, changing the speed and pitch of a song is nothing new in our culture. Sped-up samples have become intrinsic to the fabric of contemporary hip-hop, a type of instrumentation most commonly known as “chipmunk soul.” Slowed-down, heavily reverbed audio edits of pop songs are also relatively widespread on TikTok and YouTube, seemingly drawn from the “chopped ‘n’ screwed” subgenre pioneered by Houston DJ Screw in the ‘90s. Comparatively, these sped-up edits on TikTok feel like an aesthetic descendant of “nightcore,” a music remixing subgenre from the early aughts of pitch–shifted trance and Eurodance music.
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Although experimenting with the malleability of a song’s tempo or vocals has historically led to some significant creative strides in the modern pop music world, this particular online frenzy feels like a different beast and could potentially shift the landscape of music production, consumption, and distribution for the worse. Consider the cases of SZA’s “Kill Bill” and Steve Lacy’s “Bad Habit,” for instance, where the official sped-up versions of both songs are available to stream on Spotify, along with other TikTok-viral tunes like Miguel’s “Sure Thing” and Thundercat’s “Them Changes.”
A more optimistic (and generous) reading of this would suggest that these sped-up remixes give younger music listeners better access to a sped-up version separate from TikTok, a greater opportunity to discover songs or artists they wouldn’t have otherwise heard before, or another option for a pump-up jam to put on their workout and party playlists. But a more critical (and arguably more sound) take would suggest they are artistically uninventive and lazy, a quick-and-easy cash grab for record labels to profit off of our rapidly shrinking ability to focus. Choosing to listen to these sped-up versions instead of the regular ones is, as someone on TikTok put it, adult iPad baby behavior.
That the Alvin and the Chipmunks/Cocomelon-ification of pop music scratches a satisfying, ephemeral itch for some isn’t necessarily a bad thing — heck, it’s a blast to hear a sped-up version of a song every now and then — but only in small doses is it bearable. When these versions of songs permeate nearly every facet of the music landscape, especially across social media, it becomes an exhausting, overstimulating, brain-smoothing impediment, like the music equivalent of the Netflix playback speed setting.
You can apply the same logic to the often-touted sentiment that every movie should be 90 minutes long. As great as it is for a film to be short, sweet, and to the point, there’s also a lot of joy in watching a well-paced movie take its time in telling a story until it reaches a natural, organic conclusion. Similarly, if a faster version of every song existed simply to satiate the Gen Z masses, we would lose the precious and vital experience of listening to a piece of art that someone has spent time, money, and energy meticulously crafting.
How TikTok has tailored an artist’s body of work in order to fit an in-demand trend such as this one is particularly alarming and it’s only a symptom of a larger issue around the music industry’s unwavering yet questionable favoring of online virality over artistic merit. In addition to adding sped-up versions to a musician’s repertoire, record labels have also gone back and editorialized the titles of their clients’ songs to help TikTok users have an easier time searching for them.
The record label Astralwerks, for example, changed Surf Mesa’s widely circulated “ily,” itself a soft pop update of Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” to “ily (i love you baby),” as that lyric was the one TikTok users kept typing into their search queues. Other musicians have followed suit: Charli XCX’s “Unlock It” was renamed to “Unlock It (Lock It),” Omar Apollo’s “Evergreen” to “Evergreen (You Didn’t Deserve Me At All),” and MARINA’s “Oh No!” to “Oh No! (I Feel Like I’m The Worst So I Always Act Like I’m The Best).” Say that three times fast.
Like the sped-up edits, this act of reverse engineering has the potential to expose listeners to new songs and to give an artist more visibility and clout than ever before, but it’s also clearly driven by a need to generate more business. And with the recent advent of AI, TikTok’s continual dilution of an artist’s voice and sound in favor of something more pre-programmed and reprocessed is becoming a depressingly prevalent reality. Along with sped-up snippets and song title revisions, people can compose their own songs using a variety of AI music technology generators. Famed DJ David Guetta, a pop remix maestro and a supporter of AI as the “future of music,” tested out some AI-inflected music at a recent concert, replicating Eminem’s “voice” for one of his remixes.
It’s hard to say whether or not sped-up edits and these other related fads will continue to flourish or gradually subside over time, but considering TikTok’s growing dominance in the music world, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that it’ll become the standard for pop moving forward. It’s certainly exciting to witness online audiences engaging in the music they listen to by reinterpreting and recontextualizing it, but such a phenomenon can just as quickly and easily become a grotesque distortion of something that didn’t really need distorting in the first place. So when deciding which version of a song you should listen to, just remember: the original is always the better choice.