I have a post over on Sounding Out! today that’s about the way Skrillex, Diplo, and Bieber use feminized sonic tropes to underline Beibs’s heteromasculinity. Below are some loose ideas about “Where Are Ü Now” that didn’t directly relate to the SO! post or that just expand too far past the narrower idea I wanted to develop there. So read that first, then come back here for the after party. Or, you know, don’t do any of it; the internet’s a big place, and I’m not the boss of you.
And I’ll say this every chance I get: it’s such a pleasure to write for Sounding Out!, whose editorial team is spectacular. Thanks especially to Liana Silva, who took the lead on this one.
Okay, fine, we can talk about the dolphin sound.
My analysis in the SO! post hinges on the not-soar that happens right before the first drop in “Where Are Ü Now.” The significance of that not-soar–and its relationship to James’s Resilience & Melancholy–came to me while I was thinking about the fact that WAÜN was really hard to remix. Soundcloud is chock full of WAÜN remixes, and they’re largely underwhelming (the ones I talk about in more detail below are the exceptions). Eventually I realized that the structural oddity–the not-soar–played a large role in this, but there are other reasons WAÜN is hard to remix, too, including the fact that all of the remixes are, as far as I can tell, bootlegs. Something called a “bootleg” or “edit” is made from the finished mix, while a sanctioned remix–the kind that gets released on EPs under the original artist’s name–will work from STEMs, where different instruments are isolated, making it easier to pull a motif and do something with it or to isolate vocals and compose an entirely new instrumental. Since bootlegs can only work from the final mix, then if, say, that dolphin-sounding thing (it’s built from Bieber’s voice) in the drop of WAÜN shares the same frequency range and stereo space as his non-dolphin vocals in that section….then a bootlegger who wants to use his vocals also has to make room for the dolphin. Of course, these producers have mastered cutting techniques that I haven’t, so it’s possible that they could slice Bieber’s drop vocals from the dolphin, but after listening to as many bootlegs as I could find on soundcloud, I haven’t found any that do slice them apart (correct me if I’m wrong, plz!). Kaskade, Alex Preston, and Direct all compose drops that use the dolphin/vocal stickiness in intriguing ways.
Kaskade’s drop starts at 1:54, and after 8 measures (2:10), Biebs’s vocals come riding in on that dolphin. Kaskade sets this up with a bass synth based on the dolphin motif. It works; the entrance of the dolphin makes structural sense, with the higher register filling out the range of the drop.
Alex Preston’s drop is at 1:34, and it revolves around vocal snippets pulled from the intro, not the drop–”I…..I……you thoo thoo thoo.” The end of the first eighth measure phrase pays off the vocal snippets with a full phrase (1:45), but it’s the titular drop lyrics we get (“where are you now”) instead of the one he’s been cutting from (“I need you the most”). The last two 8-measure phrases of the drop, though, don’t pay off with a full vocal phrase. Rather, we hear the same dolphin snippet from earlier in the Jack U drop, when it’s unaccompanied by vocals (2:00 and 2:15 in Preston). So Preston uses the stickiness of the sounds to call to mind a vocal phrase without actually playing it for us.
But check out Direct. If you don’t want the dolphin, you don’t get the vocals. The drop is at 1:00, and you may need some uppers afterward if you’re going to finish this post, because Direct goes for chill.
Skrillex and Diplo, then, have put a roadblock in bootleggers’ way: an easily recognizable timbre that is a package deal if you wanna get at Bieber’s vocals. Like other extra-legal things that happen on the interwebs, there’s the cost of doing shady business. That dolphin is the three pop-up tabs that happen when you’re hunting for torrents. Of course, there is a big difference between frustrating bootleggers and threatening legal action. Skrillex and Diplo aren’t on any kind of Sony cease-and-desist rampage here. This is, instead, a cheeky bit of fun from two producers who want other musicians messing with their stuff.
But as I discuss in the SO! post, it’s not just the timbral quality of that dolphin sound that makes the drop hard to remix; it’s also a structural thing. The scenario I open with in that post–where Skrillex and Diplo and Bieber all snuck up on me–probably happened to lots of listeners. There’s nothing that screams “We’re Diplo and Skrillex!!!!” in the intro and first verse, and most of us probably didn’t know Bieber was back in the studio. The drop is a surprise because the evidence that it’s coming is hidden.
Obviously, though, we only get to be surprised once; after that, we always know the dolphin ride is coming. Not for nothing, the second verse is followed by a standard-issue 16 measure soar courtesy your local neighborhood Skrillex & Diplo (2:35-3:02 in the youtube video). While most songs climax with the most intense soar, though, WAÜN climaxes with the first one, the one we didn’t hear coming. And here’s the other trick Skrillex and Diplo play on their bootleggers: the remixes don’t get to surprise us with the first drop. Since we already know it’s coming, most remixers go ahead and give us the soar Skrillex and Diplo held back at the end of Verse 1. Listen back to the remixes above, and Kaskade adds an extra 8 measures between Verse 1 and the drop (1:40), Alex Preston does an understated bass thing in the last two measures of the verse that propels us into the drop (1:29), and Direct throws in an on-brand chill 16 measures before the drop (0:32).
Marshmello, because ze’s Marshmello, really goes for it, though. Ze turns the 12-measure not-soar into an incredibly straightforward 16-measure soar. Having busied the instrumental with zir go-to bright synths and trappy percussion, Marshmello can start the soar (0:54) with a full-tear down of the backing track–James calls this the baseline in R&M–just floaty synths that are gradually joined by rhythmic synths and percussion through the first eight measures. The last eight measures (1:08) stutter Bieber’s vocals (this is how Marshmello lengthens the phrase) and introduce rhythmic and pitch intensification up to the point of oblivion, at which point Bieber’s voice takes us to the drop (1:20).
The cool part? Marshmello preps us for this. If Skrillex and Diplo try to obscure their drop as much as possible, Marshmello, robbed of the ability to surprise us, telegraphs the whole thing. Besides intensifying the instrumental in the verse so that the soar can start with a dramatic tear-down, Marshmello also doubles the intro as a pre-echo of the soar-drop technique we just listened to. The first eight measures (“I need you the I nee I need”) are already much busier than the original, with claps and synths. In the final two measures, we also hear an upward swoooooooosh that’s punctuated with a downward sub-bass glide (it sounds like a sine wave, too–pure signal) that slides into a repeat of the intro (0:13), this time with even more instrumental to enjoy. The repetition of the intro parallels the soar-drop in microcosm, and it also squares of the beginning of the song (intro-verse-soar) into equal 16-measure chunks (as opposed to the 8-16-12 construction of the original).
I’ve written about this before, that thing of when remixers add soars where there weren’t any in the original. “WAUN” and Adele’s “Hello” have different logics governing them–where “WAÜN” strikes me as more about the surprise drop, “Hello” eschews a soar into the first chorus as part of a longer structural strategy that underlines the “natural” power of Adele’s voice. Still, bootleggers approach these missing soars with a similar bag of tricks.
Because it wasn’t germane to what I was talking about in the SO! piece, I didn’t remark on the fact that “All Around the World” has it both ways: there’s a chorus for Biebs’s vocals and a drop for his moves. I haven’t gone back and listened, but I’m guessing this is a Thing, the combo chorus/drop? Especially for double threats like Bieber? It’s structurally rather interesting because the chorus could be marked as a giant pause-drop.
Skrillex has three more production credits on Bieber’s Purpose: “Sorry,” “The Feeling” (omg that hook!!), and “Children.” I think this matters shittons. I want to develop it on its own instead of in a “thinking while I’m typing” post, but tl;dr I don’t know of Skrillex doing strictly behind-the-glass producer work before. I think he’s always been listed as a lead artist or featured guest, and this move to a slightly less visible production role suggests that he’s mainstreaming beyond “WAÜN.” “Sorry” has already been a #1 UK hit, and I wouldn’t be surprised if “Children” and/or “The Feeling” (ahem) soar up the charts when they’re released as singles later this year, too. I plan to develop in a future post a description of what Skrillex and Diplo did with the standard elements of a soar in “WAÜN” and then think through how Skrillex might be one of the key factors in what pop sounds like in 2016.
For now, I’ll just leave you with his flip of the Marshmello “WAÜN” remix: