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.