TikTok Is Filled With Sped-Up Remixes. Two Norwegians Pioneered Them.

TikTok’s musical landscape is rife with passing fads, but one trend has had remarkable staying power: Sped-up remixes are a defining characteristic of music on the app, where #spedupsounds has 8.8 billion views. Many follow the model that made Imanbek’s remix of Saint Jhn’s “Roses” a global smash in 2020: increasing the track’s speed and pitch-shifting the vocals up to chipmunk octaves.

Sped-up remixes of the Neighborhood’s “Sweater Weather” and Demi Lovato’s “Cool for the Summer” have been used in around 2.5 million videos each, and older songs like Nelly Furtado’s “Say It Right” and Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” have also received the frenetic helium treatment. Some artists, like Steve Lacy, are striving to beat TikTokers to the punch. He released “Bad Habit — Sped Up” as a single in July.

The remixes’ mainstream popularity is unique to the TikTok era, but the formula was created two decades ago. YouTube users, particularly those who were active in the early 2010s, might know them by a different name: nightcore.

In 2002, Thomas S. Nilsen and Steffen Ojala Soderholm were attending high school in Alta, Norway, a city 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle where tourists flock to see the Northern Lights, when they received an assignment to create a piece of music. Drawing inspiration from the German group Scooter’s track “Nessaja” and from a love of happy hardcore — a subgenre of upbeat and fast-paced techno that emerged from Europe in the 1990s — the teens created an original song using the program eJay Dance 3, with squeaky vocals and a heart-attack-inducing BPM of 170.

“We only got a C+ for our piece so we decided to make a whole album using that technique,” Nilsen and Soderholm wrote in an email. They named the album “Energized,”and themselves Nightcore. They earned an A+ for their LP, which featured 13 dance tracks with “simple good mood vibes, deep bass and happy lyrics,” they explained. The duo burned CDs and distributed them to friends and family. Although they continued making music as hobbyists into 2003, they otherwise got on with their lives. Now 36 years old, both Nilsen and Soderholm live with their wives and children in Alta, where Nilsen works as the sales manager in a sports store. Soderholm declined to comment on his profession.

“In 2011, we searched Limewire for Nightcore just for our amusement,” they wrote, referring to the onetime peer-to-peer music-sharing platform. “We were shocked to find several of our tracks online,” they added, admitting they felt a bit proud to learn their music had lived on. The same search on YouTube left them stunned. Not only did they discover all of their tracks, but thousands of others remixed with their technique, with the words “nightcore remix” appended to the title. They also noticed a visual trend: All of the remixes used anime images as the video artwork.

“We still haven’t uploaded a song anywhere ourselves. We have no idea who did,” Nilsen and Soderholm wrote. The duo had unknowingly helped create a new digital subculture.

A 27-year-old software engineer from Amsterdam known online as Maikel631 was one of the creators who uploaded Nightcore’s tracks from Limewire to YouTube in 2009. “Only later when I found a different song that was clearly not from the original group labeled as ‘nightcore’ did I start looking into doing this myself,” he wrote in an email. “It was apparent that the subscribers I had gained so far were hoping to hear more music like this.” In 2011, Maikel created, which became a vital forum for nightcore’s growing number of devotees.

Over a Zoom call, the ethnomusicologist Emma Winston, who studied the nightcore subculture in 2017, said its community was “beginner positive.” “It was almost as if the idea of good music was replaced with valuing participation in and of itself,” she said. Given the saccharine sound, jarring pace and extremely low barrier to entry, nightcore increasingly became the butt of jokes and the subject of memes throughout the 2010s. “My sense was that people knew they were misfits in the broader electronic music scene,” she said.

On Sept. 15, 2010, the British producer Danny L Harle changed his Facebook status to an all-caps message: “Nightcore has plunged into my heart.” He was introduced to the genre at a small party with friends the night before. The update was liked by just one person, A.G. Cook, the founder of PC Music — an influential label and collective of which Harle is a key member. “In Schoenberg’s ‘Pierrot Lunaire,’ there’s a line that translates to ‘I breathe the air of other worlds.’ That’s the closest thing I can think of that describes the feeling of when I first heard nightcore,” Harle said in a phone interview. “I had discovered a new universe of expression.”

Nightcore’s hyperbolically digital sound struck Harle and Cook as truly fresh. “Nightcore was a revelatory discovery in my early life and in my musical development,” Harle said. “Part of what makes it so interesting is that it was one of the first musical scenes that was born on the internet. It was alien in that it had no real world or physical space.”

Nightcore and its ethos have crept into much of Harle’s work, which includes production for Charli XCX, Caroline Polachek, Lil Uzi Vert and Rina Sawayama. Nightcore can also be heard in the hyperpop of 100 gecs and Dorian Electra.

While many who remember nightcore’s “misfit” status have been surprised by the ubiquity of sped-up remixes on TikTok, Harle sees the connection. “The original nightcore scene was a weirdo place for sure, but TikTok flattens any cultural baggage,” he said. “It becomes a tool. TikTok has provided context for lots of sounds that are strange or disorienting because they grab your attention.”

There is basic algorithmic logic at play: sped-up songs are favored by the app because they pack a greater deal of emotional and lyrical information into a shorter window of time, and therefore cater well to diminishing attention spans.

William Gruger, who works on Global Music Programs at TikTok, wrote in an email that pitch- and speed-shifted remixes are “used to convey different meanings that then become synonymous with TikTok trends.” TikTok has identified sped-up as one of four production tweaks that have become the lingua franca of the app, alongside slowed down, bass boosted and lo-fi, each with its own “mood.” Sped-up remixes offer a dose of feel-good frivolity. “It’s cute, silly or happy,” Gruger said.

The TikTok creator Tristan Olson, known online as xxTristanxo, has amassed over three million followers by creating remixes for use on the app. His sped-up remixes receive overwhelmingly positive responses. In a phone interview, he described “nightcoring” a song as a transformative process: “Sometimes it feels like I’m hearing a song for the first time.”

Songying Wang was still in high school in the United Kingdom when he started his nightcore YouTube channel, AxionX, in 2015. He, like many other YouTubers, has pivoted his focus to TikTok as a matter of pragmatism. “TikTok has recently become a great place to upload nightcore and sped-up songs due to their more relaxed copyright policies,” he said in a phone interview, echoing the experiences of other creators who have seen their work vanish from YouTube. The D.I.Y. ethos of nightcore aligns with the culture of the app, which gives users incentives to become creators, as well as consumers: “Anyone can make nightcore and that’s what’s so fun about it.”

Although Nilsen and Soderholm had no specific professional ambitions when they pioneered nightcore, their legacy aligns with their sole artistic aim. “Our main focus was to make sad and relatable lyrics happier to listen to. Now, people reach out to us daily to tell us their story and about how Nightcore gets them through tough times,” they wrote. “We feel proud that our music makes people feel exactly the way we wanted them to.”

Harle believes the word “happy” undersells the sound’s emotional impact. “It doesn’t make me feel happy,” he said. “It makes me feel euphoric.”

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