If you want to look at how internet instantaneity works with pop music, you can hardly do better than this track. Chances are good you've heard it already or at least heard of it. It is exactly what the title says: "U Smile," by Justin Bieber, slowed down to 35.5 minutes of ambience with more frost on it than the tips of Bieber's hair. The credit goes to producer Nick Pittsinger, aka Shamantis, but the real culprit is an audio editor called PaulStretch, a fact Pittsinger, on his SoundCloud page, readily admits.
Within a single day, "U Smile 800% Slower" had been played more than a half million times, thanks in part to a write-up on NPR's website, which claimed that the producer, in addition to slowing it down, "clearly used a phase vocoder to smooth it out"—a charge Pittsinger wrote in to deny: "I think [PaulStretch] might have that technology built into it." Pittsinger also called out some carpetbaggers on Bandcamp calling themselves the Photon Wave Orchestra, who claim-jumped the track, put up a hastily Photoshopped shot of some mountain peaks as cover art, and retitled it the Echoes Across the Astral Wastelands EP. (Lyrics from the Bandcamp page, quoted in full: "OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.") Now that's what I call a meme.
Nearly everything I saw in the comment boxes of a handful of sites writing the thing up was a variation on that old staple: "I can't believe I actually like something by Justin Bieber." But this isn't really a surprise. I don't care much for Bieber's music, nor was I a fan of his appearance on Saturday Night Live, as singer or actor. (The sketch with Tina Fey as a teacher lusting after him was enough to make me wish for an appearance from Kristen Wiig's Gilly, the most pitiful recurring character in the show's history.) But Bieber is less important as a musician than as a lightning rod. The culture he makes is mostly negligible, give or take "Baby," which is pretty irresistible. What counts more is the culture he inspires. First there was the waggish Tumblr dedication site Lesbians Who Look Like Justin Bieber. Now that Pittsinger has made "U Smile" sound like Justin Broadrick remixing the Cocteau Twins, it's pretty obvious just how peerless Bieber is as a pop-cultural figure, a canvas to project our collective desires, positive and negative, onto.