Justin Bieber has come a long way. While his most recent album, Purpose, has garnered a surprising amount of critical acclaim, seven years ago, you’d be hard-pressed to find a musician more universally loathed (at least by anyone over age 20.) And yet, in the summer of 2010, teen Bieber’s “U Smile” became an overnight critical sensation. The A.V. Club called it “hypnotically immersive,” Music Radar declared it a “masterpiece,” and Spin Magazine put it on their “Best Songs of Summer” list alongside heavy-hitters like M.I.A. and LCD Soundsystem.
So what led music journalists around the world to jump wholeheartedly on-board with the contentious pop star? Well, they weren’t hearing “U Smile” exactly as JB had intended. Yes, it was the same schmaltzy piano ballad Bieber had released a few months earlier, but with a significant alteration: it had been slowed down by 800 percent.
The track came from music producer Nick Pittsinger, who used the music software PaulStretch to massively slow the audio. “When you slow down a video by 800 or 1,000 percent, every detail is seen—you see exactly how stuff breaks or people sneeze,” Pittsinger told Entertainment Weekly. “I decided to take that and apply it to this Justin Bieber song.” Pittsinger’s instincts were dead on. Stretched to 35 minutes, “U Smile” becomes ethereal and ambient, and when Pittsinger posted the track to Reddit, it became a bona fide internet phenomenon, introducing time-stretching (aka “audio time-scale/pitch modification”) to the world. Soon, everything from Slayer to the Jurassic Park theme song had gotten the stretch treatment.
Of course, slowing songs means that you could spend the rest of your life listening to the ambient works of Britney Spears (we recommend checking out the horror-movie-esque “Toxic”). So to save you a few thousand hours of sifting, we’ve put together our own list of five of the best songs ever stretched.
Get ready to get slow.
“U Smile” by Justin Bieber
Why does this three-minute pop song work so well when you unspool it across half an hour? Maybe it’s the song’s structural simplicity, which, when slowed, feels like an unwavering artistic vision. Or perhaps it’s Bieber’s voice, still young enough not to fray when you grab it by the edges and pull. Whatever it is, this track feels like the a warm, blue ocean, and there’s no shame in diving in.
Why does this three-minute pop song work so well when you unspool it across half an hour?
“Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen
Some might say that to alter “Bohemian Rhapsody” in any way is sacrilege. But stretching it into a 46-minute symphony gives us the opportunity to savour every exquisite harmony, every melodic swoop, and every abrupt left-hand turn in what is already a rollercoaster of a song. The first five minutes sounds like a drunken choir of angels, and when the piano kicks in at around six-and-a-half minutes, the song transforms into the kind of gut-wrenching, grand chord resolution inspired by baroque composers. As it progresses, the song morphs from a house of furious spectres (26:00) to a cave of deep, rolling guitars that would make most shoegaze bands hang their heads in shame (33:10). It’s unsurprising that the exquisite voice of Freddie Mercury holds up under intense digital manipulation. Only by stretching the line: “Now I’ve gone and thrown it all away” over a minute and a half can we fully grasp the emotional depth of his howl. This version may not beat the original, but it does proves that the song can transcend the bounds of time.
“Cry” by Godley & Creme
Before we had fancy digital software for time-stretching, there was another simple way of taking songs down a notch: throwing a 45 rpm record on the turntable at 33 rpm. This function stretches a track to little less than two-thirds of the original speed and drops the pitch a couple semitones. It’s a seemingly minor change that can have dramatic effects. Case in point: “Cry” by Godley & Creme which came out in 1985. The original track seems irredeemably cheesy, but redemption is closer at hand than you might think. Playing this hokey ballad at 33 rpm transforms it into a dark and weirdly sexy, slow-burning epic. Decelerated, the central lyric, a whining accusation: “You don’t know how to ease my pain,” suddenly becomes a white-hot dagger of truth. Instantly, the original’s overwrought sentimentality becomes unexpectedly urgent, eventually culminating in a transcendent finale.
“The Cursed King Theme” by Super Mario Brothers 3
So what happens when you take the already degraded sounds of 80s video games and stretch them to the limit? Surprisingly, that crunchy Nintendo sound still manages to maintain its digital shimmer. Slowed down 800%, the “Cursed King Theme” from Super Mario Brothers 3 sounds like an Nintendo Entertainment System being blasted through the Earth’s atmosphere. Throughout the song, 8-bit chunks of sound disintegrate and fall away, giving the whole thing a burnished glow. It’s minimal, but if you ever held on to a video game controller in the early 90s, this will grab you right by the heartstrings.
“Jolene” by Dolly Parton
“Slow-ass Jolene” took the internet by storm in 2013, and since then, Dolly Parton’s infinitely stretchable song has taken on several lethargic forms, each lending a different emotional flavour to the classic track. The first version appeared as a 45 being spun at 33 rpm and rendered Parton’s high-pitched warble heavy and sexless. It added a certain heft to a song whose sadness had, until then, been partially obscured by its sugar-high tempo and perky guitar. While most vocals warp when slowed, Parton’s crystal-clear soprano retained its purity, her vocal gymnastics becoming even more impressive.
But the stretching didn’t end there. Another slow version of the track soon appeared, keeping the same sluggish tempo but holding the vocals at their original pitch. And when Miley Cyrus did her own pepped-up version of the song, the internet responded with a 25%-slower version of that (which unfortunately came out sounding like something Cyrus’s father, Billy Ray, might have produced in the 90s). And finally, there’s “Slower-ass Jolene,” an even more dragged out and down-low rendition than the first, which takes the track into full-on dirge mode. The only thing missing from the canon of slow-ass Jolenes is an 800%-slower version—but, like the song’s love-struck vocalist, we’re still holding out hope.