The Accidental Minimalist

Article excerpt

Byline: Seth Colter Walls

Justin Bieber on slo-mo shakes up pop's idea of beautiful music.

It may have occurred to you that our culture's attention span for all things Justin Bieber knows no limit. Now this latent suspicion has been proved beyond falsifiability. Consider the evidence: last month an amateur musician slowed down Bieber's piano-based single "U Smile" by 800 percent--to a run time of 35 minutes--and posted it on the audio-sharing Web service SoundCloud. Instead of the original's skip-along meter, the slo-mo version was awash with gradual waves of foreboding chord changes that called to mind some early American ambient and minimalist music from the 1960s. The Internet had a predictably frenzied reaction. Within weeks, even Bieber himself had posted an approving link to the track, after which it crossed the 1 million-play threshold. And here's the kicker: people actually sat still for it. "I can't believe I'm enjoying him!" went the cries of the Justin haters. "I can't believe I'm listening to something experimental!" wailed the Bieber faithful.

That bone-crunching sound you heard was contemporary composers--who have a tough time getting arrested on the Internet--slamming their laptops shut on their fingers. And no wonder: while the slowed-down "U Smile" is an interesting piece of pop appropriation, it's no great leap forward on its own terms, since minimalists and popular artists have been paying attention to each other for decades. Roxy Music's Brian Eno even put out a series of ambient and minimalist works on his own label in the 1970s. (The imprint's name, Obscure Records, was prophetic.) In case you're wondering: no, Bieber and his producers weren't cribbing from Michael Nyman (or even Eno). But that's the point. Minimalism's central tenet--a belief in the beauty of looping phrases that spring from clear tonal waters--has been absorbed deeply enough that it can be unconsciously reflected back to listeners via pop. …