Khhhhk. Zzsst. Shrmm. Hear that? They’re sounds that never used to be heard in pop music, at least not intentionally: the crunch of digital distortion, of speaker cones fluttering helplessly under seismic bass assaults and drums turned up so high they sound like tearing cardboard. And now that guttural, grinding sound is crawling up the charts.
Exhibit A in this new dissonance is a song that just became the longest-running entry in the history of Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 singles. With 83 weeks on the list as of this writing, Imagine Dragons’ slowly jackhammering rock song “Radioactive” has passed LeAnn Rimes’ “How Do I Live,” which previously held the “longest charting” title for over a decade. It also eclipsed the 76-week record for longevity set by Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours.”
Both Rimes’ and Mraz’s songs have the lush, sparkly sonics associated with huge hits. “Radioactive” starts out the same way, with chiming guitars and airy vocal harmonies, but then its rhythm section kicks in: the wub-wub-wub bass tone of the underground dance music known as dubstep and a splattery, unmistakably distorted beat. It’s working: Imagine Dragons was the best-selling American rock band of 2013, with over 6 million digital copies of “Radioactive” sold. The song also took Best Rock Performance at this year’s Grammy Awards.
Right behind “Radioactive,” with 79 weeks in the Hot 100, is one of the oddest recordings ever to become a pop hit. “Sail” by AWOLNATION is a crawlingly paced industrial-rock meditation on self-obliteration, built around a mammoth bass buzz and front man Aaron Bruno’s shredded bellow. It couldn’t sound less like Mraz, but that’s the democracy of pop at work: the audience knows what it needs, and “Sail” has clawed out its territory on the radio in one city after another.
A decade ago, these sounds were the province of a few adventurous artists, iconoclasts eager to show how uncommercial their work was; later they filtered into the tool kits of hip-hop and dance-music producers. An effect called bitcrusher, which makes audio more lo-fi, is now a standard option in music software. Noise has become to popular music what civet is to perfume: the nasty stuff that perks up everything else. The singer-producer Miguel has made distorted, pixelated instrumentation a cornerstone of his work, mostly in ways that make singers’ voices sound more naturally elegant: the sludgy air-in-a-paper-bag beats of Mariah Carey’s “#Beautiful,” the Bronx-cheer bass of J. Cole’s “Power Trip,” the overdriven tippy-tap drum machine of his own “Adorn.” Zendaya’s recent platinum single “Replay” similarly contrasts the clarity of her voice with raspy, rattling dubstep electronics.
Eminem’s “Berzerk” was constructed to re-establish his bona fides as a loose cannon. Its chorus and verses are slightly out of tune with each other, and its rock-guitar snippets tone-bend at their edges as if they’re on a cassette or vinyl record that’s being sloppily started and stopped. “Black Skinhead,” the lead single from Kanye West’s megalomaniacal album Yeezus, opens with overdriven, muted harmonies, and nearly every other element of its recording crackles as if it’s been cranked so high that it’s shattering whatever sound system it’s coming out of, no matter how quietly you’re actually playing it.
In addition to dubstep, the other big distortion influencer in underground music has been trap, a subgenre that came out of Southern hip-hop and expanded into dance music. Jay Z’s “Tom Ford,” with its cracked 8-bit electronics and rolling high hats, is a take on the trap sound, while “Turn Down for What” by DJ Snake and Lil Jon is a trap-dubstep hybrid built around a single slammed bass tone while Lil Jon abrasively barks the title.
Listen carefully and you can hear noise sneaking into songs that seem otherwise perfectly coiffed. The beat of Katy Perry’s massive 2010 hit “Firework” breaks up around its fringes. “It’s as plain as day that something went dreadfully wrong in the recording process, or dreadfully right if that’s what the market wants,” sniffed the audiophile site Audio Masterclass. Sandy Vee, who co-produced “Firework,” explained that he likes to add distortion. “It creates more warmth, more aliveness … For me dirty means warmer.”
It can mean that, certainly. But dirty sounds are also an illusion meant to enhance the way we listen to music now–at low volume, trickling out of little computer speakers or earbuds. They imply that the music they belong to is being played loudly, even when it isn’t. Distortion is the sound of things on the verge of falling apart. Right now, the collapse it’s signaling might be pop music as we know it.
This appears in the April 21, 2014 issue of TIME.
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