• Entertainment
  • Music

Viral Mashup Master DJ Earworm on the Past, Present and the Silly, Experimental Future of Pop

13 minute read

First there’s Pitbull. “I know you want,” he chants. And then: “Pop,” “dance,” “rock ‘n’ roll” — the genres burst out as the video cuts to Lady Gaga, Kelly Clarkson, will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas, their faces and voices flashing over the driving beat of that year’s top song, “Boom Boom Pow.” It was the end of 2009, and Jordan “DJ Earworm” Roseman had just released onto YouTube a mashup of the 25 biggest songs of the year according to the Billboard charts, entitled “United State of Pop: Blame It on the Pop.” His version — which seamlessly switched between hits, turning them into a collective, euphoric smash — would soon go viral and find itself on the charts and on the radio.

A decade later, DJ Earworm is still at it. 2019’s “United State of Pop” follows the same fail-proof formula: the year’s most popular songs, all distilled into one supercut. This year, he also released a “Decade of Pop” compilation with a whopping 100 songs, sharing a look back at how the pop music landscape has evolved in the 2010s in an ambitious new challenge.

TIME spoke with Earworm just before he released his 2019 mix, reflecting on the way music and technology have changed over the past ten years — and how his career has grown with them. (He’s produced music for stars like Lady Gaga and Maroon 5 and worked on compilation projects for artists like Pink and Queen, turning his viral series into a full-fledged profession.) In our conversation, he predicted a turn towards “silliness” and positivity in the decade to come following this last era’s “darkness,” emphasized the boom in musical diversity and summed up the message of 2019’s pop in one theme: “leaving.” Given how closely he has tracked the mood of pop over the past years, his words have weight.

“I don’t think we’ll go back to the way it was ten years ago, but I see a new diversity, new experimentation, new light-heartedness,” he said. “This year was a lot more fun than it’s been in a while.” And he promised plenty of mashups to look forward to along the way.

TIME: You put out the first “United State of Pop” mix in 2007, after studying music theory and computer science at University of Illinois. How did you get started making these mashups?

DJ EARWORM: My intention early on was to do original songs and production. The technology was just developing to use music production software. It doesn’t seem novel now, but it was novel at the time: you could change the pitch and tempo really easily. I was making a mixtape for a road trip, and I started cutting it up more and more, and all of a sudden it became a mashup. My friend pointed out, “That’s really cool, you should make more of those.” So I did, and started putting them online; it took off on the blogs. YouTube came out in 2005. People started making their own videos for “United State of Pop” starting in 2007. I was like, “Oh, this vehicle is perfect for delivery of this music.” I started my own channel and did some video editing. It helps to convey the message of the music: if you have control of the video, you control the message. And then it really blew up. I had this pop phenomenon, and I went fully into it.

Walk through the process of putting together the year-end mashup. It’s 25 songs collected from the Billboard charts. How do you select the tracks? What qualities are you looking for in a song?

It’s strictly numeric. I’m not trying to impose my vision on this. I’m trying to mirror the popular taste of our culture. I highlight the parts I like and draw out the parts that strike me emotionally, but I do that within the constraint that you must use the music that everyone, everyone knows. The obvious: “Old Town Road,” “Bad Guy.” There are no surprises.

Over the last decade — and especially over the last five years — there have been significant shifts in what we define as pop music and what rises to the top of the charts. What have you seen? How has it changed your work?

It definitely has made my job harder. For one thing, [pop music has] exploded in diversity. For another thing, the tempos have just gotten much slower. The story of the decade is one from going from up tempo to down tempo. And also going from unity to diversity.

At the beginning of the era, it was all this in-the-club, medium-flavored, 120-130 BPM electro-pop, basically. And that dissolved. Although it’s all slower — it’s slow, mumbly hip-hop — there’s also this reggaeton influence, there’s slow EDM mixed with tropical house towards the end of the decade, and now we’re starting to see a new feeling of novelty. Because hip-hop is dominating that [idea] right now, it’s starting to get a lot sillier. People are ready for a turn toward the upbeat after a few dreary years.

In a 2015 interview, you described the pop of the time as not “too challenging” and “safe.” Has the second half of this decade been different?

There’s more subtlety. There’s rhythmic complexity — like Halsey’s “East Side,” for example, which has this real syncopated rhythm. But then you look at “Bad Guy” and it’s as simple as simple gets. There’s more of a diversity; it’s not just one thing. A lot of that comes from the ground up; it’s not just the filter of the record companies anymore. They don’t nearly have the control they had ten years ago. It’s not decision makers all getting on one style and running with it.

Did you see a turning point when things started to change?

Billboard changed their chart in 2013, and the week they changed their chart, Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” went right to the top. What a weird song. The song isn’t silly, but what it represents is silly, because what people did with it was silly. That was the year EDM stopped ruling the charts entirely; there might have been one last hurrah from Swedish House Mafia, but that was the dying embers of the EDM movement. That was a turning point: when streaming started ruling and the EDM era was over. It wasn’t really clear what direction we were going to go at that point; it still isn’t really clear.

Do you see political events reflected in the music of these years?

Yeah. Even though the streaming pivot came in 2013, there wasn’t a pivot towards darkness. The darkness came in 2015; think about The Weeknd. It increased as our collective anxiety increased and as our election season wore on. It became clear things were not well. I think that anxiety has been there very much through now.

The political climate and economic climate is reflected in the lyrics, but in really oblique ways. [The artists will] turn it into a love song, but the words they’re using reflect everyday life. Like this year, there’s a lot of leaving, there’s a lot of escaping, there’s a lot of sealing yourself off from others and forging your own path.

What stands out to you about 2019?

It’s all about romantic leaving. Lizzo’s songs are about leaving, Post Malone’s “Circles” is about leaving somebody. “East Side” is about you and me leaving somewhere together; “I Don’t Care” [by Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber] is about us wanting to leave another collective, which is this party; “Old Town Road” is wanting to leave the whole town. There’s no destination. We just want to leave, to get out of here. That’s some kind of recurring theme. Even [the Jonas Brothers song] “Sucker,” says I’ll follow you anywhere blindly; I’ll stumble through the dark. He’s lovesick, but he’s following someone without any destination. Khalid, too; where are we going? We’re going together, but where are we going? There’s a lot of similarities.

That’s kind of depressing.

I’m trying to turn it into an uplifting tapestry so it’s not! There’s something uplifting about saying, “Screw it, forget all of you, I’m gonna do me. I’m going to create my own reality.” So I’m trying to look at the positivity of that. Like Rihanna, with “we found love in a hopeless place” — that kind of a thing.

In putting together the end-of-decade mashup — which is 100 songs — how did you select what to include?

I wanted to include songs that were both big in America and globally, because they had the biggest impact on the most audiences. I wanted to have a song that was about the passage of time, about growing up and growing older. It’s trying to narrate the viewer’s emotional journey.

Was it personally emotional for you to take that trip down memory lane?

Oh, yeah. I’ve been deeply involved in all of this music, and it represents my journey, too. I know it’s hitting teenagers the hardest because it’s the soundtrack of their lives, but the top of the charts is the soundtrack of my life as well.

You know chart hits on a pretty intimate song-structure level. What do you say to critiques about a lack of creativity in modern pop? Is that valid?

I would say that there are styles of music where being dynamic isn’t as important as in others. I can’t say that having a dramatic flow is inherently better than having dramatic sameness. There’s a function to that sameness. Does music suck nowadays? It’s just different. If you ask a young person who doesn’t listen to rock [about rock], they’ll say, “All these guitars, why do they need guitars? It seems really limiting.” At the same time, I do think there is a reduced level of production overall. You look at something like Lizzo’s “Good As Hell,” which is this great soulful vibe. The actual soul that it refers to, though: that stuff is much more complicated. There is some high-end pop production where they really go detail-oriented, like Panic! At the Disco’s “High Hopes;” you know they spent hundreds of hours working on it. Whereas “Old Town Road” is definitely cute, definitely hit the right notes — but there’s not the same level of intricacy in the production.

How do you isolate components? Have you struggled with fair use?

As long as everything is deconstructed enough, I don’t tend to trigger any filters on the platforms I’m using. I’ve experimented and figured out what the magic formula of audio and video is that can potentially get you de-platformed flagged; now, that’s generally not a problem for me. In terms of getting the audio, hopefully I get the raw stems, either from the studio or splitting it from the internet. There are cool new tools that have come out in the last few years with deep learning where you just press a button and can get the a cappella.

How has technology impacted what you do? There’s been a lot of conversation about AI-produced pop; does that concern you?

AI’s going to be huge. It’s already changing the way I produce. It’s making part extraction much more straightforward, which opens up the creative potential. I assume it will start making the music itself; whether it makes the mashup and I’ll be out of a job… [laughs]. AI will help generate and brainstorm for people who are already making music. But the better technology gets, the more possibilities there are, the harder it is to choose what to do. As the tech improves, there’s a certain paralysis. The sky is the limit, so what is the next move to make? When you only have a limited technology, your boundaries are more set; it’s almost easier to make the first move.

But I love the promise of AI, I love the idea that we could potentially get to hear new sounds. Since the sampler came out in the 80s — that was a pretty fundamental change — I don’t think we’ve had anything as revolutionary. But that could happen really soon. You could hear sounds you’ve never heard before.

Do you intend to continue with the United State of Pop?

I’m in it for the long haul! I’ve gone through some peaks and some valleys. But there’s something to be said for persistence, and for not quitting even though the pendulum swings. I know mashups were at a cultural peak right around the turn of last decade. I know they’re not as buzzworthy now. But I think they’re a form that’s here to stay and will be relevant.

What big predictions about pop over the next decade can you make?

It’s gonna be more fun, more silly, more diverse and experimental. More unexpected. And there will be more tracks coming out of nowhere using elements, styles, sounds, rhythms that have not been heard before and popularized by media that has not been popularizing music before.

Do you think that U.S. taste and international tastes will start blending more?

You know what, I think it’s the opposite! At the dawn of the decade, we had this really international vibe going on. The charts on both sides of the Atlantic were quite similar. I would be interested in a statistical analysis on this, but I feel like the charts are diverging. For one thing, hip-hop has become much more dominant, which is a U.S. phenomenon. Some hip-hop goes international, but most of those hits are U.S.-only. It’s getting more local everywhere, which means there’s more diversity. If you look at the charts from other countries, you’ll see all these songs that you’re like, “What is that?”


More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Raisa Bruner at raisa.bruner@time.com