The Inside History of ‘Where Are Ü Now’ (Published 2015) (2023)


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The Inside History of ‘Where Are Ü Now’ (Published 2015) (1)

By Jon Pareles

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On the radio, where it has been ubiquitous all summer, the million-selling single “Where Are Ü Now” by Skrillex and Diplo with Justin Bieber is four minutes of high-tech bliss: a sweet-voiced mixture of longing and recrimination, a lonely plaint with a dance beat.

The song arrives in a swirl of electronic sound and vanishes in a distant echo, like a phantasm. But behind it, as with most Top 10 hits, is a matrix of inspirations and decisions, coincidences and hard work, marketing and luck. In a series of interviews, the people behind the hit provided a detailed look at the work that went into “Where Are Ü Now,” for a case study in the way pop music is made today.

Like many current hits, “Where Are Ü Now” is an electronic confection facilitated online. Mr. Bieber was not in the studio with Skrillex and Diplo, and didn’t even know the song was being produced. “Where Are Ü Now” is also an alliance of musicians from diverse musical camps. It’s a mutually advantageous coalition, but an unexpected one: the electronic dance music underground meeting a teen idol. Diplo recalled thinking: “No one would expect it. It would be so insane.”

“Where Are Ü Now” is certifiably catchy. Since its release in February, it has been streamed 236 million times on Spotify alone (it’s also available elsewhere), and its official YouTube video has been played more than 100 million times in less than two months. It has been a Top 10 single across the English-speaking world. It’s also a contender for Best Song of the Summer at the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday. Yet it is a peculiar, formula-defying song, with two verses and insistent hooks but — unlike the standard hit song — no big chorus. “The song wouldn’t be what it was if we tried to follow those radio requirements,” Skrillex said. “I just like it. It makes me feel something.”

Mr. Bieber, 21, has been a pop star since he was 13, a pinup for squealing fans. But teen idols don’t last, and his challenge is to make the transition to a lasting career. After a series of tabloid embarrassments, he had not released any music for more than a year. (Another song he was working on, he said, was titled “No Pressure.”)

Skrillex and Diplo have busy individual careers as producers, remixers and disc jockeys; teamed up, they bill themselves as Jack Ü. Diplo, born Wesley Pentz, is a 36-year-old connoisseur of bass-heavy styles from around the world. As electronic dance beats have infused Top 10 pop, Diplo has produced hits for M.I.A. (“Paper Planes”), Usher (“Climax”) and another of his collaborative groups, Major Lazer, which has a current hit with “Lean On.”

Skrillex, the stage name of Sonny Moore, 27, is better known as a D.J., headlining clubs and festivals and pumping out propulsive, crushing dubstep remixes. “Where Are Ü Now” has given Skrillex his first pop hit.

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The song opens hushed and hovering, with a stereo-panning whoosh, four somber piano chords and Mr. Bieber’s electronically stuttered voice, leading into a mournful verse about a friend or lover he helped, who has now abandoned him. Eventually a dance beat kicks in and a mysterious, flutelike squiggle — Skrillex calls it the “dolphin” — announces itself again and again as the vocals all but disappear: There’s just the occasional refrain, “Where are you now that I need you?”

Halfway through, the track pauses, then offers another hymnlike verse; the dance beat returns, a little pushier with electronic handclaps, and the refrain and “dolphin” carry the song to the end, with a final, echoing “I need you the most.”

The collaboration began at a party. Skrillex and Diplo were in New York in September 2014 during Fashion Week, and at an Alexander Wang event they ran into Scooter Braun, who manages Mr. Bieber and other acts Diplo has produced. Skrillex and Diplo were looking for vocal tracks for the debut album by Jack Ü, which channels their electronic expertise into more-or-less-pop songs with a different vocalist on each track. Diplo asked Mr. Braun whether Mr. Bieber had new material.

Video: Justin Bieber, Diplo and Skrillex Make a Hit“Where Are Ü Now” and electronic dance music helped Justin Bieber sing for grown-ups. A story of how music is made today.

He did. A week earlier, Mr. Bieber had recorded “Where Are Ü Now” with a frequent producer and songwriting collaborator, Jason Boyd, a.k.a. Poo Bear. They bounced words and melodies back and forth over an instrumental track; when they had the lyrics, Mr. Bieber sang take after take so Poo Bear could edit together the best reading of every line and every syllable. “I don’t want it to be raw,” Mr. Bieber said. “I want it to be perfect.”

At the party, Mr. Braun recalled, he told Diplo, “‘I actually have this amazing vocal from Bieber with just piano.’ He said, ‘Hell, yeah, send that to me.’ I took out my phone and 30 seconds later I said, ‘It’s in your inbox.’”

Mr. Bieber said that he recorded the song with Poo Bear in about an hour and a half. That was the quick part. Skrillex and Diplo went on to work on the track, on and off, for four months. “We made it a song that feels like it’s from the future,” Diplo said.

They reversed the original order of the verses. They took the lone a cappella vocal track they had from Mr. Bieber, cut it to stutter certain words in the introduction, and pitched it higher and lower in various parts of the song, allowing Mr. Bieber to answer himself from below and harmonize above. They toyed with dance beats, keyboard chords and bass lines — thickening the song and then thinning it again. They concocted sounds that were determinedly different from standard dance-club fare; what seems like a snare drum, for instance, is actually a tweaked version of an Indian tabla, Skrillex said.

And they devised the “dolphin” — the song’s most instantly recognizable, most insinuating hook. It’s not an acoustic or electronic instrument: It’s a brief snippet of Mr. Bieber’s vocal line, a subliminal reinforcement of the melody. It’s pitched two octaves above the original, run through distortion and equalization effects and given a very short tail of reverb, creating a digital sound with a human core.


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“Anybody can copy any synth now,” Diplo said. “But if you manipulate vocals, it’s really something original that no one can do.”

Mr. Braun said he hadn’t told Mr. Bieber about sending the song to Skrillex and Diplo. After he heard the finished track, he said, he told Mr. Bieber, “I need to play you something.”

“He goes, ‘What do you mean?’” Mr. Braun said. “I said, ‘Remember “Where Are Ü Now?” — well, I got a version with Skrillex and Diplo.’”

Mr. Braun added, “He was like: ‘Really? When did that happen?’ I played it for him and he was like, ‘That’s dope.’”

Mr. Bieber said: “It totally took it to a whole ’nother atmosphere. I totally didn’t see that coming.”


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Operating on dance-music terms, Skrillex and Diplo did no promotional buildup for the song. At midnight as Feb. 27th began, they suddenly released their debut album as a duo, “Skrillex and Diplo Present Jack Ü.” The pop-oriented songs, Diplo said, are “a huge departure for ourselves; also for dance music.”

“We’re trying to do something outside the box,” he added, because dance music “had become so congested and homogeneous.”

“Where Are Ü Now” is tucked in near the end of the album, the ninth track. It didn’t stay hidden long. That afternoon, Mr. Bieber tweeted about the song for the first time to his tens of millions of Twitter followers. “This one is special,” he wrote, garnering more than 81,000 retweets and 92,000 favorites to date. In March, he asked his Twitter followers to begin requesting the song on the radio. “We got one,” he wrote. Later that month, he wrote, “Let’s make it about the music.”

Mr. Bieber also started turning up as Jack Ü’s surprise guest when Diplo and Skrillex worked the spring and summer electronic dance music festivals, beginning with the Ultra Music Festival in Miami on March 29. Mr. Bieber still marvels at the response. “Everyone’s applauding and cheering, and giving me a reaction that I never thought I would get, especially for that type of crowd,” he said. “I’m just breaking through as being accepted by the masses and not necessarily a young generation. It opened my eyes to a whole new audience, a whole new platform.”

It gave him Instagram images, too, with a million likes. As the song started its rise on pop radio, Mr. Bieber was also the subject of a Comedy Central roast on TV, placing him in an adult (and often raunchy) context and allowing him a public apology for his teenage follies. His return to the Top 10 would be as a grown-up. “I can make stuff that appeals to the masses, but is super creative,” he vowed.

Last Sunday at the Jones Beach Theater in Wantagh, N.Y., Skrillex and Mr. Bieber were main-stage headliners at the first Billboard Hot 100 Music Festival. An audience of pop fans danced and shouted to Skrillex’s set as it whipsawed in and out of other Jack Ü songs amid blasts of smoke, sparks and streamers. After Mr. Bieber sang a short set of his previous hits, full of sweet romantic promises, Skrillex returned to cue up a remixed “Where Are Ü Now.”

Screams greeted the song’s opening whoosh; there were loud, high-pitched singalongs as the lyrics flashed on screen. “Justin, c’mere,” Skrillex called out, and Mr. Bieber climbed up to join him, dancing alongside Skrillex on top of the long D.J. console as the “dolphin” trilled. The pop star was in the realm of dance music and the D.J. was a pop hitmaker. For this Top 10 moment, their paths had converged.


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