Why TikTok Users Love Sped-Up Songs
Fans of the fast-paced web platform prefer singers who sound like chipmunks. But why?
When I was a child, a band called Alvin and the Chipmunks enjoyed a brief taste of fame. Hot bands come and go, but this one had a bizarre back story.
First of all, it didn’t really exist. The band consisted of cartoon chipmunks. In this regard, Alvin and his rodent colleagues get credit for anticipating the anime pop stars of the current day.
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Second, these singing chipmunks were more a brand than a band. Because these animals were make-believe, they couldn’t go on tour—but they could sell boatloads of merchandise, from lunch boxes to comic books. This, too, anticipated much of our current music industry—where the side deals often make more money than concerts and records.
But even stranger, this group aimed to imitate the sound of singing chipmunks by speeding up recordings of human vocalists. The end result was arguably the most annoying sound in 20th century music (a rare distinction, that). I can’t stand listening to these tracks, but they somehow won five Grammy Awards. Alvin and the Chipmunks actually enjoyed two number-one singles.
That’s two more than Bob Dylan can claim.
In all fairness, these same tracks sound even worse when slowed down. So maybe there’s something to be said for getting to the end of the song as fast as possible.
But here’s the most surprising part of the story. This sped-up sound also anticipated the contemporary music of our own time—it’s actually one of the hottest trends on TikTok.
The whole music culture, it seems, is now under the sway of a chipmunk aesthetic. This, to my way of thinking, is even more foreboding than all those people who want us to eat bugs and compost our deceased loved ones.
I’m starting to think that Alvin and the Chipmunks belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Maybe I can’t stand listening to the stuff, but these cartoon critters clearly pointed the way to the future. A dark dystopian future, perhaps, but I guess that’s what happens when you treat rodents as role models.
Maybe this makes perfect sense—at least when you consider the obsession with speed-scrolling that now permeates digital culture. Faster may not be better, but at least it’s. . . well, faster.
So if a slow song takes up too much time for TikTok, the obvious solution is to pick up the pace.
For example, Faye Webster’s song “Kingston” doesn’t have the right stuff for TikTok at its original 75 beats per minute pace. But if you chipmunk-ify the tempo, the end result is ready to go viral.
Or consider the even more dramatic case study of “Valentine” by Icelandic jazz-pop singer Laufey, which had a modest impact after its initial release in February 2022, but took off when someone uploaded a sped-up version—which got used in more than 11,000 TikTok videos during just a two-week period.
“It introduced a lot of people to my music,” Laufey told a journalist, “and despite the sped-up version being the one passed around, people have been listening to the recorded version….. I think there’s something about the sped-up sounds that’s extra satisfying to the Gen-Z ear.”
It’s hard to argue with success. And there’s no doubt that TikTok is giving Instagram and other rivals a whupping. Here are some numbers.
What’s especially intriguing here is that modern technology allows speeding up songs without changing the pitch—so you can make it faster without the chipmunk sound. But listeners prefer that chirpy effect. In some ways, its like Auto-Tune, which originated as a way of fixing pitch imperfections but got embraced as an end in itself, and for the simple reason that many listeners prefer the manipulated digital file over the actual sound of a human voice.
I could offer a lot of smug theories about this. I could tell you that high-pitched vocals symbolize our fast-paced society. Or they represent a pathway to gender liberation. Or I could examine TikTok as the modern equivalent of the popular castrati singers of the 18th century. Or maybe the faster tempo is simply better for dancing.
But I have another explanation.
I’ll start by quoting Susan Sontag, who writes somewhere that all tragedy turns into comedy, if you speed it up enough. We may weep at the tale of Oedipus, but if Sophocles compressed his story into twenty seconds, the audience would be rolling in the Athenian aisles.
In this regard, I note that almost one-third of TikTok fanatics interviewed for a research report mentioned that the platform was funny and lighthearted.
The videos make them laugh.
“I find that most of the videos on TikTok are funny.”
“I spent almost 20 minutes trying to find one video that made me laugh on reels. While on TikTok I found many that were interesting and funny.”
“Tik Tok felt more 'easygoing', like the content was light and there to make you laugh.”
This matches my own (meager) experience with TikTok. On the rare occasion when a TikTok video catches my interest, it’s almost always because it’s amusing. So I watched this lip-syncing skateboarder drinking cranberry juice for a laugh, and not because of Fleetwood Mac.
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So maybe the Chipmunks comparison is exactly the right one. Alvin and the Chipmunks were amusing cartoon characters who got the audience laughing. And the goofy sped-up songs added to the humor. In the year 2022, TikTok is doing the same thing.
But it's worth recalling that these cartoon chipmunks lost most of their audience after a few years. Many people first heard them during the 1958 holiday season, when “The Chipmunk Song” got a lot of airplay, and reached the top of the Billboard pop singles chart. The launch of an animated Alvin TV series in October 1961 aimed to give new life to an already tired concept—three albums of the souped-up vocals had been released by that time—but it only lasted one season.
This brand franchise never actually died. And somehow keeps getting revived. But it lost its Grammy-winning and chart-climbing powers a long, long time ago. In other words, squeaky fast songs can get a laugh. And sometimes a second laugh. But nothing goes stale faster than a novelty song.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the current TikTok obsession with sped-up vocals has a similar trajectory. The speed adds to user engagement, but also user burnout. And evidence from other platforms suggests that the intense pursuit of clicks and scrolls may have reached some deadened end game, where even the zombie-like users who keep staring at their screens start to feel depleted by the process.
From this perspective, the push for chipmunk vocals represents a final stage of TikTok-ization, before the whole trend starts to reverse. And then we can move on to the next thing. I just hope it doesn’t involve eating bugs.
But have you heard the slowed down 33 1/3 RPM version of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”??
In the 70s, Cheech & Chong joked about playing Black Sabbath at 78rpm and seeing God. In the 80s (my punk rock days) I joked about playing The Sex Pistols at 16rpm and hearing Black Sabbath. Today the kids are all hypnotized by TikTok chipmunks. What a time to be alive!