This article was published online on February 14, 2021.
In music and on roller coasters, speediness makes for the fun kind of scariness. When young punk rockers raised on the Ramones began to play their own music in the early 1980s, the rat-a-tat rumble of “Blitzkrieg Bop” accelerated into something called the blast beat: an all-out rhythmic carpet-bombing over which vocalists would groan about Satan, Ronald Reagan, and the resemblance between the two. This development pushed rock and roll’s intrinsic logic—through dissonance, truth; in disaffection, pride—and invigorated new genres such as hardcore, grindcore, and death metal. In a 2016 book, the critic Ben Ratliff argued that blast beats also reflected a new technological landscape: “They were like the sound of a defective or damaged compact disc in one of the early players, a bodiless slice of digital information on jammed repeat.”
Today, no drum kit is required for musicians to glitch and twitch with terrifying intensity. Open up any audio-editing software, pull a few sliders in one direction, put the resulting ugliness on loop, and there you have it: a headbangable hell-scream into eternity. Such sounds are everywhere online these days. On TikTok, I recently came across a series of videos in which teens compared how their parents wanted them to dress with how they actually wanted to dress. As preppy sweaters gave way to nose rings and black fishnets, the music flipped from a saccharine sing-along to a harsh digital pounding. The latter sound was like a car alarm outfitted with a subwoofer—but for some reason, it beckoned to be played louder, rather than to be shut off.