Nightcore feels like it's finally hitting its stride. Born at the dawn of a new millennium, the web-based genre seemed to herald a new era in dance music and electronic production, one premised in equal measure on pop accessibility and breakneck exploration. With a pounding 160 BPM tempo, nightcore sped and re-pitched existing trance and Eurodance hits into a sugary headrush of sounds.
Yet despite being around for over a decade, nightcore has largely slipped under the music industry's radar, confined to forums and YouTube channels, scoffed off as happy hardcore's saccharine excess, and, at least until recently, buried beneath an avalanche of newer dance music online.
But lately, nightcore's influence can be felt outside of its tight-knit community; last year, PC Music's Danny L. Harle called the genre an "intensely emotional" listening experience, one that sounds like digital audio fully detached from human composition, while A.G. Cook placed it alongside J-Pop and K-Pop in a list of PC Music's many infectious influences. Other producers—like Ducky, Fan Fiction, the artists on the labels NITE CORP. and Manicure Records, as well as the loose crew that formed around the SPF420 livestreams—have crafted their own tracks inspired by the style, some designed to sound like they've been nightcore remixes from the start. But where did it all come from? How did a genre so indebted to early net culture provide the syrupy groundwork for some of the most innovative club music today?
The term "Nightcore" dates back to 2002, when two Norwegian producers—Thomas S. Nilsen and Steffen Ojala Søderholm—created a project by that name for a secondary school project. The project consisted, quite simply, in speeding up obscure trance tracks with cheap Dance eJay 3 production software, tweaking the pitch ever so slightly, and slapping their own name on the product. While they received only modest classroom marks for their first album, they soon followed the release with a more fleshed-out sound. Using some new, "top secret" software (at least according to their now-defunct website), Nightcore came into their own with some of their best, most ecstasy-inducing works to date, including early albums Summer Edition 2002, L'hiver, and Sensación. Despite being distributed throughout the region on self-released CDs, these records didn't really take off until they got uploaded to filesharing and peer-to-peer sites like LimeWire, where the style's racing tempo and straightforward blueprint quickly resonated across the globe.
However, with the collapse of LimeWire in 2010—with the company ordered to pay a historic $75 trillion in damages—most songs from these early Nightcore releases became unavailable. Of the tracks that continued to float around online, it became difficult to determine with certainty which were from Nilsen and Søderholm, and which were from other producers imitating the style, since many had been uploaded online without production credits. Still, around 2006, the track "Dam Dadi Do" from 2003's Caliente surfaced on YouTube, and soon members of the obsessive Nightcore Universe forum—established in 2010 as a network home for the community—began piecing together chronological playlists of the duo's output, dating back to 2003.
Since then, YouTube channels with names like xMisterkinox and LonelyLilAngel have grown into extensive back catalogs for the genre, with some videos amassing as many as three million views. As these references became available, the trend started picking up momentum again, with amateur producers across the web started speeding up practically any song you could imagine.
As producer and writer Fan Fiction explains it in his history of the genre for Skrillex's NEST HQ blog, the nightcore "formula" roughly comes down to a simple +25% speed shift, with a resulting tempo between 160-180bpm. Often paired with anime artwork, the template works best with pop-trance and Eurodance megahits, with the aim being to find tracks that, at least according to Fan Fiction, sound like they were "made that way in the first place." Trance mega-hits like Cascada's "Everytime We Touch," and Basshunter's "All I Ever Wanted" seem to work best, with their bright synths, major keys, and hyper-compressed drums pushed to uncanny new extremes.
But search YouTube or SoundCloud today, and you're bound to find any pop hit from the last few years nightcore'd. Some—like Justin Bieber's "What Do You Mean?," Zedd's "Clarity," or K-pop supergroup Big Bang's hit "Bang Bang Bang"—make perfect sense, taking tracks built around a 128 house kick and accelerating them to a racing, teeth-clenching frenzy. Others—like edits of Macklemore, Babymetal, and, because why not, Smash Mouth—prove that not all nightcore is interested in sonic cohesion. For these tracks, speed and pitch edits prove the easiest route to a fun, no-skills-necessary remix, shareable online only moments after creation.
Many producers—like those behind the popular NightcoreReality channel—use the template over and over again, seemingly just for fun of it. Others craft their own productions in the style, layering heavier drums and beefier synths over original tracks in Logic and Ableton, often with some pretty weird results. Hits from trap, dubstep, and practically every EDM subgenre have their own nightcore remixes, suggesting that the sound may have an even larger potential when it moves beyond the parameters of trance.
With this massive proliferation of formulaic tracks—most of which follow a simple template, without any intensive editing—nightcore has, not surprisingly, evolved into something of a joke. Throughout the late aughts and into the 2010s, it became the subject of a number of awful memes, and even an entry on KnowYourMeme.com, where a surprisingly extensive history of the genre sits next to histories of trap and its infamous air horn sample. Like that iconic, oft-sampled sound, nightcore's inescapable appeal lies in loud, brash, low-brow fun, a heart-pounding blunderbuss of gooey, candy-coated sounds. It's an artifact indebted to an earlier, less formalized internet, one where file-sharing and forum culture reigned supreme, and where many aspiring producers first experienced the thrill of connecting with a larger community online.
These days, nightcore has become an integral part of the laptop pop landscape, championed by everyone from PC Music members to the SPF420 crew. After Simon Whybray's JACK radio show also contributed to the sound's resurgence in 2014 and 2015, opening most sets with a good splash of nightcore, the genre also found its way into sets of SoundCloud producers like Henrik the Artist, Shawn Wasabi, ABSRDST, and Moist Breezy, among many others. Still other artists—like DJ Clickbait, nightcorey, and Lil BaeBlade—stick to that sweet, sweet original form, crafting nightcore that stays true to the genre's predicate simplicity.
Like a number of other internet microgenres over the years, nightcore shows the vast potential that a few simple edits can have online. If we consider its passage from a secondary school project in Norway to the forefront of some of the most interesting dance music today, it seems only a matter of time before the genre makes its ascent towards the pop world—especially following the recent release of Harle's latest single with Carly Rae Jepsen. As its simple template quickly blends into larger production trends, nightcore could be bigger than we're prepared for.
Rob Arcand is on Twitter.
CORRECTION [August, 15, 8:10]: An earlier version of this article referred to NITE CORP in a list of producers, when it is in fact a label. The article has updated accordingly.