Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was — the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period — with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
When Jason Boyd, the producer better known as Poo Bear, wrote “Where Are Ü Now” on his piano, he couldn’t have imagined the betrayal ballad would become one of the biggest dance music crossover hits of the decade.
But by the time the song had been recorded by Justin Bieber and chopped, screwed and filtered by Skrillex and Diplo (then making music together under the collective name Jack Ü), Boyd’s once-simple love song had become not only bigger and more technically complex, but a hit that would affect the direction of contemporary pop music itself.
“I remember feeling like if the song ever came out and hit the radio, it could change music,” Boyd says. “And it did.”
Boyd first presented the track to Bieber — a longtime collaborator for whom Boyd also co-write hits including “What Do You Mean?” and “Hold Tight” — in 2014, when they were attending a Dave Chappelle show at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado for Bieber’s birthday. Bieber sent the song to his manager Scooter Braun, who passed it to a few producers.
In this mix was Jack Ü, who were then in the process of making their 2015 debut LP Skrillex and Diplo Present Jack Ü. The duo’s only album to date, the LP and subsequent big-league festival sets marked a collaboration between two of the most successful, prolific and boundary-pushing producers of the EDM era. As Jack Ü, Skrillex and Diplo took “Where Are Ü Now” and applied their technical prowess, adding drums, filtering vocals and generally manipulating the track into an entirely new form.
“Sonny [Skrillex] sent back the version a week or two later,” Boyd says. “And it was just magic. I had never heard anything like it.”
“Where Are Ü Now” hit No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 in July of 2015, ultimately spending 45 weeks on the chart and earning Jack Ü and Bieber the 2016 Grammy for best dance recording. (Skrillex and Diplo Present Jack Ü also took home the award for best dance/electronic album.) In March of 2015, the duo closed out Ultra Music Festival in Miami with the track, with Bieber dancing onstage and Diddy getting on the mic to announce he’d “never seen anything like this” as fans cried in the audience and fireworks lit the sky.
While the pop/electronic crossover hit wasn’t a new phenomenon in 2015 — Calvin Harris, Avicii and Swedish House Mafia had all scored them already at that point — with its instrumental chorus, drops and pitched up vocals “Where Are Ü Now” presented mainstream music with a new and thoroughly futuristic song format that inspired everyone from EDM stars like The Chainsmokers and Loud Luxury to country artist Zac Brown.
The track also served as a soft reboot for Bieber, who in the years prior to its release had left a wake of bad press relating to incidents including a 2014 DUI arrest, a 2013 situation in which his pet monkey was seized by German customs officials, a lawsuit alleging he egged his neighbors’ house and a string of boozy, late-night nightstrip club sightings. “Where Are Ü Now” cut through the bad PR, with Bieber’s surprise appearance at the end of an album by two influential producers far outside his genre helping him regain credibility and launch himself into the next era of his career. (And at the same time as Skrillex and Diplo were beginning their own expansion into hip-hop, pop, house, even country.)
The track also set the mold for the mature, experimental work on Bieber’s 2015 LP Purpose (on which “Where Are Ü Now” also appeared), while opening him up to new audiences, re-establishing his star credibility and ultimately leading him to become more of a global pop force than ever. And with Bieber’s evolution came the evolution of pop music along with it.
“Justin and I talk about how that was a pivotal moment when pop radio changed,” Boyd says. “That song created a moment where people could actually think outside the box and not do the same cliché song structure.”
“There’s nothing I could compare to ‘Where Are Ü Now’ until afterwards,” he continues, “because everything afterwards sounded like that track.”