Beep beep beep beep beep.
Darude's "Sandstorm" turned 15 years old last month.
Beeep beep beep beep beep beep.
It's possible that the anniversary doesn't mean anything to you.
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But I find that a little hard to believe.
Beeep beep beep beep beep beep boop.
Maybe you just need a little something to jog your memory.
(dunhdunh dunhdunhdunh dunhdunhdunh dunhdunhdunh dunhdunhdunh dunhdunhdunh dunhdunhdunh dunhdunhdunh)
Beep beep beep beep beep. Beeep beep beep beep beep beep. Beep beep beep beep beep. Beeep beep beep beep beep beep boop.
Beepbeep beepbeepbeepbeep beepbeep beepbeepbeepbeep beepbeepbeepbeep beepbeep beepbeepbeepbeep. Beepbeep beepbeepbeepbeep beepbeep beepbeepbeepbeep beepbeepbeepbeep beepbeep beepbeepbeepbeep. Beepbeep beepbeepbeepbeep beepbeep beepbeepbeepbeep beepbeepbeepbeep beepbeep beepbeepbeepbeep. Beepbeep beepbeepbeepbeep beepbeep beepbeepbeepbeep beepbeepbeepbeep beepbeep beepbeepbeepbeep.
Of course you remember "Sandstorm." But why?
The track barely broke the Hot 100 when it was released in 1999, and more than any other genre, dance music moves quickly and ruthlessly, untethered to hits of the past. Producers get new equipment; tempos speed up and slow down; a big single pulls some new sound from the aether and suddenly everything that came before it sounds hopelessly gaudy. The culture moves on, and as new stuff comes out, old stuff—even great old stuff—gets left behind. That's how most dance music works, anyway. "Sandstorm" is emphatically not most dance music.
Today, against all odds, an unrepentantly goofy seven-minute-long trance anthem by a Finnish producer with no other hits to his name might be more popular than it was when it came out a decade and a half ago. Someone tweets about "Sandstorm" every few minutes; its title is a fixture of Reddit threads and YouTube comment sections; it can be heard regularly at parties, bars, and sporting events; and it's been listened to upwards of 16 million times on Spotify—5 million more than Cher's "Believe," Billboard's most popular single the year it was released. How the hell did that happen?
"I don't find it offensive, if you mean the memes and such," Darude, whose real name is Ville Virtanen, told me via email recently. He's 39 years old, living back in Finland after a few years in the U.S., working on a new album and running EnMass Music, the indie EDM label he co-founded with a friend. "It's weird, (and it's of course my gigantic artistic ego talking now) but there aren't that many people who can say the same about their track—you know, in that it is being played constantly at clubs and sporting events still, popping out here and there online all the time. It's not bad for a track that was made 15 years ago and by the sounds and style was definitely not an obvious top 40 hit to begin with and was not made to be one."
The "memes and such" Virtanen is talking about, of course, have a lot to do with his best-known composition's enduring popularity. More than a piece of music, "Sandstorm" is an an emblem. Uncharitably, it is the punchline to a joke. For some people, "Sandstorm" is a microcosm of some perceived silliness of electronic music; for others, it is the sweaty soundtrack to dance parties of yesteryear. It is the sound of the gym, the sound of the internet, the music a non-techno-listener might hear if you told him to close his eyes and imagine listening to techno. Never mind that a real techno fan would laugh at "Sandstorm" being labeled as such.
Still, Virtanen is good-natured: "I'm happy people are talking about it, even if some are cracking jokes or dissing it," he told me. "That's the thing about art: it can divide people's opinions, but in the end, if you have thick enough skin, you realize that even the negative talks are just that, people are talking about it. The run I've had because of what that track started has multiple times been worth all the trolls who try to get a reaction."
What about "Sandstorm" lent itself to this particular kind of immortalization? Plenty of other songs have had their prior identities similarly washed away: Gary Glitter's "Rock & Roll Part 2" is impossible to hear without thinking about "Na, na, hey/You suck!"—and about Glitter's history of child sex abuse, but that's another matter—and the clap-heavy rhythm tracks of Queen's "We Will Rock You" and The Cars' "Let's Go" probably hold more cultural cachet, at least among sports fans, than the recordings from which they came. Outside the stadium, Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird" is a parody of white southern masculinity and a song title to be drunkenly shouted before it is an actual song, and Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up" is forever about Rickrolling, not its former status as a worldwide hit.
One thing that nearly all of these songs have in common is a kind of compositional bluntness, and none more than "Sandstorm." They reveal themselves fully as soon as they begin, then wield their simple hooks like bludgeons, over and over, until the listener submits. "Sandstorm"'s trademark synthesizer line—usually onomatopoeticized with a series of beeps, though Darude renders the sound as "der der" in writing—is so firmly lodged in the brains of anyone who's ever heard it that an text version was once posted to Pandora under "lyrics."
Darude wrote the career-defining riff almost by accident. In the late '90s, he was clubbing regularly, absorbing the sounds of a host of local Finnish DJs. After a night out, he told me, he usually ran home, fired up his computer and began working, "frantically inspired" by the hard house and trance music that were popular at the time. Once, while attempting to reverse-engineer a particular favorite track to figure out what made it tick—he won't say what song it was—he realized he was on to something.
"I actually had the 'der der der' lead sound and melody sitting on my computer for a year or two before I made the whole track," he said. "I was writing down notes of where the bass line, drum this, drum that, other instruments, etc, started and ended—how the arrangement was—and I was also trying to figure out how the different sounds in that track had been made...One of the bridge part sounds that I sort of imitated, but didn't get that close at the time, was what I made up my own rhythmic pattern and melody with and that's the 'Sandstorm' lead melody."
Those beginnings as a sketch on another composition are audible in "Sandstorm" itself. For all its repetition, the track's stuttering central motif is not so much a melody as a dotted line dancing on the edges of melody-shaped negative space. Darude's signature synth sound—crispy and laser-sharp, with all of its middle frequencies scooped out—adds to the effect, just as hollow and mechanical as the music it plays. "It's been crazy to hear all the bootlegs, covers and remixes where people have tried to recreate the sound," he said of the "der der" tone, which he crafted using an 8-bit sample and a distortion plugin in the software Cubase. "But nobody's really nailed it so far."
"Sandstorm"'s road to memehood may also have something to do with the environment into which it was released. In the late '90s and early 2000s, "electronica" felt perpetually on the cusp of breaking through to the pop mainstream, but despite high hopes from fans, dread from conservative music listeners, and a lot of bloviating in the press, it remained a largely niche phenomenon in the U.S. By 2004, Eminem rapped about how "nobody listens to techno" on a massive hit and it sounded like a simple statement of fact, not one of his trademark provocations. (The immediately preceding line, which refers to Moby as a "baldheaded fag," is a helpful reminder that this era's dance music hatred came with a helping of old-fashioned homophobia, just like it did in the disco era.)
This seemingly ridiculous, overhyped music that no one actually listened to found its perfect token in "Sandstorm." Other dance artists of the same era had bigger U.S. success—Fatboy Slim's "Praise You" was a top 40 single, and Moby's album Play went double platinum—but none of Darude's peers on the charts were quite so blatantly electronic. Those musicians used samples, vocalists, and live instrumentation; "Sandstorm," with its relentless kick drum and bulletproof sheen, gave you no such familiar sounds to latch onto. "Sandstorm" sounded like it came from the unfeeling brain of a supercomputer, and it was supposed to sound that way. It was the kind of song that, as a serious, music-obsessed kid in 2001, you imagined frivolous people in bad sunglasses listening to at nightclubs in Berlin.
Fifteen years later, after the full-scale absorption of EDM into American pop music, the need for a dance-music scapegoat isn't as apparent, but we've kept "Sandstorm" around anyway. Maybe, in its garishness, it provides a reassuring contrast: next to Darude's dated production, a sugary megahit like Aviici's "Levels" sounds tasteful, almost austere. Give "Sandstorm" a quick makeover, however—slow its insistent 140 beats per minute tempo down to a lurching 70 or 80, add some ticking Lex Luger hi-hats and a short vocal hook—and it starts sounding less like a decaying monument to past excesses than it does like "Turn Down For What." Maybe we kept "Sandstorm" around for so long because we knew that at some point, we'd finally catch up to it.
A reworked version of "Sandstorm" released this year approximates what I'm talking about. "Sandstorm MLG Trap Remix," which has accrued nearly 200,000 plays since Finnish producer MajorLeagueWobs uploaded it to Soundcloud in July, does Darude's original in the bass-heavy, Atlanta rap-indebted sound that should be familiar to anyone who's been out dancing in the past two years or so. More than just give "Sandstorm" the Diplo treatment, however, MajorLeagueWobs turns it into a creature of seething, stupefying id: air horns announce the song's arrival and don't stop bleating until it's over; snares roll; sirens blare; miraculously, "Damn son, where'd you find this?" gets used as a melodic instrument. "DAMN WUBS!" screams one Soundcloud comment. "#MLGYOLO$W4GMONEYNIPPLETITS" hashtags another. "Represents the gaming internet," a third writes quietly, unaware of the ALL CAPS mandate.
The remix—and especially that last comment—gets to the heart of the latest development in "Sandstorm"'s saga. Darude's track has nearly always been a meme in the classical sense of the word, but in recent years, it's picked up the Imgur definition as well. In 2010, an eerily-lit video of a guy playing the song on a toy trumpet at a dorm-room talent show was uploaded to YouTube and promptly shot up Reddit, kicking off the internet's newfound "Sandstorm" obsession. Last year, the Pandora "lyrics" began making the rounds, and an inexplicably popular video of a gamer playing League of Legends while listening to "Sandstorm" turned it into an anthem for the livestreaming community on Twitch. An inside joke among gamers—any time someone asks what song is playing, reply with "Darude Sandstorm," no matter the song—gradually spread to the wider internet, and now it's impossible to browse YouTube comments without running across Darude.
MajorLeagueWobs, the remixer, clearly has a keen sense of what makes "Sandstorm" so funny, but like any effective parodist, he comes from a place of real admiration. "It's such a legendary track that you just can't help but jam to it. The melody is so simple, but it's so catchy that you just can't forget it. I still remember it from my childhood. For me, as a Finnish guy, Sandstorm has been one of my favorite electronic songs of all time because it brought Finland on the map of electronic music," he told me via email. "The people who listened to that track when it came out are about 20-30 years old now and I remember listening to it a lot when I was a child. Hence I think the nostalgia made it a sudden meme. People started to play it everywhere and it just exploded again. Just like 15 years ago."
Should you desire a different version of "Sandstorm" than the one you're used to, the internet has you thoroughly covered: there are floppy disc drives playing "Sandstorm" in precise eight-part polyphony (535,231 views), a tattooed guy using the track as a backdrop for Yngwie Malmsteen-style metal guitar shredding (538,904), a rendition of the track played on thousands of Minecraft note blocks (81,103), a rousing accordion "Sandstorm" cover (154,737), another Minecraft version (988,200), and a version of the song played on a 10-hour loop (1,948,476).
In 2007, Darude released Label This!, his most recent album, but you wouldn't know it looking at Spotify's charts. A list of his ten most popular tracks contains no less than six different versions of "Sandstorm," and the remaining four spots go to a Flock of Seagulls cover and three other songs from his debut. Ville Virtanen is admirably unperturbed: "Look, if someone comes to the club in 2014 only because of 'Sandstorm', it doesn't matter to me, they came anyway! I get to update their idea of what I do now and I think often the jump in the vibe is not THAT far from what they (think they) know, as I still make and play energetic, simple, beautiful, melodic, emotional dance music."
"The one thing I struggle with is that because of my past there are some expectations, so I'd have to sound like 'Darude,' but at the same time current, unique and fresh, which is easier said than done," he added. "I do think that unless you purely expect to hear 'der der der' all thru the album (in which case you're 14 years late!), you'll be able to find some great earworms and sing-a-longs, some club bangers and some emotional and trancey numbers as well."
"In the Darkness" a Label This! single, is a floating, gossamer piece of trance music of the kind AraabMuzik spun into such magic on Electronic Dream. Like "Sandstorm," it's tightly composed, easy to dance to, and has a soaring, undeniable hook. Also like "Sandstorm," its appeal depends almost entirely on your tolerance for kitsch or willingness to suspend disbelief about the last 15 years of dance music. "In the Darkness" is like "Sandstorm" without the patina of nostalgia. It sounds great, but it would have sounded even better in 1999.