How LF System’s Ecstatic “Afraid To Feel” Became The UK’s Biggest Hit Of 2022

How LF System’s Ecstatic “Afraid To Feel” Became The UK’s Biggest Hit Of 2022

“It feels like one big practical joke.” This is LF System’s extremely understandable, extremely self-aware take on the astronomical success of their hit song “Afraid To Feel,” which just ended the UK’s longest unbroken run at #1 this year. “Afraid To Feel” — a Pure Disco™ bop that features a prominent sample of Silk’s 1979 track “I Can’t Stop (Turning You On)” — has beat out Encanto’s “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” on the Official UK Singles Chart, and it’s apparently the longest-running dance #1 of the decade at eight straight weeks. “Afraid To Feel” repeatedly held off Beyoncé’s “Break My Soul,” which peaked at #2 on the same chart and currently sits at #4. It also managed to topple maybe the year’s best-known bringback, Kate Bush.

Minus all of the chart hullabaloo, it’s easy to see why “Afraid To Feel” is doing so well. First of all, it employs two dominant trends of the moment: 1. Take an old song and make it new again. 2. Speed that old-new track up. On top of “Afraid To Feel” borrowing from a decades-old track, LF System make their hit instantly TikTok-friendly by messing with the BPM. (One need only look at the avalanche of “Teenage Dirtbag” videos circulating through the platform where Wheatus’ seminal hit gets sped-up.)

There’s a lot to dig into here: Who are LF System, who were Silk, and why does a sped-up song pique our interest so? For starters, LF System are Conor Larkman (the L) and Sean Finnigan (the F) — a Scottish production duo from West Lothian who, until recently, had full-time jobs working as a roofer and at a gas station, respectively.

“We put [LF System] together about maybe two years ago,” Larkman told Official Charts. “We always used to do back-to-back DJ sets together in [Edinburgh club] Fly. We enjoyed working together and we’re good friends – [so we thought] why not just bump our heads together and have double the trouble?”

Their first recording of “Afraid To Feel” actually dates back to 2019 when Finnigan produced a slower version of the track, which Larkman opted to speed up. “We couldn’t decide which cut we liked the most and thought about releasing the two versions,” Finnigan told Skiddle. “Eventually, we combined the two ideas to make one track, and that’s where the tempo changes come in. We stuck it on SoundCloud for free a few months later and it gained a bit of attention there, as well as through DJ’ing it out in the clubs. A couple of years later, Warner Records wanted to sign it, so we got the ball rolling.”

It’s interesting how “Afraid To Feel” has tweaked the TikTok micro-trend of speeding stuff up by also slowing it down in the same song. Indeed, just as “Afraid To Feel” goes hard, it comes back down, then goes hard again. Funny how a bit of indecision on the band’s part ended up looking innovative, but then again, a lot of seemingly innovative ideas are ultimately just happy accidents.

This is a good time to note that the act of speeding music up is nothing new. Though “Afraid To Feel” doesn’t noticeably pitch-shift its key sample’s vocals (technically there is a pitch-shift, but it’s not as obvious as with the “Teenage Dirtbag” nightcore resurgence), DJs have been speeding up existing songs in dance and techno spaces for decades. In the early ’00s, Questlove called the practice “chipmunk soul” in reaction to artists on Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records adding sped-up soul samples to their songs, a practice perhaps best exemplified by early Kanye West productions. Today, it’s just another way of making an old song feel new again, and giving it a new name: nightcore. In addition to “Teenage Dirtbag,” old songs that have profited from this trend include Echosmith’s 2014 hit “Cool Kids,” Demi Lovato’s “Cool For The Summer,” and Steve Lacy’s “Bad Habit”; the latter is all the way up to #2 on the Hot 100 as of today.

Then, there’s the Silk of it all. Not to be confused with the ’90s R&B group of the same name, Silk were a ’70s funk group from Philadelphia. They only ever put out one album, 1979’s Midnight Dancer, which featured the hit “I Can’t Stop (Turning You On).” There’s surprisingly little out there about the band, which definitely helps make the sample seem that much newer 40+ years down the line. Furthermore, the sample literally is new compared to the source material. According to an interview with audio engineer Scott Rosser, who mixed and mastered “Afraid To Feel,” LF System got around potential sample clearance issues by commissioning a near-identical sound-alike recording of “I Can’t Stop (Turning You On)” from a company called Replay Heaven, whose website asserts, “Replay Heaven sample replays have been used in many well known international chart hits that are usually assumed to use the original sample not a replay.”

So Silk are ostensibly benefitting from increased attention to their music, and “I Can’t Stop (Turning You On)” writers Charles B. Simmons, Joseph B. Jefferson, and Richard William Roebuck — the only credited songwriters on “Afraid To Feel” — are getting songwriting royalties. If LF System had sampled the original recording of “I Can’t Stop (Turning You On),” they’d also owe royalties to the copyright holder, which in most cases (including this one) is the record label. So although none of the actual members of Silk have any financial stake in the LF System track, they likely would not have directly profited from “Afraid To Feel” even if Larkman and Finnigan had sampled their recording. Seems shitty! Hopefully they’re at least seeing larger royalty payments from their own record right now as listeners trace “Afraid To Feel” back to its source material.

That brings us to another instance of accidental innovation: Today, pop stars are happy to interpolate, remix, or loosely reference instantly recognizable tunes like Lizzo with Beastie Boys’ “Girls” and Beyoncé with Robyn S’ “Show Me Love.” (As our In Theory column recently pointed out, “Break My Soul” does not sample or interpolate “Show Me Love,” but the texture and vibe are similar enough to merit writing credits for Robin S and her collaborators in the post-“Blurred Lines” era.) By comparison, LF System went crate-digging and came up with a far less familiar disco-funk track to play with. In the process, they’re capitalizing on bringback culture and making the entire process look legitimately organic. And by now we all know how much TikTok loves an organic origin story — to the degree that anyone seeming too tryhard (coughLeahKatecough) immediately gets the vaudeville hook.

Where does this leave LF System? Well, their remix now has a remix, courtesy of David Guetta and Dyro, who EDM’d the shit out of “Afraid To Feel.” Frankly, their take makes me feel like I need a Dramamine. Armand Van Helden also took a pass, as have Tommy Villiers, CID, and Gerd Janson, if any of those names mean anything to you. Larkman and Finnigan also have a handful of other tracks you could check out, including their 2022 remix of Diplo/Kareen Lomax/TSHA’s “Let You Go” (fun, less need for a motion-sickness combatant).

Elsewhere, I recommend checking out LF System’s “So Do You,” which also gives a house-music makeover to what sounds like an obscure ’70s funk/disco track, but so little is on the internet about what sample they’re using that I actually couldn’t tell you what it is. (If you know, drop it in the comments!) Despite the dearth of editorial coverage on these guys, I’m sure we’ll be hearing a lot more from them in the coming months. After all, Beyoncé (and I guess Drake to some extent) only just re-mainstreamed house music. The mirrorball is turning back around, and LF System are ready.

POP 10

Elton John & Britney Spears – “Hold Me Closer”
It’s hard to remember another song that’s had this level of buildup surrounding it. I’m sure there’ve been a few, but the conversation surrounding Britney Spears’ first new song in six years — and the first since she was released from her conservatorship — practically eclipsed the track itself. When “Hold Me Closer” actually dropped, it almost felt anticlimactic, but the song lives up to the hype. Spears sounds refreshed, Andrew Watt’s production is light and shimmering, and John, while present, seems happy to cede the floor to Britney. 10/10, would definitely recommend.

BLACKPINK – “Pink Venom”
BLACKPINK are back and in fine form. The strutting, highly maximalist “Pink Venom” is an exercise in dualities as it juxtaposes images (“pink” vs. “venom”) with a soundscape that is both modern and classical (EDM, pop, and hip-hop vs. traditional Korean instruments such as the geomungo). “Pink Venom” is the ultimate hype-girl anthem for BLACKPINK’s next chapter, and I think it’ll be a good one.

Zedd, Maren Morris & BEAUZ – “Make You Say”
I admit, I initially wondered how Zedd and Maren Morris could possibly live up to the tidal-wave rush of “The Middle.” Well, “Make You Say,” which also features production siblings BEAUZ, does impressive work; while “The Middle” capitalized on the EDM goldrush of the ‘10s, “Make You Stay” has a lighter, bouncier touch. The most satisfying moment, however, is when Morris really gets her chance to really belt.

Demi Lovato – “29”
Speaking of belting, Demi Lovato’s latest pop-punk venture paints a damning portrait of a relationship where one party is “17” and the other is “29.” “Finally 29/ Funny, just like you were at the time,” Lovato ruminates with a renewed perspective you only get with age. “Thought it was a teenage dream, just a fantasy/ But was it yours or was it mine?” Yep, we are alllll looking at you, Wilmer Valderrama.

Rema – “Calm Down” (Feat. Selena Gomez)
Rema’s hit “Calm Down” gets an energetic remix with Selena Gomez hopping aboard for the song’s latter half. I’ve always been a fan of Gomez as a singer, ever since “Come & Get It” and all the way up to “Lose You To Love Me,” so I love any chance for her to branch out to afrobeats.

David Guetta & Bebe Rexha – “I’m Good”
Confession: I have been waiting for a “Blue” remix/interpolation for years. I’m just putting this out there. This was a formative song for me: During one very miserable month at sleep-away camp, literally all I listened to was Eiffel 65’s 1999 album Europop. While my bunkmates pierced each other’s ears with safety pins and traded strappy tops, I was listening to that stupid Eurotrash album on repeat in an attempt to disassociate to a different sort of party, preferably one in Italy, where Eiffel 65 are from. (I have always hated the outdoors.) Anyway, I digress. I’m just happy David Guetta and Bebe Rexha have rescued “Blue” from shameful Y2K obscurity. The original is also still a bop. This is a hill I’m prepared to die on.

Joji – “YUKON (INTERLUDE)”
Filthy Fra— I mean JOJI is back! “YUKON (INTERLUDE)” is a more nimble sadboi anthem than I’m used to hearing from JOJI, but the drum machines sound great with his trademark vocal layering and somber piano.

Anitta & Missy Elliott – “Lobby”
I’m getting serious Dua Lipa vibes from this new Anitta and Missy Elliott(!) collab. Maybe it’s the disco melody, maybe it’s because Anitta’s singing only in English here (she technically has done this before, though it’s more typical of her to sing in her native Portuguese or Spanish). Anyway, “Lobby”‘s beat is big and splashy, and Anitta owns the innuendo-packed lyrics. (Spoiler: Anitta is not singing about the entrance to a hotel.) Also, Missy rapping, “He wanna eat the cat like it’s Mr. Chow”? *Blushes*

Ruel – “You Against Yourself”
The “you got this” ethos of Ruel’s new song gets a little too Hallmark-core at points, but Ruel sells his lines with a genuinely celebratory tone and hooky chorus. Even the most jaded among us can’t help but smile a little.

Pheelz – “Electricity” (Feat. Davido)
Nigerian producer Pheelz teams up with hometown hero Davido on this flute-accented dancehall blast. I know Labor Day is behind us, but summer gets another jolt of “Electricity.”

CLOSING TIME

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