What Does Sofi Tukker Have That Apple Wants?

Photo: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

On September 12, Tucker Halpern was watching Apple’s keynote product release event when he heard a song that he recognized: his own. “Best Friend,” a song he produced with Sophie Hawley-Weld, one of his actual best friends and his musical partner in the dance-pop duo Sofi Tukker, soundtracked the unveiling of the iPhone X (price tag: $1,000). It was their second spot for the company, following a 2015 Apple Watch ad.

About a month after the debut, Halpern is still excited about the placement. “That was an amazing surprise,” he says. “We didn’t know it was going to be in the ad until the keynote.”

We’re sitting on benches by the Williamsburg waterfront in the unseasonable autumn heat. Halpern, 27, is tall and lanky with blond hair that swoops out from his head like an iceberg. He’s blessed with that rare millennial equilibrium between swag and self-deprecation, like a blend of Justin Bieber and Jason Segel. Hawley-Weld, 25, has straight brown hair, blue eyes, and a purposeful way of moving — she’s a trained dancer — that specifically recalls Katniss Everdeen. There was a hint of hyperreality to the pair. They seemed digitally sharpened, larger than life, an impression heightened by Hawley-Weld’s enthusiastic small talk about her multivitamin regimen and the tiny embossed peaks covering every inch of Halpern’s snow-white Nikes.

In September, BuzzFeed published an essay about the “palpable, and perhaps permanent, turn against” the “corporate leviathans” of the tech industry. The piece described rising fear and anger directed toward the “Big 5”— namely Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple — in response to their increasingly monopolistic aims. “Anti-trust is back, baby,” crowed a Yelp bigwig. Of these companies (and all other companies), Apple is the richest. It’s valued at $752 billion, with $256.8 billion cash on hand. The total 2017 budget of the State of New York is $163 billion.

One of the biggest questions facing humanity today is what such companies, with their top secret R&D projects and gravity-shifting bank accounts, want to do with us. Unlocking that starts with assessing how they want us to perceive them. Since the dawn of the iPod, music has played a critical role in Apple’s brand identity. Even as its business model has soared far beyond the crumbling grounds of the music industry, sound remains a key component of how the tech giant engages with the world. Whether through Apple Music, iTunes, Beats 1, or those era-defining iPod ads, many of Apple’s ambitions and anxieties emerge in its attempts to shape your listening habits. Why, exactly, has this relatively unknown dance-pop act been anointed twice in as many years with placements in two of Apple’s highest-profile product rollouts? What do they have that the world’s richest company wants?

Tucker Halpern’s first musical memories involve listening to disco staples like Chic in his parents’ car. Growing up in Boston, he spent his middle-school years playing in a garage band called the Stale Donuts, which he describes as “mostly” a Blink-182 cover band. Then he attended Noble and Greenough, a Massachusetts private school that consistently ranks as one of the most elite and expensive in America, where he set music aside in favor of basketball. This dominated his free time all the way through his first few years at Brown. At age 21 he became seriously ill with Epstein-Barr syndrome — a form of the herpes virus that can be associated with some types of cancer — and left school for a year. He taught himself electronic production while bedridden.

When he returned the following year, he dove into the school’s thriving dance music scene. The influence of the Chilean production whiz Nicolas Jaar, who graduated a few years ahead of Sofi Tukker, loomed large; Jaar played parties on campus even as he blew up worldwide, and a healthy rave scene flourished in his wake. Halpern found himself spinning at clubs and apartments until the break of dawn. “I still put myself in those parties when we’re making music,” he says. “I’m like, ‘What if I did this here, how would that make the people move?’”

Hawley-Weld was born in Germany, and lived for several years in rural Canada before attending United World College of the Adriatic, an international high school in Italy. She grew up in musical theater and started writing songs as a teenager. Halpern first met her at an art gallery, where she was performing with an acoustic bossa nova jazz trio. “It was amazing and really slow, and I thought it could be fun if it was dance-ier,” says Halpern. “So we just started collab-ing, and we just kept collab-ing and now we’re just collab-ing the fuck out of each other.”

“All the best experiences I’ve had in my life tend to happen around music,” she says. At Brown, she fell in love with Brazilian sounds. “I was really into bossa nova, but I didn’t know what I was singing, so I decided to take Portuguese, and ended up spending six months in Brazil,” she says, recalling how the music and language she encountered there became “infused into everything” she’s done since.

At Brown, the pair worked together nonstop, culminating in the song “Drinkee,” which they recorded during the final week of their senior year. It fused their perpendicular interests into something new; they sang in Portuguese (the lyrics are drawn from the works of a contemporary Brazilian poet named Chacal) over a groove built from cowbell, bongos, electric guitar, and a hip-thrusting bass line. To the extent that it combines world music elements with a house beat, it’s not too far from Jaar’s playbook, only applied to bubbly dance-pop rather than introspective moods.

“‘Drinkee’ is purposefully not about its meaning,” Hawley-Weld said in an interview with Bedford and Bowery in 2016. “Chacal told us that the poem is quite difficult to understand, even for a Portuguese speaker. Luckily, people not understanding the words doesn’t seem to be getting in the way of people feeling connected to it!”

Sofi Tukker could not have picked a better time to unveil this sound. In early 2015, weary of bombastic EDM, global audiences began gravitating toward dance music with a breezy tropical feel. Songs like Felix Jaehn’s remix of OMI’s “Cheerleader” and Kygo’s pan flute rave-ups caught fire, fueling demand for what was then dubbed “tropical house.” While much of the material released under this umbrella felt cheesy, Sofi Tukker crafted their tunes with a sophistication that recalled mid-’00s blog stars like Yelle. “Drinkee” blew up, garnering millions of plays on streaming services. It wasn’t just an American hit, either — the song went gold in Italy, and charted at No. 2 in Turkey.

Big looks soon came their way. According to Halpern, Apple representatives discovered “Drinkee” on SoundCloud. On October 24, 2015, the song was featured in a commercial for the Apple Watch.

The song found its way into regular rotation on Apple’s Beats 1 radio, regularly appearing in sets by tastemakers like Zane Lowe and Ebro Darden. Within a few months of the commercial, Sofi Tukker signed to electronic powerhouse Ultra Music (for distribution outside of the U.S.; they’re still independent within it) and released their debut EP, Soft Animals, which peaked at No. 14 on Billboard’s dance/electronic albums chart. Remix commissions and festival bookings, including Coachella, started piling up.

Then, in January of last year, their biggest surprise yet materialized — “Drinkee” was nominated for best dance record at the 2017 Grammys. Sofi Tukker lost to the Chainsmokers’ “Don’t Let Me Down,” but the nomination cemented their spot in the upper echelon of contemporary American dance acts. They’ve toured constantly since, both as headliners and support for arena-filling stars like Odesza.

As for how their music ended up on Apple’s radar in the first place, they’re not totally sure; “We put ‘Drinkee’ on SoundCloud and Apple found it and reached out to us, and wanted to put it in an Apple Watch commercial,” Halpern says.

“The second one is similar, we don’t really know,” adds Hawley-Weld. “We just got reached out to.” Halpern notes that the duo had “a relationship with [the Apple team] from that first one, and some people from Apple came to some shows of ours, and we knew they were fans.”

After our initial interview, I followed up over email asking how their lives had changed as a result of the ad. “Now we get texts regularly from friends saying they’ve heard the song,” gushed the duo in a joint statement. “But it’s hard to tell what this will do for our career at this point! We are just in it, working every day to build and create! Really excited and overjoyed that we get to do this!”

Their PR representative says that the “ads were locked in directly with Apple without the label’s involvement.” The band sent their music directly to Apple, “and they loved it.”

Sync deals like this are frequently the best way a young band can make money. As with many of their peers, Sofi Tukker don’t see this kind of arrangement as selling out. “Just the opposite,” Hawley-Weld responds, when I ask if brand partnerships have ever pressured them toward artistic compromise. “I feel like it’s more affirmation to dig deeper into our roots and get to know ourselves better.” Their publicist confirmed that they’re actively seeking more sync deals, with several new ones already in the pipeline.

This is an understandable response to an industry wracked by declining album sales and anemic streaming payouts, where corporate patronage is one of the few remaining avenues for artists to receive fair compensation. And luckily for Sofi Tukker, their music aligns perfectly with the needs of the world’s biggest brands. It’s danceable (but not ecstatic — upmarket companies have moved away from EDM), frictionless, and globally accessible. Recall how the Portuguese lyrics of “Drinkee” don’t need to be understood to be enjoyed; Sofi Tukker are fluent in the international language of fun. You can just as easily imagine their tunes energizing customers on in-store playlists in a Beijing COS outlet or a Stockholm Starbucks.

This is the new continuum of advertiser-facing dance-pop. Perhaps its premiere contemporary agents are the Knocks, the New York–bred duo of Ben “B-Roc” Ruttner and James “JPatt” Patterson. They’re close friends of Sofi Tukker, collaborating with them on “Best Friend.” The duo have mastered the art of servicing their vast festival audiences to youth-hungry companies. In 2011, their first single “Make It Better” was used in a Corona ad (in which they appeared as suited DJs at a rooftop shindig). Since, they’ve partnered with a variety of brands, including Jack Daniel’s, Coca-Cola, and, of course, Apple (in 2016 they shot an iTunes-exclusive video on an iPhone 6, and JPatt makes a cameo in the X ad). Drawing on many sounds yet beholden to none, their electro-funk-disco-pop anthems offer a post-regional Rosetta stone of good vibes that’s catnip to globalized capital.

The popularity of the Knocks and Sofi Tukker can be linked to the way streaming-service algorithms favor athletic, genre-straddling sounds. In a piece for Thump about the YouTube-driven rise of so-called lo-fi house, which fused dusty dance beats with nostalgic pop samples, Rob Arcand describes how it “represents such a varied collapse of styles that it seems like every dance music fan might be able to find something good in it.” He illustrates how the neural networks that power YouTube’s discovery algorithm are “constantly working to present the newest and most attuned results for the broadest audience possible” by surfacing music that fits under multiple categories, e.g., dance and pop. The same dynamic takes place on Apple Music and Spotify, where Sofi Tukker are immensely popular (Soft Animals has over 60 million Spotify streams) — and machine learning systems emphasize smooth genre synthesis, in perfect harmony with the duo’s fusion aesthetic. As these algorithms continue driving contemporary music discovery, they exert pressure on brands, consumers, and artists, swirling the industry down the dark gravity well of the AI mind.

Sofi Tukker are not, in fact, the first Brazil-adjacent dance-pop act that Apple has used in a commercial. Back in 2007, “Music Is My Hot Hot Sex” by the Sao Paulo sextet CSS appeared in an ad for the iPod Touch. The spot has raunchy S&M undertones — there are no human faces, only a disembodied male hand swiping the touchscreen while a female voice bosses the listener around. “Music is my boyfriend, music is my daddy,” sing-shouts CSS vocalist Lovefoxxx. “My music is where I’d like you to touch.” The message is simple: This iPod fucks. Apple wanted to highlight the product’s radical novelty as an appeal to early adopters. It worked. The cool factor Apple gained through association with buzz bands like CSS helped it develop a fatal edge over competitors like BlackBerry and conquer the mobile market. Apple used alternative music and fetish culture as a metaphor for the “alternative” lifestyle of total connectivity it was pushing on consumers. It knew mobile would fundamentally change American society, so it built a brand strategy that framed the technology as sexy, shocking, and new. We bit.

It’s fascinating to compare that clip with the Sofi Tukker–soundtracked iPhone X ad that ran at the 2017 Apple keynote ten years later. It’s unthinkable that genteel Tim Cook–era Apple would use a song with sexually provocative lyrics. Instead, Hawley-Weld offers a platonic come-on: “You are my best friend, and we have got some things to do,” she purrs, over gently funky cowbell and horns. Apple has reframed their marquee device from an exotic fetish object to a lovable pal. It’s not just about family-friendly appeal, though. The tonal shift reflects a deep strategy realignment, as Apple completes its transition from a cutting-edge device merchant into something far weirder and more vast.

Apple no longer needs you to change your lifestyle. That already happened. Rather, it wants you to remain comfortable with the mobile-focused way of life you’ve chosen, to keep buying Apple products, accepting them into your life as trusted family, even as they start to carry new technologies you don’t really understand. “It can recognize your face out of a million other faces,” reads a burst of text in the iPhone X ad, as images of smiling, diverse people whiz by. “You are my best friend,” sings Hawley-Weld; “Pay with your face,” declares the ad.

The iPhone X’s Face ID technology is one of the most advanced consumer-grade machine-learning products available on the market today. According to VentureBeat, it projects 30,000 dots on your face to create a 3-D map, and then processes that data using an onboard neural engine in concert with something called an A11 Bionic Chip. Apple claims the X can learn to recognize you even if you put glasses on. In that context the lyrics of “Best Friend” reveal a double entendre; Apple wants you to love and cherish your phone like a best friend, even as your phone learns to recognize and trust your face in turn.

There are no disembodied hands or fetishistic come-ons in this ad; the clip concludes with a series of cute digital cartoons dancing in sync with smiling human faces, man-machine synthesis rendered harmless, even mundane. “I still can’t get over JPatt as [a] talking poop emoji,” Sofi Tukker wrote on their Facebook page, referring to the Knocks’ member’s cameo.

Ten years ago, Apple portrayed the advent of global mobile as dangerous and cool. Now, with advanced AI in your home, the company wants its top-shelf devices to seem friendly and safe, pacifying consumers and government regulatory agencies. Apple seems to believe Sofi Tukker can help it win that PR war, and it may be right. Their songs’ gauzy, soft-focus grooves render even the most unsettling AI technology warm and familiar.

As we wrapped up our interview, I asked the band to define what they think the ideal situation is for someone to listen to their music.

“I would say whatever their particular favorite experience is,” answered Hawley-Weld. “It’s whatever they need,” Halpern added. “If you’re down and not having a good day, then it’ll switch it up and make you feel good — on drugs, amazing lights, the world at your fingertips.”

This vision of music as utility dovetails neatly with Apple’s brave new world of hyperspecialized algorithmic machine-learning, where products know you better than you know yourself. That’s not a critique of the band’s art — you need sharp instincts and serious chops to create weapons-grade pop music. In fact, their music is so universally lovable that it’s been chosen by the world’s most powerful company to humanize the inhuman. What higher praise can there be?

What Does Sofi Tukker Have That Apple Wants?