Different forms of vocal and instrumental manipulation have been used for decades in pop music and the feigned outrage over Auto-Tune comes from a lack of historical perspective.
STEPHON JOHNSON: Certain songs make you think of certain times in popular culture. Anytime the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” shows up in television, movies and commercials, we immediately think of the big hair, bad haircuts and colorful clothes that personified the 1980s. If you listen to N’SYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye,” you might conjure up images of all the boy bands (even LFO), Britney Spears and MTV’s Total Request Live (Basically, the late 1990s). Some people have said that 10 years from now when we hear a song that features vocalists using the Antares Auto-Tune, we’ll immediately think of the late ‘aughts. We’ll pull the Auto-Tune out of a time capsule someday and have our kids laugh at us wh en they hear songs like Lil’ Wayne’s “Lollipop,” T-Pain & Akon’s “Bartender ,” or Kanye West’s “Love Lockdown.” We’ll have to explain why we liked these songs the way Black-Americans older siblings had to explain Cross Colors. In other words, we’ll be ashamed that we even liked these songs.
Those people couldn’t be any more wrong.
Auto-Tune is just another piece of technology that recording artists and producers use in order to evoke a certain vibe or emotion in their songs. The only reason that people aren’t happy with the alleged liberal use of the gadget has nothing to do with the lack of “soul” in the instrument or the argument that it’s gimmicky. It does, however, have everything to do with this being the first time we can easily detect its use. Other than Cher’s 1998 hit “Believe,” the mainstream fals ely intoned that Auto-Tune recently came into vogue by way of T-Pain. Auto-Tune’s been here for a while; you just haven’t noticed or weren’t paying attention.
Created by Andy Hillenbrand (who worked in seismic data exploration for eighteen years) in 1997, Auto-Tune is designed to correct pitch in vocals and solo instruments. Everything from your average rock song to your million-selling pop star has used it to their advantage. Dance groups like Daft Punk have had hits with songs like “One More Time” and “Digital Love” that included heavy use of Auto-Tune. Techno, jungle, drum-n-bass, garage, dubstep and various forms of electronic-based dance music feature Auto-Tune. The instrument can be used to evoke the same human emotions as the so-called traditional instruments. T-Pain uses it to convey celebration, Cher used it to express sadness & empowerment in “Believe,” Kanye used it to evoke anger, sadness, regret and pity. Saying that hate Auto-Tune means that you don’t like most genres of music that actually make you dance.
Although, hip-hop has been around long enough to have a group of purists that complain about Auto-Tune, most of the disdain for the instrument comes from the rock community.
Neko Case expressed her hatred for Auto-Tune in a Pitchfork interview. “I’m not a perfect note hitter either but I’m not going to cover it up with auto tune,” she said. “I once asked a studio guy in Toronto, ‘How many people don’t use auto tune?’ and he said, ‘You and Nelly Furtado are the only two people who’ve never used it in here.’ Even though I’m not into Nelly Furtado, it kind of made me respect her. It’s cool that she has some integrity.” Therein lays the problem with most rock artists’ opinions on the instrument. They’re rooted in notions of integrity, honesty and authenticity that haven’t been relevant since the days of Robert Johnson.
The legendary, innovative band Can played lead singer Damo Suzuki’s vocals backward on their song “Oh Yeah.” It was a studio trick, it didn’t conform to any notions of authenticity and yet the trick made the song that much better. John Lennon was known to not like the sound of his voice and used multiple studio tricks to make it sound better. Most of us wouldn’t consider him a hack. In fact, the basis of most rock music (once it was separated from the “roll”) is on the abuse of an instrument. The distortion of an electric guitar is a trick. It isn’t natural. The electric guitar itself is still a young instrument. Where are all those essays decrying to lack of “real” brass instruments in popular music?
Complaints about Hillenbrand’s creation stop many people from liking songs simply because of how they were recorded, which is a shame. As someone who loves reading about the making of records, it pains me to say this but, who cares how the artist recorded the song? In the words of Kanye: “Shut up. Do you like the song or not?”
Besides, as long as there’s technological innovation, music (and probably pornography) will likely be its guinea pigs.
My favorite thing about that Cher song is that it happened more than ten years ago. Now, people only play it for comedic purposes, which is appropriate. And of course, Cher’s association to the song means it wasn’t the fault of Auto-Tune alone that it was a wretched hunk of bovine warbling set to a techno beat. But here we are, a decade down the line, and a technology which sounds pretty much exactly the same today as it did then is in a head-to-head competition with crack for the most popular playa in the club. The 2008 charts suggest that the use of Auto-Tune as a novelty instrument is today at a peak, with T-Pain, T.I., Lil Wayne, Kanye West, Akon and a host of hackneyed club punks (Kanye excluded from all terms here except hackneyed) making me long for the days when Sisqo was the most offensive odor to the senses.
Music criticism comes down to taste. Aesthetic judgment on the quality of cultural expression is a dubious occupation. But it is largely driven by the conception that there are myriad ways to use the form, and that in the decisions there made, so is the long-term value of the music determined. Essentially, each artist makes a decision, whether conscious or unconscious, whether through ability and insight or by a total lack thereof, to either create something which is a fleeting and shallow relic of its time and place or a statement of perpetuating relevance and value.
This is not as elitist a statement as it may appear. Pop music does not have to be intelligent, profound, meaningful or artfully stated. It can be beautiful with its stupidity, simplicity and commercial appeal intact. But if it’s anything less than honest, its days of importance will be numbered. Where Auto-Tune is concerned, there are two ways of understanding its current use, one subject to philosophical scrutiny and the other to questions of taste. The former is this notion of pitch-correction which, while no doubt central in making recordings by people who can’t really sing more palatable, might also be seen as a cheap way of succeeding in spite of modest musical gifts. That is all acceptable however. This use of Auto-Tune isn’t really the problem. Those who use it thusly will do so to reach audiences that by way of their limited demands in terms of artistic integrity or distinction will get the music they deserve.
But the more salient use, the one innovated by Cher (how often can that be a good thing?), is the one that sounds like an accident; like a smudge on your old Compact Disc; like digital dirt. Its heavy occupation of the charts denotes not the adoption and expansion of some experimental mode of instrumentation, some ingenious new way of engineering or anything remotely related to compositional relevance. It is an afterthought, a studio toy and a way to make boring music sound more interesting. To the point, one may be hard-pressed to imagine the artistic quandary which invokes the decision to use the technology in one tune versus any other. Across countless examples, its use is as arbitrary as are the tastes which elevate such artists as T.Pain and Akon. These are men of thin talents and gimmicky appeal. Auto-Tune is a vocal crutch with so unfortunately detectable a presence on the charts that I might suggest it, more than any one of its hit-making champions, is the defining hip-hop artist of the moment. Whatever that says about Auto-Tune, it doesn’t say much to recommend the current class of musicians.