Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Pitch imperfect

Auto-Tune is the Photoshop of music. Just as the perennial picture perfector is ruining our perceptions of beauty, reality and basic human anatomy, Auto-Tune is dismantling our expectations of music. It’s turning the human voice an unrecognizable mishmash of synthesized wails and moans. The voice isn’t a uniform instrument with perfect pitch. It doesn’t modulate mid note. In fact, it’s those very breaks and imperfections that Auto-Tune covers up that can make music so memorable. Instead, Auto-Tune makes it inherently forgettable. We shouldn’t treat voices like disposable instruments, easily interchanged with each other. Imagine Auto-Tuning Billie Holiday? The exquisite grate and slur of her voice makes it sublime. She makes us feel those rough edges, and they take us someplace that a computerized high C never could.

And the thing that’s most infuriating is that many singers don’t even need it. Just as fashion industry overcorrect the already impossibly beautiful (See: Kate Winslet), the music industry is overcorrecting the already impossibly good singers. Yesterday Jezebel pointed out that up-and-coming pop starlet (and out bisexual lady) Jessie J can actually sing. And she can. I saw her on “Saturday Night Live” and thought she was OK. But seeing her in this subway video is even more impressive (partly because the song choice is better).

Now compare that to her Auto-Tuned hit “Do It Like a Dude.”

Um, what? Are those the same singers? Why strip away that voice and turn it into a collection of electronic pops and whistles? Digitally enhanced is an oxymoron in this case, and many others.

Even some of the most egregious of the current crop of Auto-Tunites simply don’t need the digital enhancement. Like, and stay with me here, Ke$ha. Yes, Ke$ha. She of the Jack Daniels toothpaste. She of the perpetually smeared eyeliner. She of the “Get Sleazy Tour.” (Get Sleazy? Nice. Aspirational.) I have a strange soft spot for Ke$ha, which I have previously admitted much to my continual shame. It’s not her persona, which is intentionally awful. It’s that I think her songs are ridiculously catchy and almost whimsical. It’s like gummy ear worm candy. And whenever I feel particularly ashamed of singing along in my car, I unearth this video of a pre-fame, pre-sleazy Ke$ha.

Dammit, Ke-Dollar Sign- Ha can really sing. Like really, really sing.

Singing is a talent, not a digital experiment. Auto-Tune has made one of our most divine abilities into a boring exercise in perfection. Billie is what the human voice sounds like. This is heartbreak and triumph and our shared humanity. This is music. This is how we know we’re still better than the machines.


Amanda said...

You get major props. from the resident music major. Can you believe this is real??


This Rebecca Black song is actually an old Dylan B side. Oh the humanity! Auto-tuned to the max. Possibly the worst song ever produced.


Norma Desmond said...

Very provocative and interesting post. "Strange Fruit" gets me every.single.time.

Anonymous said...

Seriously, Dorothy, thank you so much for this post. What bothers me more than singers who can't actually sing or lip sing at concerts because they just use auto-tune on their cds, is singers who CAN sing, are EXTREMELY talented, and, for some unfathomable reason, STILL use auto-tune! I don't get it, I honestly don't, and seeing this post made me all kinds of happy (IE, someone out there gets me!)

Oh yeah, and while I'm here, Happy Hug a Lesbian Day! <3

maddyzero said...

Hear, hear! A nicely illustrated point, Miss Snarker.

You know who else agrees with you on this? Why, none other than Neko-Mother-Flippin'-Case.

Here's a little excerpt from a 2006 Pitchfork article:

"When I hear auto tune on somebody's voice, I don't take them seriously. Or you hear somebody like Alicia Keys, who I know is pretty good, and you'll hear a little bit of auto tune and you're like, "You're too fucking good for that. Why would you let them do that to you? Don't you know what that means?" It's not an effect like people try to say, it's for people like Shania Twain who can't sing. Yet there they are, all over the radio, jizzing saccharine all over you. It's a horrible sound and it's like, "Shania, spend an extra hour in the studio and you'll hit the note and it'll sound fine. Just work on it, it's not like making a burger!"

You can read the rest of her brilliance here:

alex dumas said...

Yes, I don't think Gwyneth Paltrow can really sing.

TheWeyrd1 said...

Ke Dollar Sign Ha can sing and she can sing stuff other than "gummy ear worm" pop! She really should drop the $ and sing for real. I think some growling is in order!

ysubassoon said...

When I read the words "Billie Holiday" and "Auto-Tuning" in the same sentence, I had an aneurysm as I tried to process the gravity of the loss that would be to music. Never ever do that again ever.

E. B. Klassen said...

Auto-tune makes Glee almost unwatchable for me. I get why they do it--that's a pretty tense schedule. But seriously....
Although I do have some Auto-tune dirty secrets, like Cher's "gummy ear worm pop" Believe. Can't help myself.

Anonymous said...

the posting is not about digital,

i understood it as a respond of

last day, i said normal people

who have less make up can

look better than photoshop,

so it is about professional vs ordinary people,

photoshop vs natural,

then there is machine, vangobote something,

it can paint landscape, google it you see,

but besides the glory of science,

the painting looks like machine painted.

so now, the question is that, it's not yet

able to paint like human, but in the future,

is it possible?

the question also might related to,

the basic question, where the creativity comes?

what is it? how we know it is there?

Anonymous said...

Just putting it out there....


Glee: Behind the Music
Music Producer Adam Anders

*exerpt - full interview at link

THR: There is a very vocal contingent of Gleeks who complain that some of the songs sound auto-tuned, care to respond?

AA: We don't use auto-tune. It's complete BS. Do I edit the vocals? Of course. We comp it and take the best pieces of everything. When things are autotuned, it's on purpose -- to match the original song, like Lady Gaga’s "Telephone," the original is incredibly auto-tuned and we're matching that production style. But on "Papa, Can You Hear Me?" we didn't have auto-tune. Lea for example, she has this flip in her voice that's like her iconic thing in my opinion. People think that's auto-tuned, but that's how she sings. And it's killer. It makes her stick out. So I get really frustrated with that whole auto-tune comment. T-Pain is not allowed in the building unless it's a T-Pain song we're covering.

THR: Auto-tune as a gimmick almost feels like an abuse of technology, but when is technology a good thing?

AA: Say Lea does an incredible performance. You’re not going to be able to capture that moment again, but there was one note that was off. Technology is great. It can fix that one thing. It doesn't take away from this performance.

Anonymous said...

Other than the awful Photoshoping were they remove even the smallest imperfections, is AutoTune in that "Do It Like A Dude" vid used to alter and distort her voice on purpose. Just because that's the thing to do at the moment in Pop music.

This is not the kind of music Neko Case does (obv.) so that doesn't really compare.

Anonymous said...

okay, you're talking about music.

so if it is original matter, then

you think it's artistic?

i mean people can make painting

on computer, you know then

print them like thousands of it

in short time. but what the vangobot? guys

did, like typewriter, typewriter didn't replaced

writer, it helped work fast, then people use

computer now, but still there are writers.

the robot only copy existed painters works,

so there is still human activity, like

you need to tell the machine what to paint

and how. what strokes, what angles, so on.

by the way, what if someone have a machine

painted work on wall and people say,

o, it looks like machine did~ very even,

then the person said yes, robot did.

the interesting part of this thing i guess

to understand human more by doing that.

Anonymous said...

"Auto-Tune has made one of our most divine abilities into a boring exercise in perfection."

Oh never were truer words written!

Anonymous said...

auto-tune has ruined the music business.

Whitney A said...

this is one of the many reasons i like adele and artists like her

Chris M Ferguson said...

I'm Commander Shephard and this is my favorite site on the internet. Love it!!!

interventions+lullabies said...

I have a strange soft spot for Ke - dollar sign - ha as well. I just admitted that to myself the other day. Her over auto-tuned voice can be irritating.

Anonymous said...

Like Whitney A. said --- ADELE is the real deal.

gidget_bridget16 said...

Agreed. Especially about Ke$ha, I can'y help it. Anyway, I think that everybody should see this as well.


Yamilette27 said...

This has to be one of your best posts ever.
Jessie J shows a tremendous voice in the subway video. I hear people that have talent doing their thing in the subways.
And I had heard Ke$ha sing without auto-tune and it sounded fine. It's just that some producers overdo their hand in some music being produced by newcomers.