All That Is Solid 07: Auto-Tune Some Thoughts on Auto-Tune; Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love “The-Dream”

All That Is Solid is an attempt to examine the relationships between popular music and global capitalism. Click here to access the archive.

I have always been a vocoder apologist. Manipulated vocals have a lot of creative appeal to me, as they interfere fundamentally with our culturally hard-wired assumptions about who a musician is and what a musician does -- while we are willing to accept electronic percussion or instrumental accompaniment, there is something almost sinister and misanthropic about mechanically mediating the words from our mouths. For me, though, the effect of a vocoder is the opposite of de-humanizing: if we accept that the term "technology" applies not just to materials but to techniques, humans have always sought to extend the "technological" range of their own bodies (singing, shouting, whispering, throat-singing, and ventriloquism are all "technologies"), and the vocoder is simply a mechanical, cybernetic mechanism for an exploration of our humanity. I also admire contemporary artists like Tom Waits and (pre-2004) Björk who choose "analogue" vocal manipulations to similar effect, but that doesn't take away from the fact that there are many examples of highly evocative, expressive vocoder use in the popular canon -- Laurie Anderson's "O Superman (For Massenet)," Daft Punk's "Digital Love," Roger Troutman's "I Wanna Be Your Man," and even Imogen Heap's "Hide and Seek" come to mind -- and they all read to me as being intrinsically existential in ways that conventional singing is not.

The Auto-Tuner, a specific kind of vocoder designed for pitch-correction, has a special place in the history of manipulated vocals: as designed, it was meant to mask and compensate for the imperfections in a singer's performance, and as a result it has taken on connotations of fraudulence. To opponents (Ben Gibbard, et al), Auto-Tune represents the latest episode in a series of machinations through which major labels thrust undeserving performers to positions of prominence at the expense of "real" musicians making "real" music. The lens through which many of us evaluate and admire musicians is based on an assumption of authenticity -- we want to feel like the performer is laboring, that they are sincere in their performance, and that they mean what they say -- and Auto-Tune is like being poked in the eye. It's a boondoggle, a chicanery, and we refuse to be hoodwinked!

But when in doubt, leave it to rappers to refuse to take musical technology and simply use-as-directed. From the turntable and the sampler to the delay/loop pedal and drum machines, hip-hop has benefited from a steady diet of musicians using equipment the "wrong" way from day one. Even if you can't stand T-Pain or Akon, it's apparent to me that "Konvict Muzik" started a revolution by applying the Auto-Tune technique for specific aesthetic ends. Sure, Troutman did it first over 20 years ago, but the Konvict brand expanded the application of Auto-Tune to the point that it is not just a gimmick; it's almost the sine qua non of modern hip-hop. I say this because it's not only used to ornament lead vocals, but also as harmonic and percussive accompaniment. The proper role of the vocals, then, is no longer delimited by "singing" or even "rapping"; Auto-Tune can turn the voice into any instrument (or instrumental role) you choose. The technique not only democratizes "singing" by allowing anyone to sing "on pitch" (which remains, for most intents and purposes, a minimum requirement for singing well), it blows up the whole division of labor on any given track. And while it is tempting, upon hearing an hour of contemporary "urban" radio, to think that these artists are all piggybacking on the popularity of one simple trick, it may be truer that we are living in an era of production virtuosos who are using the popularity of mediated vocals to atomize, demolish, and rearrange the landscape of modern pop singles.

One of my all-time favorite movies (and albums) is Purple Rain, and every time I revisit the peak of Prince's career, I end up thinking that the list of artists in the last half-century who have enjoyed dominant, chart-topping popularity while releasing music that represents the creative and artistic zenith of its genre has exactly two entries: The Beatles and Prince. I also used to think that we may never see another example of that phenomenon -- the decentralization of popular genres over the last two decades seemed to preclude the kind of mega-stardom enjoyed by the likes of Madonna and Michael Jackson, as well as any one definitive style that could be described as "state of the art" for Top 40 music in general. It's premature to say for certain, but history may prove that I was wrong, and that we are currently bearing witness to not one, but two such careers: Lil Wayne and The-Dream. Both have been ubiquitous over the last two years, with Weezy appearing on seemingly half of the Top 20 at any given moment, and The Dream similarly occupying a sizable portion of the Billboard charts with songs from his first two (outstanding) studio albums, as well as over a dozen hits penned for other artists. But the real story is that both are leading a vanguard of an aesthetic movement. Many readers here will not share my opinion that Lil Wayne's body of work (mixtapes and collaborations as well as studio LPs) represents any kind of artistic high point, but even on this site we find suitably high praise for The-Dream's 2009 platter, Love Vs. Money (props to Ajitpaul Mangat for his excellent review).

But the vanguard, the movement that these two figures are simultaneously spearheading, is not just the next evolutionary step in slow jams or Martian rapping; it's about re-mapping our relationship to the human voice. The-Dream uses Auto-Tune to set his unaltered lead vox against a sea of percussive chants and harmonic echoes that explode Terius Nash's instrument into a one-man band, forming a conversation with himself wherein he is both medium and message. Lil Wayne, on the other hand, seems to be exploring the eroticism of computerliebe, using Auto-Tuned embellishments on his voice to imply carnal knowledge. Whether or not we like the way Auto-Tune sounds or how these artists are using the technology, I think it would be baldly inaccurate to say that either is cashing in on a gimmick or trying to pull one over on us. Their efforts are exploratory in nature, and they are pushing the limits of what the voice can do in a pop song while remembering not to leave us without some dope beats to step to. This sort of tinkering is, paradoxically, the most human response to machinery -- and in a world full of machines, the real swindle would be to insist on the existence of a firm and well-defined division between nature and technology. My version of authenticity, and what I'd like from musicians, is simply this: use whatever instruments you choose, so long as you remember to throw out the directions.

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