Thursday, September 24, 2009

Culture Lesson: Auto-Tune

My sister doesn’t know what Auto-Tune is. We have a crisis on our hands! If you saw Jimmy Fallon's appearance on the Emmys Sunday and were befuddled by the skit, you too may need my assistance. Here's Fallon spoofing Auto-Tune and Kanye West:

Auto-Tune is an Antares Audio Technologies audio processor that auto corrects pitch in vocalization. Or as Time described it in February:
“…a downloadable studio trick that can take a vocal and instantly nudge it onto the proper note or move it to the correct pitch. It's like Photoshop for the human voice. Auto-Tune doesn't make it possible for just anyone to sing like a pro, but used as its creator intended, it can transform a wavering performance into something technically flawless.”
I imagine the vocals pre-Auto-Tune as a piece of Swiss and the vocals post-Auto-Tune with the holes filled in.
Continuing my metaphorical visualization, we’ll pretend I like Swiss cheese, because Auto-Tune is actually really bad for the future of music. (Technologically speaking, it’s awesome. Also, I'm biased!)
Invented for the oil industry in 1996, the plug-in hit pop music with Cher’s 1998 hit “Believe.” I tend to excuse its use here, if only because its use is so obvious. Recording artists followed her example, and now its become a crutch in pop music. T-Pain, Reba McEntire, Faith Hill, P. Diddy, Kanye West, Janet Jackson, and Britney Spears are using Auto-Tune in their recorded material. It’s even allowed West, who typically raps over his melodic pop hits, to sing. It’s the only way West sings, and that’s a problem.

It also removes any sense of emotion. Think of the dead digitally animated eyes in 2004’s The Polar Express, 2007’s Beowulf’s, and this winter’s A Christmas Carol and translate the lack of emotion into your pop music. With Auto-Tune, there are no nuances of heart break, angst, rage, or elation. I need to hear the vocalist crack under the weight of emotion.
There’s certainly no argument that a lack of vocal talent has prohibited an artist from entering the pop music landscape—Death Cab for Cutie notoriously opposes Auto-Tune, and singer/songwriter Ben Gibbard is far from ideal on both fronts—but Auto-Tune’s presence isn’t just misleading and emotionless, it’s preventing evolution in pop culture. Ultimately, we need the lesser talents culled from the landscape. (And while I am bereft at the lack of attention turned to greater talents, it’s inarguable that this is a huge problem.) For one thing, if we never had Auto-Tune, we’d never have had to listen to West’s “Heartless.”

Time named Auto-Tune as one of The 50 Worst Inventions in May/June:
It's a technology that can make bad singers sound good and really bad singers (like T-Pain, pictured here) sound like robots. And it gives singers who sound like Kanye West or Cher the misplaced confidence that they too can croon. Thanks a lot, computers.
Auto-Tune is joined my the Segway, DDT, Agent Orange, subprime mortgage loans, Crocs, pop-up ads, and leaded gasoline.


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