The following sentence might come as a huge shock to teens and Millennials, so stop tweeting for a second, kids, and get prepared for a totally outlandish statement. Here it is: Once upon a time, pop singers were actual singers.
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Yes, I know. That’s hard to comprehend since the pop charts are now dominated by artists who use Auto-Tune, the software plug-in that corrects the pitch of those who can’t really cut it in the vocal department and turns their vocals into robo-voices. While everyone under 30 recovers from that revelation, here’s what I mean by “actual singers.”
Back in the day, pop artists like Frank Sinatra and the Beatles used to be able to record albums in just a few days. Country musicians like Patsy Cline and George Jones trudged through grueling tours in out-of-the-way rural locales yet still missed nary a note. R&B musicians like the Supremes and the Four Tops navigated their way through complex choreography but still belted out songs out like their lives depended on it.
And while today, we still have singers with massively impressive pipes, a whole lotta them could never have rocked it for real like the Motown gang. These days, artists are able to get by on looks, publicity and aid from Auto-Tune.
You can hear the robotic, processed sound of the plug-in on recent hit records like “Blame It” by Jamie Foxx and T-Pain, “Just Dance” by Lady Gaga and “Right Now (Na Na Na)” by Akon. It’s also heard on tracks by Kanye West, Britney Spears and Lil Wayne. When West attempted to sing “Love Lockdown” without the plug-in on “Saturday Night Live,” the results were none too impressive and got ridiculed online. You can hear 10 examples of “Auto-Tune Abuse in Pop Music” on Hometracked, a blog geared toward home recording enthusiasts.
Paula Abdul also uses Auto-Tune on her new song, “Here for the Music,” which she performed (i.e. lip-synched) on “American Idol” May 6. It was evident just how artificial Abdul’s vocals were when she was followed by Gwen Stefani, who gave a warts-and-all live vocal on No Doubt’s “Just a Girl.”
Country and rock singers are said to use Auto-Tune to protect themselves from hitting bum notes in concert. Pop singers use it when they have a hard time singing while executing complicated dance moves (raising the question as to why they’re letting their dancing take precedence over their music). Auto-Tune has become so ubiquitous that indie rockers Death Cab for Cutie wore blue ribbons at this year’s Grammy Awards ceremony to protest its overuse.
Building the ‘perfect’ beast
The prevalence of Auto-Tune comes from two longstanding pop music traditions — the desire to alter the human voice and the quest for perfection at the expense of real talent and emotion.
The first of these can lead to inspiring moments, as the New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones noted in an essay last year. Pioneering voice tweakers include producer Quincy Jones, who punched up Lesley Gore’s vocals with double tracking on “It’s My Party,” and George Martin, who gave us a childlike sped-up John Lennon on “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Later on, Peter Frampton wowed audiences with his talk box guitar effect and a decade later, vocals were being put through harmonizers to get jarring outer space effects.
Of course, to pull off any of those effects, you had still had to be able to sing. With Auto-Tune you don’t.
Then there’s the quest for perfection. By the 1970s, producers were able to edit or splice together vocal takes from various tracks and eventually they started to use hardware that corrected vocal pitch to create “perfect” performances. When the sound editing program Pro Tools became the industry norm in the 1990s, kludged-together vocal tracks became the norm.
But too much meticulousness in pop music strips away passion. And the very reason we listen to music, noted the late rock critic Lester Bangs, is to hear “passion expressed.” Auto-Tune makes people sound like robots. And if there’s no feeling, why listen at all?
Some people apparently aren’t listening anymore. Sales of major label CDs are down. But more authentic sounding music still has fans. Paste magazine recently reported that indie music is selling more, and the one area of commercial music that’s remained popular is “American Idol,” where you can’t fake it (unless you’re Paula Abdul).
The producers speak
A lot of producers like to use Auto-Tune because it saves time, says producer Craig Street, who has worked with Norah Jones, k. d. lang and Cassandra Wilson. “If you have a smaller budget what you’re doing is trying to cram a lot of work into a small period of time,” Street says. “So you may not have as much time to do a vocal.”
Craig Anderton, a producer and music writer, observes that Auto-Tune “gets no respect because when it’s done correctly, you can’t hear that it’s working.
“If someone uses it tastefully just to correct a few notes here and there, you don’t even know that it’s been used so it doesn’t get any props for doing a good job,” Anderton notes. “But if someone misuses it, it’s very obvious — the sound quality of the voice changes and people say ‘Oh, it’s that Auto-Tune — it’s a terrible thing that’s contributing to the decline and fall of Western music as we know it.”
One producer who dislikes Auto-Tune is Jon Tiven, who cut his musical teeth in the punk rock era with his band the Yankees, and went on to produce soul singers Wilson Pickett and Don Covey as well as Pixies founder Frank Black. Tiven thinks Auto-Tune has led to the destruction of great singing.
“I don’t know how many levels you want to drop the bar for what it takes to become a successful musical person,” Tiven says. “You could sacrifice on some levels, but it would seem to me one of the first things you would really be hard pressed to sacrifice is if the person could sing in tune or not.”
Street says the like or dislike of Auto-Tune largely comes down to aesthetics, and likens people’s feelings about listening to unnatural sounds with the way some people feel about unnatural body modifications, such as breast implants.
And that makes sense. After all, today we have models and actors whose faces and bodies were never intended by nature, reality TV that’s not real, and sports “heroes” whose strength comes from pills not practice. It’s totally understandable that the commercial pop world would embrace an unnatural aesthetic. Whether audiences will someday want pop singers who are first and foremost singers remains to be seen.
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