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Why people take offense at autotune: some explanations

January 8, 2010
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Here’s an orthodoxy I’d like to challenge: the one that says that the very worst thing about contemporary music is the use of autotuned vocals. All our singers sound robotic! All our pop anthems sound synthetic! Well…

According to my own private estimations, people don’t talk about pop music as much as they used to do. They talk instead, perhaps, about things they’ve seen online, or about the world.

Even so, if you’ve heard anyone talking about popular music in the last couple of years you will almost certainly have heard people reacting strongly against the use of autotuned vocals in popular rap and r&b songs. I am rather late to this discussion – Jay-Z has already declared the Death of Autotune. But I still hear people talking. We’re talking about what people do to their voices.

The offense that people take at auto-tune interests me. There is probably plenty to dislike about current trends in music production – for me it’s the general desire for fullness and devastating presence at all costs, and the fear of being boring resulting in the very boring attempt to be constantly interesting and attention-stealing, as if pop music knows that people’s interest is wandering elsewhere. I would agree that all the pop records that play when I go in and out of shops sound terrible on the whole, but the altered vocals are neither here nor there.

What people are actually talking about, I suppose, is conspicuous autotune, rather than the inaudible autotune that is employed to simply straighten out vocals by producers who mistakenly think that pitch should always be perfect. Conspicuous autotune is actually a deliberately misuse of the technology for textural effect, which is much the same story as the development of any standard audio effect – phase-shifting results from an imperfect filtering of a signal, and distorted guitar sounds really just developed from an imperfection in amplification. And so on. Autotune has got people talking (pro-voked them, raised their voices) because it’s an effect that’s applied to the human voice, rather than to instruments. In this sense the reaction is one against the abuse of a sacred human instrument, perhaps akin to the historical fear of tattooing and body-piercing – but no-one cares about those things anymore.

The reign of conspicuous autotune prods at listeners’ concerns about fakeness / realness in music. The Quest For Authenticity in Popular Music, detailed by Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor a few of years ago, continues interminably. These are quaint attitudes indeed.

When I talk about a general dislike of autotune I should qualify a little. Obviously someone likes these records, which is they’re all over what’s left of commercial radio and music TV. What’s really going on, then, is a division – between sincere and insincere, between folk and fake, between street and studio, between grunge and glam, between man and machine. You’ll have noticed that none of the first things in these pairings actually exist.

Or is it that people want transparent evidence that the singer can actually sing? And that an audience that’s spent the best part of a decade consuming competition-TV wants to play the role of the nasty judge, and feels robbed of its ability to be Simon Cowell (a grave predicament) when the singer’s “ability” matters little to the overall sonic texture.

Of course, these autotune hits of the last few years will probably go the way of Les Baxter and Martin Denny records –unserious schmaltz in their time, but loved by followers in later generations to whom their artless novelty sounds like an unearthly weirdness that a previous age produced unwittingly. I do not have their ears.

Maybe it’s just that I’d be very reluctant to entirely dismiss a means of making sound. Ideally, all sound-possibilities will remain open. How often have you heard this: this would have been a great song, if it weren’t for that! No. Sounds in themselves are good. Songs in themselves are not good. Or: condemn the product, but not the means of production.

Vocoder and autotune are not the same thing, but even so – who in their right mind would condemn a treasure like…

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One Comment leave one →
  1. January 25, 2010 5:38 pm

    Once again you fail completely to be in any way wrong.

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