Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Auto-Tune: Homogenizing popular music?

On Nov. 4, CBS Evening News ran a story about the rising trend of Auto-Tune in music. The report depicts the popular vocal effect as a creeping disease that all music fans should fear, which seems a little harsh.

Auto-Tune, of course, is the robotic-sounding vocal effect that Cher introduced to the mainstream, T-Pain used to build his career and Kanye West leaned on heavily for 808s & Heartbreak.

It's true that Auto-Tune has been masking vocal imperfections on studio albums for years. When it's at its most subtle, Auto-Tune allows producers to tweak slightly off-key notes, making the vocal performance sound closer to perfect. Some singers even use Auto-Tune during live performances. It may seem a little dishonest, but it shouldn't be any surprise that musicians use any means necessary to make their albums sound better.

The CBS report suggests that people are worried Auto-Tune is too pervasive, that it's homogenizing popular music. Unfortunately, it's far too late now to worry about mainstream pop losing its edge.

The homogenization of pop music has its roots in the early days of rock 'n' roll. In the '50s, it was common practice for white artists to record sanitized versions of black artists' songs. In several cases, the cover versions outperformed the originals on the charts (like Bill Haley's version of Ike Turner's "Rocket 88").

That same sanitization of music is rampant today. American Idol and the Jonas Brothers are squeaky clean and absolutely devoid of human quirks and imperfections. The popular television series Glee has taken several classic rock staples and drained them of their character, transforming them into easily digestible yawnfests. What's a little Auto-Tune when the Top 40 has already been successfully robotized?

Anyway, it still takes the same amount of craft to write a good song, Auto-Tune or not. An Auto-Tuned vocal is essentially the same as a synthesizer. It's still up to the songwriter to come up with a melody that people want to hear. Though Auto-Tuning may mask vocal imperfections, it's hardly magic.

See Ron Browz' "Jumpin' (Out the Window)" for proof of Auto-Tune's inability to make up for a lack of musical talent. Just because it lets a producer manipulate vocals to hit the notes he chooses doesn't mean the producer will pick the right notes.

Low-fi recordings will always have a place in popular music, even if they exist on the periphery. The CBS report shows a group that eschews Auto-Tune and paints it as an anomaly. However, The White Stripes' early albums were recorded in a studio that contained only vintage equipment.

Auto-Tune may not have had the most positive impact on the face of pop music, but it hardly signals the death of real flesh and blood in music.

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