Thursday, February 11, 2010

In Defense of Auto-Tune

I like what Neko Case had to say about auto-tune back in a 2006 interview with Pitchfork:

"When I hear auto-tune on somebody's voice, I don't take them seriously. Or you hear somebody like Alicia Keys, who I know is pretty good, and you'll hear a little bit of auto-tune and you're like, 'You're too fucking good for that. Why would you let them do that to you? Don't you know what that means?' It's not an effect like people try to say, it's for people like Shania Twain who can't sing. Yet there they are, all over the radio, jizzing saccharine all over you. It's a horrible sound and it's like, 'Shania, spend an extra hour in the studio and you'll hit the note and it'll sound fine. Just work on it, it's not like making a burger!' "

It's pretty silly (and patently obvious) to use auto-tune to send your voice to a pitch it can't naturally hit. But as the device has increased in popularity (among artists, at least, if not listeners), it's showing up more and more as the "effect" that Case brushes off. Also, I don't think the notion of auto-tune-as-crutch is what people dislike. People just don't like the way it sounds. Not since commercial radio separated country from rock (allowing in the calculated twang of contemporary "Wal-Mart" country music) has a sub-genre of pop been so widely rejected based on an aural aesthetic preference.

The thing is, nobody's pretending that Ke$ha sings her way through "Tik Tok". It's worth comparing the single to a live take; given the recent tendency for even good bands to sound terrible in television studios, I'd say Ke$ha is holding her own here a lot better than you might expect.

Live, the song just sounds different. Auto-tune, in this current evolutionary state of Club/Dance music, is not the crutch that it would be for Shania Twain. There's no masquerade to the auto-tune on singles like "Tik Tok", Jay Sean's "Down", or Jason DeRulo's "Whatcha Say"; it's part of the production.

These songs are all catchy if you have an ear for that kind of thing. This phenomenon dates back to the early aughts, when artists like Missy Elliot and Britney Spears were launching massive singles that operated on a completely different plane than their respective vocal talents. Not only were "Work It" and "Toxic" fantastic jams, they had hooks with which it was impossible to sing along. Even if you hated these songs, you had to breathe a sigh of relief that you'd never, ever hear them at a karaoke bar (and if you did, it would honestly have to be pretty entertaining).

Kanye West's 808s and Heartbreak is an entire album of auto-tune. This may or may not be an example of auto-tune crutching; it's doubtful that Kanye could've recorded this mournful album (and sung on all the tracks) using just his natural voice. But rather than fake it, Kanye leans on it hard: auto-tune is the sonic foundation for the entire album and likely also the reason why so many haters hated. On 808s auto-tune becomes like Peter Frampton's guitar or Julian Casablancas' vocoder. It's just a filter used to give the voice a weird sound. In essence, auto-tune is really no different than a guitar pedal.

In addition, the auto-tune becomes a part of Kanye's statement with 808s, a piece of Phil Collins-esque synth-rock melancholia the likes of which we hadn't heard in the mainstream for ages. Kanye is openly dealing with some pretty tough shit in the wake of a bad break-up and his mother's death, and he consequently transforms himself into a kind of machine that can process emotions like software. On lead single "Love Lockdown," he 'sings' of a "system overload" and a "secret code" he needs to keep love locked down, and on standout track "Robocop" he compares his lover's paranoia to a cyborg from the movies. The album is thematically wrapped up in the bonus track "Pinocchio Story", a live freestyle in which Kanye compares his quest to "keep it real, boy" in the midst of fame and fortune with the marionette's desire to "be a real boy", only he has "no Gepetto to guide me". The auto-tune adds a layer of sorrow to Kanye's malaise (lacking on that live track). It's almost like a defense mechanism to keep his manhood solid and steely even as he opens his wounds for public consumption.

The mechanized self is there in other, more innocuous auto-tune hits, as well. Ke$ha, in the chorus of her hit, compares herself to a clock that won't stop tik-tok-ing until the sun comes up.

I think Jay-Z has a point in drawing "a line in the sand" on the Kanye-produced "D.O.A" ('death of auto-tune'). He seems to be saying enough is enough, but he's not denying the effect's place in music. Like any device, it can be (and maybe is being) over-used. But let's not write it off completely. The sound might be around for a while, and we don't want to have sounded like Decca when someone like Kanye West uses it to paint a masterpiece.


  1. I have absolutely heard "Toxic" in a karaoke bar.

    But I agree with your comparison to a pedal, or anything else that artificially alters the sound of an instrument.

  2. How did it compare to the record?

  3. I don't see how anyone can compare about Ke$sha's performance, which is decent, when a Grammy just went to Taylor Swift, who cannot carry a tune.

    Not that Grammys mean anything. But still!

  4. I'll say this about Taylor Swift.

    I've heard "You Belong With Me" on three different radio stations in Chicago: B96 (trash-hop), US99 (country) and "The Fresh" 105.9 (easy listening).

    I think that's kind of impressive.