One Frontier

Under the title, “auto-tune is not the problem. problem is humans”, Sasha posts this video:

At the ASAs, I had the following to say about the potential for sociologists to study auto-tuning:

Auto-tuning is another recent technological innovation in recorded sound.  Any of you who have heard Cher’s 1998 single, “Believe” are familiar with this sound. In that example, Cher’s audio engineer was using it as a technique of composition—a cool sound for a dance single, but auto-tuning was patented by Antares Audio Technology as digital pitch correction—a tool to help audio engineers correct the small errors of pitch that vocalists routinely make during recording. But it turned out to be so much more powerful than just a pitch corrector: Recording Magazine once called it the “holy grail of recording” ‘because it can strengthen vocal tones, add vibrato to held notes, and even turn a mediocre singer into a good one’. While these modifications to singing voices are not “supposed to be heard”, artists like Cher have taken up the technology as an audible flourish to vocals.  R&B singer T-Pain is famous for his use of Auto-tune, and Kayne West relied almost exclusively on this technology while crafting his 2008 album 808s and Heartbreak.

While some artists clearly feel this technology can be used to create new and artistic sounds—I’ll put Cher, T-Pain and Kayne West in this camp—other artists are taking a stand against the practice.  For example, rock group Death Cab for Cutie showed up at the Grammy Awards in February, 2008 wearing blue awareness ribbons, representing a protest against Auto-tune abuse (there is no organization which they were representing, and the blue color appears arbitrary, except for a passing reference to “blue notes”).  Lead singer Ben Gibbard said, “Auto-tuning is…affecting literally thousands of singers today and thousands of records that are coming out. We just want to raise awareness while we’re here and try to bring back the blue note… The note that’s not so perfectly in pitch and just gives the recording some soul and some kind of real character. It’s how people really sing.” Later, in 2009, rap artist Jay-Z lodged his own criticism in a single titled “D.O.A.” or “Death of Auto-tune.”  The lyrics include the following: “This is Anti-Autotune, death of the ringtone, this ain’t for iTunes, this ain’t for sing-alongs…”

Even if the objection to auto-tuning remains parodic, we nevertheless have discovered another digital technology that is shaping both musical production and consumption, and about which there is ample debate. The transition from pitch correction to compositional style would certainly be an interesting one to investigate, particularly as an example of an emerging convention.  I know Mayer Zald is among those encouraging research at the intersection of social movements and culture, and both audio compression and auto-tuning offer interesting opportunities for questions about movement emergence, goals, resources, strategies, coalition building, and so forth.

Now I can add that there appears to be an additional opportunity for the Animals and Society folks.



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7 responses to “One Frontier

  1. very interesting. does the interest in auto-tuning mean you’ve changed your mind about high pop being a genre with distinct genre conventions?

  2. I cannot believe you put that Cher song into my head. Curses!

  3. Jenn Lena

    Sorry, Tina. I thought the cat song would be the problem…

  4. I don’t think auto-tuning is limited to high pop. I’ve actually heard a lot of indie rock that uses auto-tuning too, although often the effect is intended to be somewhat cartoonish (e.g., Chromeo). I wonder what the origins of auto-tuning are. Did it start in electronica and migrate to pop music?

  5. Jenn Lena

    Brayden’s comment hits upon the reason why Pete and I refuse to apply “genre” to pop. Pop is defined by its cannibalism of conventions (like, auto-tuning) from multiple genres. It’s defining characteristic, ever-changing conventions, does not stand up to the definitional constraints of “genre”, as least as we see them.

    And here is Sasha’s history of auto-tune’s use in music. I would claim Jamaican dance-hall as the major early adopter, but Cher’s was certainly the first hit song in the U.S. to use it.

  6. While not commenting substantively, I wanted to note that my cats rather enjoyed this video. They sat attentively with their ears perked up. After about 30 seconds, I noticed their ears were flattened back as if they were irritated or annoyed by the sound. They must have learned this from watching me.

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