Auto Tune, Machines, Art, and Humanity

Posted 10/30/2009 by JDub in Labels: , , , , ,

Many of our first experiences with the infamous and ever-popular "Auto Tune" came from hearing things like Daft Punk's "One More Time." In other words, many of us came to associate Auto Tune fringe electronica with purposefully non-human voices singing very simple, but very vague lyrics.

The thing about this song when it came out in early 2001 is that it fit neatly into a genre of music which is based entirely on its total dependence on the computers and machines necessary to create it. Sure, some of the music you hear in "One More Time" came from samples of people playing real instruments (probably), but the song itself is in no way a primary source of human-created art. All of the primary source material (the raw human voice vocals, the original samples, etc) are filtered through an electronic medium, and we therefore experience the materials as secondary sources.

And yet we love it. Well, I love it. There is absolutely a place in my heart for music and art which is created totally by a machine or a computer. There are some absolutely breathtaking things being done with Photoshop these days, and those images certainly have their merits in the greater body of Art out there.

But then performers like T-Pain came along and did something unexpected. Almost 9 years after "One More Time" was released as a single (November 13 to be exact), that robotically melodic timbre of Auto Tune is a fully-integrated part of the pop music sound. Now, it's not uncommon to see some dude in a pickup truck with his windows down blasting T-Pain and his robot voice thinking absolutely nothing of it.

Before, the robot voice was part of a fringe genre of music -- enjoyed by slightly nerdy, slightly socially awkward dudes buzzed on caffeine and M&Ms. Woooo electronica... Now, the "cool kids" go out, get drunk, grind, and sing along with the robot voice as though there were nothing strange going on at all. It's the human identification with the robot-sounding voice--and the words being said by that voice--which is interesting.

I know that quite a few artists have been using pitch electronic pitch correcting for their vocals, especially in a live performance situation, for a very long time, and I frankly have no problems with that. It's a little like having Spell Check when you're writing: it takes a lot more than perfect spelling to make a great writer, and it takes a lot more than perfect pitch to make a great performer. I would much rather hear someone performing on pitch than not performing on pitch, as long as their pitch correcting electronics don't color their timbre. At least they still
sound human...

But that's the thing about the whole T-Pain Auto Tune phenomenon: it's an artistic aesthetic which is only possible because of our technological advances, and yet it's being played on the radio or in da club right next to songs with natural human voices like they're all the same thing. And I don't think people realize how many Britney Spears and Kelly Clarksons out there on the radio are using electronic post-processing to
change, to color their vocal sound. We've all just become so used to hearing a robot sing that we're treating it the same as hearing a human sing.

If art is supposed to create an emotional human connection between two people, then how do we treat art that depends upon an inhuman machine as an intermediary?

This is starting to sound familiar...

I'm all about using electronics to make our lives easier and better, of course. As a guitarist, I enjoy fiddling with all of the electronic gadgets that make you sound cool, and I think online social media like Facebook are excellent tools for keeping in touch with people you don't see very much. But for me, there's a very clear line to be drawn between using our technology as a tool to help us stay connected with our friends and allowing the technology to sit between us and our friends.

It's basically the fundamental sociological argument in the new movie "Surrogates," which you should see if you haven't. Essentially, everyone stays at home connected to a computer and controls a lifelike robot out in the real world with their mind. This clearly makes the world much safer from accidents and violence and spread of disease, but there's also an interesting freedom associated with using surrogates because you're free to look and sound like whoever you want, whoever you feel like you really are on the inside. That sure sounds appealing...

But that 50-year-old man managing the MySpace profile of a 20-year-old sorority girl can actually
become that girl in the world of surrogates. Because 98% of people are using young, attractive, and physically fit surrogates in public, there is literally no way of knowing who you're really interacting with.

Humans aren't meant to build and develop relationships with a computer between them. Obviously social media is very useful and very important these days, but it all leaves me wanting to sit in a park and have a conversation with someone rather than tweet what's on my mind and wait for some text to pop up on my screen in response.

And as for Auto Tune... well, I say treat it like what it really is: a fun trick, a little change of pace, a gimmick. The fact that a recording artist like T-Pain's entire musical persona is inextricably tied to dependence on a machine to create his sound is troubling. It is important to recognize the value of our own humanity in a society which seems to be becoming less personal, less friendly, and less human every day. Let art be Art.

2 comment(s) to... “Auto Tune, Machines, Art, and Humanity”


Anonymous said...

And now we can be the computer:

Chris said...

Bring it, JDUB. Well done.

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