In June of 2009, Jay-Z released the single “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-tune),” an indictment of the pitch-shifting software used to “fix” the vocals in almost all pop songs on the radio today. In an attack that gained its impetus more from his clout than any real argument, the rapper suggested that use of Auto-Tune is emasculating, implying that Sinatra wouldn’t use it and namechecking T-Pain (one of the heaviest users), telling him to quit singing and “get violent” to prove himself.
You rappers singin’ too much
Get back to rap, you T-Pain’n too much
I’m a multi-millionaire
So how is it I’m still the hardest nigga here?
I don’t be in the project hallway
Talkin’ bout how I be in the project all day
That sounds stupid to me
If you a gangsta, this is how you prove it to me
Yeah, just get violent
This is death of Auto-Tune, moment of silence.
It might not be the sturdiest of syllogisms, but Jay-Z has weight to throw around. He has sold 26 million records and is the former CEO of both Def Jam and Roc-A-Fella. And in the endless oneupsmanship of hip hop, he is putting himself above rappers who resort to singing, and then have their voices fixed in the studio. (Chastising a rapper for singing is, in itself, pretty funny. Prince, one of pop’s finest voices, did as much 20 years ago: “You see in rap, the first problem /usually stems from being tone deaf / Pack the house, try to sing / won’t be no one left.”) But oddly for a man who’s made his millions in a universe of artifice, Jay-Z is missing the point.
Auto-Tune was initially created by an Exxon engineer who discovered that programs used for interpreting seismic data could also analyze and modify tones. While slight fixes in songs can be seamless, the technology has also been pushed to force sonic stairsteps, first and most famously heard in the chorus of Cher’s 1998 single “Believe.” The robotic voice-morphing as she intones the title is the only thing that made the song memorable, an endearing aural trick that at once sounded futuristic and retro. This is not the harm but the charm of Auto-Tune.
There is something quite likable about the artificiality of Cher’s (or T-Pain’s, or Lil Wayne’s) robot voice which is quite different than it’s purely fix-it application employed by such “real” singers as Reba McEntire, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. Using the tool to fix a flawed vocal perhaps does amount to deceiving the listener, as did hiring Glen Campbell to play on the Monkees records, or hiring whoever it was that sang Milli Vanilli’s parts.
But the Cher-Pain-Wayne usage is, of course, a different thing. The attempt there is not to fool record-buyers, but to create (and subsequently emulate) a new sound, something novel. In that sense, it’s not like hiring a session musician to play the parts the band can’t, but like speeding up a tape to create an effect, or for that matter using someone else’s vinyl record to create a new sound on your own (you still with me, Z?). It’s not trickery, it’s seduction, a snappy come-on line to get your attention. It’s artificial and, if all is as it should be, it’s novel. It’s artifice and novelty. These are the qualities that, presumably, Jay-Z (and others, Wyclef Jean for one, who have condemned the application in song) wants to separate himself from. But artifice and novelty are not qualities that should be dismissed so easily in pop music. These are the things that put a smile on our face, that make us feel bemusedly nostalgic, when we hear “Crimson and Clover” or “Do You Feel Like We Do” or “1999” or “Funky Town” or any other of a number of processed-vocal songs.
Auto-Tune abuse will prove to be the pop zeitgeist of the early 21st century. And in a style as concerned with immediacy as is rap, it might be one of the few lasting impressions being made.