I think it is high time that we, as a society and culture, stop questioning a singer’s authenticity simply because they use auto-tune.
The year was 1998. Pop diva and icon Cher had just released her comeback single, “Believe”, which quickly abandoned the singer’s previous disco and pop rock-sounding style in favor of a club-friendly sound, in order to engage younger audiences with her music. “Do you believe in life after love?” The lyrics were catchy and became legendary, something Cher had already long since achieved. But there was also something legendary about the track in question: it was the first song to prominently feature a new technology known as auto-tune.
Auto-tune is a pitch-correcting tool and software that electronically alters the sound and pitch of a singer’s voice and, if used correctly, you can barely detect it. Andy Hildebrand, the software’s inventor, told CNN in 2010 that he didn’t think anyone “in their right mind” would ever use auto-tune, but it caught on quickly: the “Cher effect” was born.
And why wouldn’t it catch on quick? It was this new magic button that could alter one’s sound for a more vibrant, exuberant and, sometimes, robotic sound. Kanye West did an entire album with it. Madonna uses it, and so does Lady Gaga, Selena Gomez, Kelly Clarkson, Maroon 5, and countless others. “Within a year we had sold to every major studio in the world, and that was a year or two after Cher did her song “Believe,’” Hildebrand recalled. But as much as artists who could actually sing were beginning to use it to produce more vibrant, electronic, club-friendly songs that would sell big, it seems the software’s bad wrap is linked to the not-so-good singers who were now being presented with this tool that could make their voice sound ten times better. She has the look but not the voice? Not a problem, auto-tune to the rescue. In other words: a new and appealing way for record producers to make more money.
But as much as “Believe” achieved popularity and commercial success, its sound was not loved by all. Indie rock producer Steve Albini, who has worked with bands such as the Pixies and Nirvana, stated he thought the song was “mind-numbingly awful,” and was stunned see people he respected “seduced” by auto-tune.
So it seems the jury is still out on the use of auto-tune and pitch-correcting tools in today’s music industry. Time magazine included it on its list of the 50 Worst Inventions in 2010, calling it “a technology that can make bad singers sound good and really bad singers sound like robots.” Indie band Death Cab for Cutie even showed up to the 2009 Grammy Awards wearing blue ribbons to “raise awareness against auto-tune abuse.” Hildebrand thinks that his invention has become an addiction of sorts to some recording artists. “Singers learn about how it works and they kind of like it, but they have a love-hate relationship with it: they don’t want to let others know that they need it.” Lessley Anderson of The Verge says that, “Auto-tune has become bitchy shorthand for saying somebody can’t sing. But the diss isn’t fair, because everybody’s using it. Indeed, finding out that all the singers we listen to have been auto-tuned does feel like someone’s messing with us. As humans, we crave connection, not perfection. But we’re not the ones pulling the levers. What happens when an entire industry decides it’s safer to bet on the robot? Will we start to hate the sound of our own voices?”
And that’s just it: it really isn’t fair anymore to side-eye an artist for using auto-tune because practically everyone uses it, and not all for the same reasons. But, as a result of the prejudices surrounding the technology, a singer’s use of auto-tune calls into question, by some, the authenticity of their vocals, ability to perform and, ultimately, their artistry. However, it seems the jury is still out on that debate as well. Many believe that just because one uses auto-tune does not necessarily mean they are unable to legitimately sing or perform. Kesha, singer/songwriter who rose to fame with club-friendly dance tracks such as “TiK ToK”, “Take It Off,” “Your Love is My Drug” and “Die Young,” is a known user of auto-tune, but is also known for having genuine talent and artistic ability. In an interview with the Today Show, she was told by host Savannah Guthrie that she actually has a beautiful voice. “People think they’ve heard the auto-tune, they’ve heard the dance hits, but [she] really [has] a great voice, too.” Kesha responded by saying that she gets “bummed out” when she hears that people think she has no talent or ability because all they’ve heard are her electro-pop dance tracks. “Because I really can sing,” she said. “It’s one of the few things I can do.” But simply because she uses auto-tune to produce a certain type of music that evidently sells, her ability to legitimately sing is called into question.
In this sense, it seems that auto-tune is not only used to make bad or just okay singers sound amazing and catchy, but also for already established singers to create certain types of music that will appeal to certain audiences and generate profit. If club-friendly, electronic dance music (EDM) is what the artist is going for, are we really in a position to judge their use of pitch-correcting tools like auto-tune, especially if we even enjoy the results? Are we even in a position to judge artists for using auto-tune whatsoever when we enjoy the results? As Anderson states, we as humans crave connection, not perfection, so if we’re enjoying what an artist is putting out and it’s generating crazy profits for them (as their record labels surely assured them it would), should we just shut up and listen?
But time and time again, the use of auto-tune continues to call into question the singer’s authenticity as an artist. Taylor Swift is rumored to be a regular user of auto-tune as many believe her to be a tone-deaf, off-key performer. However, several record producers believe that it is simply naïve to think that just because an artist uses auto-tune, it means they have no integrity or ability as a singer or performer. Filip Nikolic, a Los Angeles-based singer and freelance record producer, says that “[truly] everyone uses it” and “it [just] saves a ton of time.” But, at the same time as people still believing that using it means the singer isn’t authentic, some producers and artists are hesitant to admit they use it. And as much as it may be naïve to think that one has no talent for using auto-tune, it also isn’t unreasonable to not want to admit to electronically processing your voice, often for the sake of a more modern, youth-oriented sound that will make you more money. No, that supposedly makes you sound shallow, but it doesn’t mean it’s not the truth, nor does it mean the singer has no talent or integrity. “Do you want to talk about how people think you are talentless because you are known for using auto-tune from time to time?” Would you answer that question? Not many would, because the idea that processed and manipulated vocals are inauthentic and fake are so ingrained into society’s mind that even artists who use it are hesitant to admit to it, even if it produces better results. Jeff Gitelman, member of the indie band The Stepkids, admitted, “For a long time we fought it, and we still are to a certain degree. But attention spans are a certain way, and that’s how it is. We just [want] to have a clean, modern sound.” I think it is high time we move past this way of thinking when, more times than not, the artists you love for their “integrity” have used pitch-correcting tools before, often solely in search for “perfect” vocals.
This when some of the negative consequences of using tools like auto-tune come into play. For some, auto-tune does seem to solve all sound problems, but Anderson writes that while everyone does use it and it’s unreasonable to continuously criticize an artist for using it, auto-tune also conditions listeners to start expecting perfect pitch and lead them to be surprised when that sometimes doesn’t happen, which is an unreasonable demand. Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan were never pitch perfect in their hay days, and people bowed at their feet. Conversely, John Lennon famously hated his singing voice, yet people loved him more than life itself. Time magazine wrote in 2009 that auto-tune has made all pop music sound the same, because “track after track has perfect pitch,” which is unrealistic. So as much as humans crave connection over perfection, it seems that auto-tune makes us start to expect perfection, but the truth is, no one is perfect, even our favorite singers, despite what their auto-tuned songs might make you think.
One of the best known users of auto-tune is perhaps Britney Spears, the pop singer who became iconic before the age of 20 for contributing to the revival of the teen pop genre in the late 1990s. Tracks like “…Baby One More Time” and “Oops!… I Did It Again” were risqué but somehow innocent, and largely successful; it became all about an image they were selling. Spears’ attempts at breaking free of that innocent yet not so innocent good-girl image they confined her in led to years of widely publicized personal problems, but was followed by a great musical comeback. But, as many point out, Spears was always more of an entertainer rather than a singer. If you’ve ever seen her perform a choreographed dance sequence, it’s undoubtedly impressive. Many believe her to be excellent at what she does, and that is not necessarily “singing.” She very clearly lip syncs during live performances, televised or otherwise, and was simply never known for being an outstanding vocalist. That does not, however, take away from her being a talented performer or artist, in the same vein as Kesha or Taylor Swift. So why was it when, in July 2014, Spears was the subject of controversy when a video leaked of her vocals for her track “Alien” without any pitch correction or auto-tune? Critics immediately pounced on her and her apparent inability to tackle the song’s high notes. CNN came to the singer and song’s defense, reminding everyone that Spears was simply never known for her outstanding vocal ability. Others were also quick to point out that when she was first signed to her record label, Spears was coached and conditioned to sing a certain way that may or may not have been her strong suit. Regardless, her talent, intrigue and appeal rely solely on her outstanding ability to entertain and perform, and produce music that is fun and often electronic-sounding. That’s just who she is and we have always known that, so for people to claim she has no talent is unfounded. Spears’ talent may not necessarily lie in her vocal abilities, but that does not mean she is unable to perform, entertain or produce music that is pleasing to the ear. We are all just so obsessed with these ideas of “authenticity” that the sound of processed vocals leads us to believe that an artist is untalented or just looking to make a quick buck with music they know will sell, when that is almost always largely false. In fact, Spears responded to criticism of her performing abilities in 2011, stating, “I don’t really have anything to prove at this point. I just do it for fun and see what happens.” William Orbit, producer of “Alien”, came to Spears’ defense thereafter as well, stating that the leaked video was never intended to be heard by the public and was a warm-up vocal take, something all artists do. “Whomever put this on the Internet must have done so in a spirit of unkindness, but it can in no way detract from the fact that Britney is and always will be beyond stellar! She is magnificent! And that’s that.”
Osvaldo Oyola of Sounding Out! argues that the use of auto-tune and the question of an artist’s authenticity have and always will be closely linked. “Do we consider how many takes were required for Patti LaBelle to record ‘Lady Marmalade’ when we listen?” he writes. “Do we speculate on whether spliced tape made up for the effects of a fatiguing day of recording? Chances are that even your favorite and most gifted singer has benefited from some form of technology in recording their work. When someone argues that auto-tune allows anyone to sing, what they are really complaining about is that an illusion of authenticity has been dispelled. So what? Why would it so bad if anyone could be a singer through auto-tuning technology? What is really so threatening about its use?” As scholar Walter Benjamin notes, auto-tune merely represents “just another step forward in undoing the illusion of art’s aura. It is not the quality of art that is endangered by mass access to its creation, but rather the authority of cultural arbiters and the ideological ends they serve.”
Put more plainly: music, even auto-tuned music, is a form of art, and repeatedly and endlessly calling into question the authenticity of artists who have electronically manipulated vocals is simply undoing the art form: it was made that way for a reason, whatever the reason, and I don’t think we are in a position to unravel the entire artistic process by uncovering apparent “flaws” in the system, moral or otherwise. Singers who do not need or want the use of auto-tune in their music are no more talented than those who use it regularly: music is about sound, and we must learn to appreciate what our ears are hearing. You don’t criticize an actor for using a body double for stunts, or pick apart a famous painting color by color looking for “authenticity,” do you? Music should be no different.
What do you think of auto-tune and pitch-correcting tools? Let us know in the comments!