Pro/Con: Auto-tuning the music industry

Jan. 6, 2009, midnight | By Jenna Bushnell David Tao | 12 years, 9 months ago

Is the "T-Pain" effect a brilliant innovation or a bland rip-off?

If you've turned on the radio in the past few years, you're probably familiar with the robotic twang of "T-Pained" vocals. This trademark motif of namesake and Florida R&B crooner T-Pain is caused by Antares Audio Technologies's Auto-Tune plug-in, a program that snaps sour notes into a computerized pattern with a distinctive tremble.

This technology has since become a pop music craze, generating one Top 40 hit after another. Everybody's jumping on the bandwagon: good singers such as Justin Timberlake, Chris Brown, bad singers such as Jennifer Lopez and even rappers, like Kanye West and Lil' Wayne.

Some see Auto-Tune as our generation's musical phenomenon, injecting life and relevance into the same old artistic routine. Others dismiss it as a cheap way for artists to hide their lack of talent behind the banner of originality. Is Auto-Tune worthy of its current status as our generation's musical symbol?

Jenna Bushnell says yes: The Auto-Tune provides a fresh, new sound for musicians and should continue to be a pillar of popular music.

It's 1956 and Elvis Presley is to appear on "The Milton Berle Variety Show." During his appearance, he sang his own brand of music that mixed rhythm and blues with country and rock. This fusion of sound made Presley wildly popular with teens, but left many critics uneasy. Despite lukewarm initial reviews, Elvis went on to become a pop-culture icon, showing that something revolutionary will always cause unease with those who cannot appreciate change. Five decades later, America is faced with the same scenario but a different innovation. The Auto-Tune plug-in, first used by Cher in 1998, has become a staple in the music industry. This transformational sound is here to stay, and for good reason.

For those who gawk at the thought of tone-deaf musicians recording songs with voices manipulated to correct tone, it's time for a reality check. "Hataz," as Auto-Tune aficionado T-Pain says, need to realize that nearly all of the songs played on popular radio stations feature computer interference. Think Britney Spears, The Backstreet Boys, Madonna or virtually any other pop artist. All that the Auto-Tune did was introduce the synthesized singing sound to a new genre.

Take T-Pain, the rap artist turned Auto-Tuned "sanga" that can safely be accredited with bringing Auto-Tune into the hip hop world. Critics have made T-Pain declare himself the "most hated-on artist" in the game, yet nowadays everyone seems to be sampling his style. Even veteran rap artist Diddy, who has been throwing down rhymes since the early '90s, has borrowed T-Pain's new tool. "I got permission from the Auto-Tune king, T-Pain," Diddy said of his upcoming CD to the Associated Press.

T-Pain has had more than 11 chart-topping hits in which he uses the Auto-Tune, a testament to the device's success. His catchy songs may not be deep or meaningful, but they feature a distinct sound which offers a bumpin' tune for those jammin' in the car or dancin' in the clubs.

Newly reborn rapper-turned-Auto-Tune-singer Kanye West has found great success in his strictly sung pop album, "808s and Heartbreak." Released in early November, the album already features three top ten hits. Critics such as SPIN Magazine's Charles Aaron have hailed West for "pushing creative boundaries." A mediocre singer, West has melded his infectious beats with his robotic melody, and it works, creating what has proven to be a winning combination on tracks like "Love Lockdown" and "Heartless," propelling the tunes to number one on the Billboard Top 100.

While the Auto-Tune can make anyone's vocals sound tolerable, it takes true talent to put out a big hit. "You still got to have the rhymes I have, the melodies I have, you got to have the songs I write - the reality songs - and still got to have people relate to what you're doing," T-Pain told the AP.

West's 2007 song, "Good Life," featuring T-Pain, sums up the Auto-Tune fight brilliantly. "If they hate, then let them haters hate, and watch the money pile up," West raps. Which is exactly what West and T-Pain continue to do with their popular music. The king of Auto-Tune said it best in an interview with "I don't understand why the most hated-on artist is being the most copied. Why can't they just own up to what I've done for this industry?"

David Tao says no: Auto-Tune generates mediocre, repetitive music and should be discontinued immediately.

There was once a time long ago when talent and authenticity reigned over radio. The '50s and '60s were home to acts like Elvis Presley and The Beatles, whose genre-fusing music provoked intense emotional reactions and left lasting marks on pop culture. The '80s heralded the birth of hip-hop, which artists such as Marley Marl and Run-DMC used to paint gritty portraits of urban life. Even the boy bands of the '90s were passable singers. Nowadays, musical themes and original ideas are completely trumped by marketability, hence: pretty-boy singers (read: lip-syncers), "gangsta" rappers living in suburbia and now, Auto-Tune.

Some believe that Auto-Tune is the next musical revolution, a new style akin to the 1950s revelation that country + blues = rock 'n roll. The difference: a country/blues mixture hadn't been done before. When T-Pain first introduced listeners to Auto-Tuned warble in his 2005 hits "I'm Sprung" and "I'm 'n Luv (Wit a Stripper)," he hit the music world with something that seemed new and original. In fact, talkboxes and vocoders, which provide near-identical sound effects, had already been used countless times throughout the '80s and '90s by Stevie Wonder and Roger Troutman. T-Pain himself admits that Troutman "has a lot to do" with his current style, but this hasn't stopped him from calling other Auto-Tune users "swagger jackers" and asking them to pay him royalties.

But when judging music, quality trumps originality. Constant Auto-Tuning promotes lackadaisical, unmotivated recording, as more artists rely on technology to correct growing lists of flaws. Recent Auto-Tuned collaborations between T-Pain and Lil' Wayne such as "Got Money" and "Can't Believe It" are testaments to the fact that popular music isn't always good music. While both songs reached the Billboard Hot 100's top ten, Lil' Wayne's choked-out vocal contributions seemed to rely on Auto-Tune alone to give them a sorry excuse for pitch.

In terms of feel-good music, there's no doubt that T-Pain and company are exploiting a winning formula. The club effects of Auto-Tune are "ridiculously hypnotic" and "[order] your feet to move," the Guardian reported. Indeed, Auto-Tuned chart-toppers like Lil' Wayne's "Lollipop" have intense dance floor appeal. But just as man cannot live on bread alone, a musical style cannot survive on just strippers and lollipops.

To truly succeed, the Auto-Tune needs more depth. Unfortunately, artists have yet to mint passionate work with the plug-in. T-Pain has said that he avoids the Auto-Tune on songs that have deep personal meaning to him. Other artists seeking to produce powerful material such as the highly successful, non-Auto-Tuned Ne-Yo, abstain from the plug-in altogether. "[Auto-Tune] takes the emotion out of your voice," Ne-Yo said.

The closest Auto-Tuned music has come to touching content has been Kanye West's recent release "808s and Heartbreak," which - despite constant references to a broken engagement and a deceased mother - is being promoted for its club appeal. "It's definitely one of those joints in the club," West says about "Amazin'," the album's collaboration with rapper Young Jeezy. He was also careful to state that the album's lead single, "Love Lockdown," was similarly danceable. "[Expletive] love it and [expletive] rock to what [expletive] dance to," West said.

Maybe instead of listening to copycats, we should stick to T-Pain, who seems to have the vision. "Auto-Tune is on its way out," T-Pain says on the outro of the "Can't Believe It" remix. Huzzah... now will the rest of the industry catch up?

Tags: Pro/Con

Jenna Bushnell. Jenna Bushnell likes sunshine and funfetti cupcakes. In her free time she enjoys excavating ancient Mayan temples, choreographing classic Broadway revivals, and smiling at strangers. For the right price, she will recite all of the words to "Rock Yo Hips" by Crime Mob. More »

David Tao. is, until he isn't. More »

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