Friday, February 13, 2009

TIME-ly (??) music article

The current issue of TIME magazine has a lengthy story on Auto-Tune, the music pitch-changing software. We'll agree to ignore the fact that this article is largely a ripoff of a New Yorker piece from last June (Cher? Check. T-Pain? Check. Retune speed to zero, instead of the normal 10? Check.)

What is most remarkable about this article is its remarkable lack of timeliness, given how long Auto-Tune has been used to fix wobbly or, let's face it, non-existent pitch in our top singers. There are people out there who essentially can't sing, but they are propped up by technology. I understand that's always been true to some extent; listen to any record where the lead singer is "augmented" by backing vocals in certain difficult spots.

The technology behind this is fascinating, but there is a line that I think we're crossing now. If you caught the Grammys last weekend, you could hear that Taylor Swift and Katy Perry clearly cannot sing at all, yet on recordings they sound fine.

I think there may be people who don't quite understand that a song is just another data file, like a spreadsheet or a memo. Just as the latter two can be changed at will, so can music. If a producer wants to make Britney Spears sound like Leontyne Price, no problem, just boot the computer and change a few numbers.

To be fair, the TIME article does touch on some of this near the end, claiming that pop's current soullessness may well be the result of this technology. I don't know about that, I think corporatization of the industry may be more the culprit, as we take the photogenic (but talent-free) and turn them into brands. We also have a perverse reward structure, which takes a songwriter of some potential like Swift and provides incentives for her to become a performer, despite little aptitude in that area.

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