About that Beyonce video where her voice sounded terrible and everyone started talking about autotune…
I have to say first off that, while it cracked me up, I didn’t really believe Beyonce could possibly sing that bad, unless her monitors were out of wack or the sound in the Today Show plaza was so absurdly unbalanced that she couldn’t hear her accompanists, etc. If there is any pop star in whose talent I have total faith, it’s Beyonce.
But I don’t want to talk about Beyonce. I want to talk about autotune.
There was a time in my life when I thought I would go to trade school to learn recording engineering. I was eying a school in Orlando called Full Sail Academy, and went there for a day to take a tour and listen to their spiel. They took us around to their studios and showed us some of the technologies we’d learn how to use. It was the first time I’d ever been exposed to auto-voice-tuning technology. They walked us through a demonstration of how the technology could be used to cosmetically tweak a vocal performance. Coming from a lifetime of classical training, I was fascinated. It was like I’d spent my whole life tying my pants together with strings and then someone turned me onto buttons and zippers.
I didn’t see autotune as a cheating mechanism. It just made sense to me that, when recording, you would want to capture the song in its most optimum state. I had yet to develop the ideas I now have about flawed performances being far more honest to the song. I just figured, if you’re going to spend the time and money to, figuratively, carve a song in stone, you may as well get it exactly the way you want it.
I still theoretically appreciate that, as a songwriter. I know when I play a song onstage by myself, it never sounds the way it sounds in my head. If I had my druthers, some songs would be accompanied by a six-piece orchestra, a small horn section. There might be four-part harmony in spurts. There might be some other distant sound effects I wish I had to enhance a five-note phrase. It’s not plausible to have all those people accompany me live because the next song could call for an entirely different instrumental lineup. I’d have to haul 30 people to gigs with me, to shape-shift from song to song. In the studio, I could take the time to make the songs sound exactly the way they did in my head when I wrote them. If there’s a note my voice can’t handle, I’ll just sing a different note onstage. In the studio, though, the temptation to imperfectly hit the optimum note and then autotune it is strong. I’ve never done this, mind you, but I understand the inclination.
But I also don’t believe that, nine times out of ten, autotune is employed for this purpose. I think it’s mostly become industry standard because pretty people who can’t really sing are much more marketable than not-so-pretty people who can. I can’t help but think it’s part of what’s dogging the recording industry – the focus on appearances. Having the right look still matters, which is absurd, of course. It feels like the rest of us adults (there will always be a market for unattainable beauty and perfection among starry-eyed tweens) – perhaps because of the disconnection offered us by the internet and digital downloads, all that stuff we’ve been talking about on here in terms of the way the media and entertainment industry are changing – are seeking out more raw, honest expression. Indie artists are making it a habit to record live to tape, rejecting ProTools and all its easy, sleek accessibility. That the corporate recording industry, in all its gripping and flailing to survive the digitized world, is still seeking out artists who can look good and be technologically manipulated into sounding passable, is just kind of sad to me.
The perpetrator of this particular goof, Michael Zeghibe, told Rolling Stone, “The entire industry has been so manipulated, because there’s such an emphasis on perfection, so when something like this happens, it causes such a stir.” Beyonce’s career, of course, is hardly hurt in the process. She knows she can actually sing, that all she has to do is show up and do her job. Her response to the “controversy” indicates as much. Clearly she gets that Zeghibe was trying to make a point, and I think it’s a good one. Well done, Mike!