The Trouble With Auto-Tune

The British show that launched “American Idol,” X-Factor, admitted that it had used Auto-Tune, an audio processor that corrects a singer’s pitch and tone. An 18-year-old contestant named Gamu Nhengu sang just a little too well in the show’s seventh season premiere, and fans and critics started hinting at conspiracy on the web, especially via the show’s Facebook page. Finally, a spokesman for “X-Factor” confessed that Auto-Tune was used to fix disruptions caused by the many microphones used on stage during the telecast, but that the judge’s decisions were definitely based on the actual, non-Auto-Tuned performances of contestants. The show’s producers, he assured the public, only used the processor to “deliver the most entertaining experience possible for viewers.”

I’m sure that is true. This is exactly the reason TV executives rigged the quiz shows in the 1950’s. It is the reason why TV reality shows are scripted, and why NBA stars get away with game fouls that referees call against lesser players. Any competition’s entertainment value is enhanced by better competitors and more suspenseful action. The problem is that once spectators know or suspect that they are being manipulated, they stop watching at all. The fact that Simon Cowell’s UK hit would use the device immediately roused “American Idol” conspiracy theorists, and  Cowell to immediately announced an Auto-Tune ban.

Banning the surreptitious use of Auto-Tune does not solve all the inherent ethical problems, however. Talent is valuable and exciting because it is unique. An ethereal high C, a perfectly turned metaphor, a surgical backhand down the line and the ability to make Prince Hamlet come to life are all the results of genetic  gifts enhanced by the owner’s dedication and hard work. As drugs and technology make it possible for lesser talents to achieve, or seem to achieve, the same results as the truly talented, talent loses its value as well as its power to entertain. It becomes no longer rare, and once that occurs, it is easy to take it for granted. Once anyone can sing like Pavarotti, Sinatra, Garland and Ray Charles, why should we be impressed by the originals?

“Glee,” the hit TV series about an extra-curricular school performing choir, has inured its fans to impossibly perfect,  slick—and Auto-Tuned—performances far beyond the ability of any real high school singers. Its characters’ manufactured brilliance risk making the most impressively talented real-life high school performers seem second-rate. Given enough exposure, the ersatz will set the standard, making the artificial mandatory. Today Americans of both sexes are obsessed with achieving levels of beauty literally unachievable by anyone but genetic freaks, the rich, people who can work out all day, and those willing to undergo cosmetic surgery. What was once considered natural beauty is now not recognized as beauty at all. Meanwhile, those who have achieved genuine beauty, by whatever means, are indistinguishable from the surgically perfected faces in the crowd.

One of the greatest live performance recordings of all time is that of Judy Garland’s famous comeback concert in Carnegie Hall. Judy was amazing that night, but she was far from perfect. Her voice cracked here and there; she hit some clunkers; she even forgot the words at one point. Nonetheless, it was an epic performance and a high point in her career, and listeners can thrill to that in part because of the flaws. They prove that what we are hearing is the real Judy, and they remind us how unimaginably difficult it is to blow away a concert hall full of adoring fans for nearly two hours.

Auto-Tune may be fine for making a karaoke performance less horrible, but as a device to enhance the performances of professionals, it is a blight on civilization. Its very existence will make audiences doubt true talent, and its use risks making the untalented, barely talented, and talented indistinguishable. It also deadens our resistance to the artificial and fake, just like the use of steroids in sports produced more shrugs that outrage today.

Technology cannot be stopped. Auto-Tune is here to stay, and I fear its cultural damage will be done no matter despite bans and the howls from those who think real reality, not the reality show kind, is more exciting than the artificially enhanced versions of it.

I hope I’m wrong.ting?

17 thoughts on “The Trouble With Auto-Tune

  1. Unfortunately, Jack, I don’t think you are wrong at all. What is behind Auto-Tune is the same intention behind giving everyone a passing grade in school, and making sure that, as in Lake Wobegon, all the children are above average. We can’t have losers, because it would injure their self-esteem, as if somehow, falsely constructed winners don’t injure the self-esteem of those who just barely lost through their own unenhanced efforts. It’s part of why America is so looked down upon by those in the rest of the world who have not been hooked by the “politically correct” ideology that has corrupted the sense of reality, and of real beauty, in our society, and in our world.

  2. Jack,
    Not that I necessarily disagree, but I’m not quite willing to label studio magic as patently unethical. The Beatles were one of the first bands to utilize studios in such a way as to create sound that simply couldn’t be duplicated live — and it changed popular music. Creating something artificial doesn’t rob from the genuine article as long as it’s not deceptive.

    Moreover, whatever ethical issues may apply in the case of American Idol don’t translate in regards to Glee. The characters and situations are clearly fictional and the performances are meant to entertain (which, to some, they do) and neither the producers nor actors have every tried passing the performances off as real.

    -Neil

  3. I’m obviously working on becoming a major curmudgeon, perhaps premature, but practice makes perfect, as they say. Besides, I’ve definitely seen the correlation between being a nice person and getting cancer, so I’m doing my best to avoid such a demise.

  4. I agree that there’s a fine line between making John Lennon sound like he’s under water in “Lucy in the Skies” and making Jimmy Durante sould like Bette Midler, but the line is there. I knew that was Lennon’s real voice being manipulated. The first problem is not disclosing the Auto-Tune—that’s deception. The second is creating the illusion that people sing flawlessly when they don’t. That’s deception too.

    Being a stage director of musicals for three decades, I believe that live performance is exciting because of the uncertainty and variation in performance. Lip-synced Auto-Tuned “Glee” performances, to me, are like theme park stage shows: sterile, fake, and uninteresting.

    • Jack,
      I see little difference between editing music using Autotune and adding special effects to film. The goal of music is to entertain and some find “flaws” irritating.

      I agree it’s atrocious and tacky and uninteresting .. but none of that makes it unethical (in the case of Glee, anyways).

      -Neil

          • Hey, thanks for reminding me—I was going tp comment further on the special effects analogy.
            Special effects also cheapened talent. It is now impossible to film anyone doing anything remarkable for real in an entertainment context, because the audience won’t believe it. An actor doing his own stunts is no more impressive than a stunt double. It robs the real talents of their due. In Alien 4, Sigourney Weaver swears that she really sank a basket with her back turned in the shot that was used for the movie…she is annoyed that the cropping of the shot looks like someone just drops the ball in the basket out of camera range. She says she practiced and practiced to do the shot for real. It would have enhanced enjoyment of the film to know that it was really happenening, but we can’t be sure any more.

            One reason “The Ten Commandments” is so impressive now is that there really is a crowd of extras leaving Egypt with Moses…it feels real; it’s an amazing scene logistically. Is a CGI-generated crowd as impressive? No. But today’s audiences won’t know the difference. If you and Neil want to do the same to music, you’re wrong. Film was always about artifice….a singer’s voice is a natural instrument, and we should be able to judge the skill and quality of it. I’m sure eventually voices will be flawlessly generated by machine, and a “singer” will be a surgically enhanced goddess who perfectly lip-syncs to a mechanically-generated sound that simulates what was once called a human singing voice. And someone with a real singing voice? Who needs her?

  5. I put together an audition CD for a friend once years ago. She had a wonderful, world class voice (she was auditioning for a Lincoln Center performance) but was depressed because she had heard several recent audition tapes that were just outrageously good. She was wondering if she wasn’t good enough to compete with the latest generation of talent. That is when I had to introduce her to auto-tune-like software. She wanted me to do that to her tapes too. I told her that she shouldn’t, that the selection committee should be aware of the software, and that her performances were obviously not modified. I have always wondered if that was good advice because SHE didn’t know what was going on, the selection committees might not either. At least she didn’t quit and her career took off.

  6. Why does auto-tune even matter? Why make something harder than it has to be?

    This happens EVERY time a technological advancement comes out. In the early Industrial age, skilled workers rioted because machines were able to make them obsolete. Their “talents” were no longer necessary, and, if the world hadn’t moved on, we’d be stuck making cars with our hands.

    In some cases, I agree, autotune is bad, but it can only be bad if it actually worsens the song in any kind of noticeable way, like how a bad bassline throws off the rest of the song. There shouldn’t be some kind of moral objection to it, though. That’s just silly.

    Autotune allows artists who maybe have ok singing abilities and good songwriting/composing abilities to create something that they can hear. It can’t, and probably never will, replace singers like Elton John, but it’s a TOOL. Accept the song for what it sounds like, autotune or not.

    • Both a legitimate attitude and a defensible one….pretty much like steroids. A genuine talent who has worked on the craft of singing diligently can be surpassed by lesser talent relying on technology. This is elevating the artistic product over the artist, which is a commercial choice, but essentially anti-artist. In commerce, making the product primary makes sense. Art has traditionally been a personal creative act first, and a product second. Do we value the artist with the most developed talent or the best technology (and resources to purchase it)? If it is the latter, than you are correct.

      • A very good response, but I think I my use of the industrial revolution as an example clouded one of my points: Autotune isn’t so much replacing artistic and musical talent so much as it is *changing* it. There are thousands of kinds of musical skills, and this is simply making a few redundant and a few more important. Before the microphone, I would think that singing talent would be considered more a strength of the choir rather than individual person. The talent was being able to sing together, not alone. Projecting individual emotion became more important when the need for audible choirs diminished.

        Even before then: What do we remember Beethoven for? He’s one of the most famous musicians of all times, but he wasn’t famous for singing OR playing instruments. He was famous and immortalized for the songs he wrote using “talents” that were not his own. I do confess that corporations will be able to make money on music that is neither artistically sung nor created (….Ke$ha -.-), but that doesn’t mean that autotune can’t be used to help artists bring their creativity out and actually create music. IMHO, these *new* musicians should confess that they have poor vocals, but others should not think that these people don’t have talent. It’s just a different kind of talent.

        • Great point on the microphone. I don’t know where I stand on this topic, but it would seem that in the days before microphones, the argument would be – “Singers who can BOTH project their voices to larger audiences AND carry a tune are the TRUE talent in the industry. These microphones will only allow quieter people to start getting into the ranks of singers, diminishing the real talent.”

          I think the razor is: Does a Technology project to more people the *specific* talent in question or does it falsely manufacture the talent where it previous did not exist.

          In the case of Singing, it would seem to me that ability to keep to the melody without harsh off-tune noises is the talent, in which case a microphone doesn’t modify that, only projects it. Were this a “who is the loudest person in the world” competition, the ‘talent’, being volume, would be artificially manufactured by a microphone.

          Auto-Tune, then, IS NOT UNETHICAL, rather how and in what circumstances it is applied is unethical.

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