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?