Tuesday, June 9, 2009

In Defense of Auto-Tune

By Evan Rytlewski
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Allow me to join the chorus of bloggers largely calling out Jay-Z for his pandering new single "D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)." It's discouraging that Jay-Z would hone in on a lightning rod as tired as Auto-Tune; does this mean we can expect The Blueprint 3 to contain an Octo-Mom diss track? What about an admonishment of tabloid culture? Or an indictment of reality television?

So is Jay-Z a genuine anti-Auto-Tune crusader or is he just trying to drum up some cheap "Hip-Hop Is Dead"-styled controversy to advance his new album? I'd bet on the later, since in an interview shortly after the song's leak, Jay-Z dissed Auto-Tune but pardoned the device's three biggest benefactors: T-Pain, Lil Wayne and Kanye West, since they have "good melody." That's like submitting a critique of the Bush administration's foreign policy, but insisting it doesn't apply to Bush, Cheney or Rumsfeld, since they're great leaders.

But even if his heart were in it, Jay-Z's crusade would be misguided. Though the Auto-Tune has become a popular target for those who prefer their hip-hop unchanged from the 1990s, as well as close-minded curmudgeons who aren't particularly inclined to like pop music to begin with, the device has actually facilitated some of the best commercial rap records of the last couple years, opening doors for performers who might otherwise be reticent to sing. Kanye West is the most obvious example: As a singer whose pitchy at best and utterly awful at worst, he never would have been able to record a boundary-pushing album like 808s and Heartbreak without the creative leeway the Auto-Tune provided. Lil Wayne, similarly, only began to explore his singing voice with the assistance of Auto-Tune's training wheels. The device helped him earn his sea legs, and he's since revealed himself as one of the most uniquely soulful voices of his time.

I'm not making excuses for every crappy Black Eyed Peas/Ron Brownz song on the radio, though it's doubtful those songs would be any better without Auto-Tune, anyway.

Auto-Tune as we know it now, as an exaggerated effect that creates robotic, warbly voices, is a novelty that will soon pass, but the device will continue to play an important but less visible roll quietly correcting pitches and smoothing over flubbed notes behind the scenes. That might anger traditionalists who believe that the only good note is a natural note (Neko Case is apparently in this camp), but it will also open up a lot of doors for musicians of all genres. There's an old maxim that all the best rock singers couldn't sing. Well, now there's a device that enables these musicians, if they so choose, to sing better. How is that a bad thing? 

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