Sunday, September 06, 2009

Catching Up With Auto-Tune

I was about to post the link to the latest edition of Auto-Tune the News (#8) to the new Twitter feed when I stopped to consider that many of the current readers of Blognabbit/Twignabbit may be a bit old/white/tired/busy to have much pop-cultural context.

When I confirmed that neither Christa nor Tim were familiar with the seven previous editions I knew I needed to write more than six words about it.

"Auto-Tune" is the brand name of a digital audio processing technology used to correct pitch (on vocals or instruments). Since its creation in the 1990s it's been used to subtly (and unsubtly) modify musical performances both in the studio and live on stage, by pushing tones forcibly into perfectly tuned pitch.

Cher's single "Believe" (1998) was the first American pop hit to use Auto-Tune as a conscious aesthetic effect, with the settings cranked into overdrive. Previous uses of the technology had worked to hide its presence. At its most extreme, Auto-Tune eliminates the voice's natural ability to glide between pitches, creating a synthetic stair-step effect. Cher and her producers took what had been considered a quirk and placed it into the foreground.

While I primarily associate Auto-Tune with the singing of The Backyardigans, anyone listening to Top 40 radio or music videos since 2007 (anyone? anyone?) would have heard and seen the rise of singer-producer T-Pain as the new king* of Auto-Tune, who has been popping up with hyper-processed backing vocals and refrains on hit after hit** on the R&B and hip-hop charts. While the technology was more than a decade old (and available to anyone with a Mac and Garageband), T-Pain brought a particular gift for Auto-Tuned lyrical hooks and melodies that have continued to keep him in high demand. His surge in popularity led to a revival of Auto-Tune among a variety of artists across multiple pop musical genres.

In June 2008 Sasha-Frere Jones was clueing in readers of The New Yorker to the reign of T-Pain. But by the beginning of 2009 T-Pain's ubiquity had started to become a punch line--one the singer was happy to play along with, kicking off Saturday Night Live's (i.e. The Lonely Island's) "I'm On a Boat" (clean or uncensored YouTube links) with his trademark call "Shawt-ay-ay!"***

This past spring saw the debut of "Auto-Tune the News", a loopy series of music videos applying Auto-Tune to political speeches and television talking heads. Ridiculous wigs, a gorilla costume, and low-tech greenscreen effects belie the creators' lyrical and musical dexterity, as they spin the words of Joe Biden, Newt Gingrich, Katie Couric (their favorite muse), and a variety of members of Congress into Auto-Tuned musical gold. (Interspersed with several "Shawt-ay-ays".)

Here's the 6th edition, featuring Anoka's own queen of darkness Michelle Bachman, plus Nancy Pelosi, minority leader John Boehner, Sarah Palin, and Jackson Family attorney Brian Oxman:

In June Jay-Z declared the "Death of Auto-Tune" with the lead single off his new album, criticizing other artists for "T-Painin' too much." But despite his seniority in the rap world (or perhaps because of it), his exhortation won't likely dim the use of the technology any time soon, if a quick listen across the top 40 charts in Pop, R&B, Country, and Hip-Hop offers any indication.

Which brings us to this week, and the release of Auto-Tune the News #8. The latest edition features none other than: T-Pain, who turns his appearance into a commercial for his other new release of the week: the "I Am T-Pain" iPhone app.

The app is a collaboration between T-Pain, Antares (the originators of the technology), and Smule--a top-notch iPhone developer that grew out of Stanford's electronic music performance department, making it no mere novelty. For $2.99 you can download a mobile version of Auto-Tune with which you use your iPhone/iPod for on-demand vocal processing.

And by branding it as a T-Pain experience (with the app's name and icon), the "king" keeps his name synonymous with the technology, even if its only use is to goof off with your buddies while you're waiting in line for a movie (the app also makes it easy to share via MySpace and Facebook).

Within a couple of days the application reached the #1 spot among paid apps in iTunes. Meaning that Jay-Z's proclamation notwithstanding, it remains T-Pain's world. We just sing "Shawt-ay-ay" in it.

Here's a playlist of all of the Auto-Tune the News videos, in sequential order. It'll take a good half hour if you want to watch them straight through. (YouTube link):

And I'm assuming you've seen "I'm On a Boat", right? Because that thing gets funnier every time you watch it. (clean or uncensored)

Here's T-Pain's website, YouTube channel, and Twitter feed.

And if you're not sick of it by now, here's another funny internet video positing the use of Auto-Tune in the workplace.


*Given the outfits and antics he often displays in music videos, T-Pain could as easily be described by overeducated postgrads as the clown prince--or even mascot--of Auto-Tune.

**"Good Life" with Kanye West (winner of the 2008 Grammy for Best Rap Song), "Kiss Kiss" with Chris Brown (prior to Brown's domestic violence conviction), "Low" with Flo Rida (a favorite on the Ellen show), plus tons more. You can check out iTunes' "Essentials" list of the top T-Pain tracks for sale.

***An Auto-Tuned pronunciation of "Shawty", itself a variant of "Shorty", the 00s alternate for "Girl".


Deirdre said...

OK. This must be published in the New Yorker. This is the most incisive piece of journalism written this year. Pulitzer Prize? Can we get a Pulitzer over here puh-leeeese? I've always been puzzled by that whole auto tune gimmick but had never heard it applied to the spoken voice.

Also, I loved hearing about Auto Tune after taking a Balinese gamelon class this summer. The multiple instruments that make up the gamelon are all meticulously tuned with a metal file so that each instrument is slightly out of tune with the one next to it. So you get this beautiful, amazing ring. Where would the gamelon be with Auto Tune?

thanks for the brilliance.

cjereneta said...

Did you follow the link to the Sasha Frere-Jones piece?

THAT GUY knows how to write for the New Yorker, weaving in the past
of Auto-Tune's inventor as a geologist.

I've got an album of bluegrass-hip-hop (Google "Gangstagrass") in which you hear
what auto-tune does to a banjo. NOT PRETTY.