Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Britney Spears, auto-tune, and pop music masks

by Anna Acosta

Editor's note: auto-tune is now the generic name for digital pitch correction, which is sometimes automatic or automated.

Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images
The use of auto-tune continues to drive debate in the musical community. In some genres, it is viewed as the great evil. Other genres have been created based entirely on auto-tune’s over-use. Recently, someone released a recording of Britney Spears singing her latest radio hit “Alien” sans auto-tune. The results are rather cringe-worthy. 

Naturally, a discussion sprung up concerning the use of auto-tune in today’s (pop) music. Are we being sold a lie? Is auto-tune ethical? Can anyone really sing anymore? These are the questions that get thrown around. They are good questions. They also miss the point entirely.

The vocal booth is an interesting place. Any vocalist knows that the human voice is a temperamental instrument. Additionally, very little information has been released regarding the clip in question. There are a lot of factors that should be considered when judging any singular recording. These factors become irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, because at the end of the day, none of us were there.

The clip was rumored to be a warm-up take. It’s possible Spears was not feeling well at the time, or her levels weren't where they needed to be. Even the very best ears can be misled, when a vocalist's headphones or monitors aren't quite right. Perhaps Spears was merely having a bad day. Perhaps she really is a bit tone deaf. Perhaps.

As tempting as it can be to dive into the world of unverifiable conjecture, it serves very little purpose in cases like this. Even more crucial to consider than Spears’s instrument is what she represents in this case – the pop artist of the 21st century. This isn't just about the music. That isn't to say there is no quality musicianship in pop music. For every awful pop song, there is a phenomenal one.

Pop music is about so much more than music – it’s about image, and it’s about an experience. When you’re part of a finely tuned machine, where the bottom line holds the key to your image, and positioning, the pressure on artists like Spears is immense. Perfection is expected, to the point that it matters more than musicianship. Performances must be flawless. As a result, no one should be surprised (or offended) by a heavy use of auto-tune. This is exactly what we've asked for.

As album sales become less and less of a primary income source for major labels, and their artists, the music itself becomes a loss leader. The necessity to be flawless comes more and more into play. A pop concert today--regardless of the sub-genre--is a heavily manufactured, closely controlled production designed to give the viewer an experience that goes far beyond the purposely formulaic, sometimes trite music that's put on display. 

No one goes to a pop concert to connect with the music itself. That simply isn't the function it serves. The shows are too expensive, and too difficult to get to (between the crowds, the lines, and the overzealous fans) for it to just be about the music. Fans want a payoff for their investment, and the only way to guarantee that payoff is by masking reality to a certain extent. Auto-tune is merely one weapon in an arsenal of ways to make pop prettier.

Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images
In many ways, a pop show is like a magic show. Fans see and hear what they want to see and hear. The illusion that it is not manufactured is comforting. Any vitriol that results from the illusion being stripped away is simply because people do not like to admit that they have willingly bought into a system that cares more about image than the music it is supposed to represent. It is the dirty little secret that everyone knows, but nobody wants to admit to knowing.

Pop shows are backing tracks. Pop shows are mimed instruments. Pop shows are real-time auto-tune. Pop shows are heavily rehearsed monologues and moments of “sincerity.”  Pop music is bought likes, views, and followers. Pop music is about choreography and to-the-letter details, all painstakingly chosen to achieve that untouchable image and air of perfection. It offers an escape, an outlet, where people can disconnect for three minutes from the messy realities of day-to-day life to a place where everything happens exactly the way one would expect it to . . . until the song ends.

To blame pop for striving to achieve perfection by any means necessary is to blame it for doing exactly what it is supposed to do. Pop music is not being dishonest or lying to its listeners, or pretending to be something that it is not. It is serving the very purpose that it was created to serve. It will continue to do that as long as there are crowds of people willing to sing along.


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