We’ve all heard the grievances lobbed at Auto-Tune before; that it’s a stand-in for actual talent, that it strips away any humanity from a singer’s voice, that it just doesn’t sound good, etc. Towards the end of the ‘00s, the technology developed such a negative stigma that everybody from JAY Z to Death Cab for Cutie was taking public shots at it, fretting over the implication that a musician might be able to modify their voice in order to make better music. Call it a plea for authenticity, or perhaps just fear of a changing world, but when Auto-Tune began to dominate pop music, many treated it more like an epidemic than a novel sonic trend.
Needless to say, many artists have embraced the vocal technology with aplomb, and over the past several years we’ve seen some incredible work done in the field of vocal manipulation that could not exist were it not for everyone’s favorite pitch-corrector. Like any great electronic software, the magic isn’t really in the tools but the hands that use them. And with Auto-Tune in particular, the possibilities are ripe for contorting and inflating the human voice to extraterrestrial levels, whether in the mainstream or in the underground.
Respects must be paid to Kanye West, who were it not for his 2008 cybernetic reinvention statement 808s & Heartbreak or his 2010 masterpiece “Runaway” (the crowning vocal finale of which may be Auto-Tune’s finest moment), the sound certainly would not have taken root in the way that it has today. Whether it’s in the basement rap shenanigans of Lil Yachty and Sicko Mobb (whose digitized vocals soar with ecstatic, lovable amateurism), or in the dystopic, self-loathing warbles of Future, it often feels like Auto-Tune has become a tool for distorting and reinventing pop vocals rather than perfecting them, unveiling new depths in between the unnaturally shifting notes. Even breakout indie figures like Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver have gleefully taken to the tool, further blurring the lines of what kinds of music we commonly associate with the sound.
Much of the original gripe with Auto-Tune had to do with the sense of synthetic plasticity associated with just having a computer smooth out all of your melodies for you. It’s a completely natural instinct to crave that tactile, irreplaceable feel that comes with music made wholly from scratch, to say nothing of our society’s general paranoia over encroaching technological dependency. But the goal of art should always be to speak honestly, using whatever means are necessary to achieve that goal. In an age where artificiality rules the day, where human nature has become so deeply intertwined with algorithmic machinery, is it possible that a technology designed to turn our imperfections into beautiful music could be one of the most real things we have at our disposal?