Kennicott Off-Pitch on Auto-Tune; or, Oh, The T-Pain of It All
Philip Kennicott, former classical critic for the Washington Post and current overall culture ponderer, knows a lot more about opera than I do, and he’s a wonderful writer; I don’t always agree with his pieces, but they’re normally thought-provoking. But (and you knew a “but” was coming) his article in yesterday’s Post about the intersection of operatic ideals and Auto-Tuned reality contained so many inaccuracies and misconceptions that it nearly ruined my breakfast. (Fortunately, Frosted Mini-Wheats are ultimately indomitable.) Here are the most problematic parts and my objections thereto:
[Auto-Tune] can also be used to turn spoken speech into sung melody, although the results usually have a rather robotic or metallic sound that is familiar in hip-hop recordings, especially those of T-Pain, a rapper and songwriter who uses the technology so extensively that it has become something of a joke in the industry.
T-Pain is not a rapper; he’s a singer who uses AutoTune to give his melodic lines the “robotic or metallic” tang to which Kennicott refers. The title of T-Pain’s first album is, in fact, “Rappa Ternt Sanga,” which (if you can sound it out) should have been a clue.
I also dispute the proposition that T-Pain’s extensive use of AutoTune is something of a joke in the industry. Rather, the discussion I’ve read lauds T-Pain as a pioneering virtuoso in the expressive use of AutoTune, with his followers lamented for their derivativeness. The most prominent rappers to make extensive use of AutoTune are Lil’ Wayne and Kanye West, and both have cited T-Pain as an exemplar. If, by “the industry,” Kennicott means some group of people outside hip-hop and R&B, maybe what he’s saying is true — I really don’t know.
Kennicott may have been confused by the fact that Weezy and Kanye both became famous as rappers, but both sing (just like T-Pain) in order to get melodic effects in AutoTune. Their endeavors thus differ from those of the Gregory Brothers, who do actually create song from speech.
This is not how the game is played on YouTube. The medium is fundamentally hungry for content, and Auto-Tune is the perfect technology to supply it. Based on the vocoder, a machine that was used to disguise radio transmissions during World War II, Auto-Tune can process speech into music quickly and without need for an actual singer. This has made it controversial: Some pop artists have vociferously protested its overuse.
When I first read this paragraph, I thought Kennicott had forgotten to insert the modifier “competent” before “singer,” because the chief way in which Auto-Tune plagues pop music is not by processing speech into song but allowing people who can’t stay on pitch to sound tolerable on records (see Ke$ha, for one of a million examples). In my readings, it’s this use that “pop artists” protest, not the use of Auto-Tune by folks screwing around on YouTube. (In the case of “The Bed Intruder Song,” no less than Paramore’s Hayley Williams has participated in a cover, one datum countering Kennicott’s assertion.)
This paragraph also reveals a more fundamental problem with Kennicott’s article: He writes like Auto-Tune itself roams the land looking to transform people’s speech into marketable song. Auto-Tune is a tool, like a potato masher. You can use a potato masher to do great things, like make mashed potatoes, and you can use it to do terrible things, like overmash potatoes into an inedible gluey paste. (Incidentally, it might have been nice for Kennicott to further distinguish between the vocoder, a piece of hardware, and Auto-Tune, which is phase vocoder software sold by Antares Audio Technologies.) Kennicott further misidentifies the problem in the conclusion of the article:
With Auto-Tune, “first the words, then the music” seems like a joke — the technological realization of an old operatic dream, but at the loss of something elemental, the actual human sympathy that makes us care about what people are singing.
Human beings (in this case, the Gregory Brothers, although they have many followers) are using Auto-Tune to realize that old operatic dream. Kennicott’s article leaves wide open the possibility that someone (apparently not the Gregory Brothers) could take speech and transform it into emotionally complex, affecting music. The right Auto-Tune enthusiast simply hasn’t come along yet. What Kennicott meant to write is something like “With songs like ‘Bed Intruder’…” That he didn’t seems to betray a lack of understanding or engagement, either of which are enough to make this article less that it could have been. Which is too bad, because its central point (as I understand it, “Bed Intruder” = prima le parole) is something I genuinely had not considered before.
In my readerly experience, there is a blithe assurance about much classical-critic writing about pop, seeming to come from the idea that this pop stuff can’t be that complicated. And others are complicit; the Post advertised Kennicott’s piece to me on my Facebook feed as “the most intelligent piece you’re ever likely to read about auto-tuning the news,” which I hope is not true, for reasons discussed above. (And although the Post’s Facebook minder mistakenly lowercased “Auto-Tune,” at least the article bothered to spell “T-Pain” correctly, which not all classical blogs do.)
One of the lines I’m proudest of on this blog is here: “In their recordings, the ladies of Trio Mediaeval sing with an almost eerie precision and purity, like some kind of divine rebuke to the use of AutoTune” [lack of hyphen sic]. That line uses common cultural currency to show how adept the Mediaeval ladies are at a specific type of vocal virtuosity: Anyone who knows pop can understand one reason to listen to these performers. People who know anything about Auto-Tune and read Kennicott’s article, by contrast, probably will be put off by the basic lack of understanding therein. (Reader comments on the article, entirely negative as of this writing, express frustration with Kennicott’s disapproval of the “Bed Intruder Song,” but it’s not hard to imagine that he might have been taken more seriously if he’d shaped up his Auto-Tune discussion, perhaps running it by Chris Richards first.) If we classical music enthusiasts are going to get people fired up to learn more about this music we enjoy so much, we’re first going to have to stop misunderstanding the music they like. (Not to mention that we’ll need to stop deriding it, but I already covered that.
Also, I saw the Janacek reference coming a mile away.