When you listen to T-Pain, Cher, or any of the thousands of musicians with requisite software and computing skills,* and their thin, perfect sheets of Auto-Tuned melody spill from your speakers, one of the first things you do, without realizing and without the ability to stop yourself even if you wanted to, is imagine what kind of animal—what kind of human is making that noise?
Your pre-conscious mind notices that the vocalist approximates human emotion, but does so effortlessly, executing complex, instantaneous leaps across the musical landscape as if pitch space existed in quanta—discrete, allowable states in a vast, otherwise empty wasteland. The mechanisms at work in separating the gestalt of the voice from the chaotic space around it discern that the aggregate of those two streams is more forceful, more biting, because—like the resonant chamber of a laser, where the beams bounce back and forth in synchronized arcs of energy until they overcome the barrier of the system and emerge in a pattern so statistically improbable in nature that we can round it down to impossible—the unholy perfection of the sound-waves make a predictable pattern, something like a ladder across frequency space that your mind can easily partition it from the rest of the messy, chromatic world before you ever have to consciously trouble yourself with the task: one that (presently) remains impossible for our most advanced machines to do as perfectly as your brain does with every sonic event that cocks the thin, fleshy foot of your stapes.
When the noise has finally passed through nearly the entire architecture of your pre-conscious, and “you”-you are finally offered the chance to conceive of the event, you imagine what kind of human is making that noise, and may again settle on a word like effortless. This is the keystone of the Auto-Tune experience at a macro level, whether you are a willful participant in: the sublime, Lynchian rabbit-hole of The Weeknd, who uses the effortless perfection of Auto-Tune and his own demonstration of physical effort in pushing his voice to enhance his musical conceit of supervillan-trapped-by-a-coupling-of-his-insatiable-desires-and-otherworldly-power; the willfully juvenile fantasy of ideal-male-as-desire-guided-savant that T-Pain inhabits, where his own reliance on the electronics allow him to demonstrate mastery-without-effort, to range from casually tossed off lyrical content to sudden outbursts of sincerity—where sincerity is still something theatrical, governed by a highly reified currency of subjective desire—without overt measure or control: a savant; or the more simple, first example in Cher’s song—a relic from an earlier time—a conceit of singer/character-as-robot, whose emotion is abject even to itself, where the production asks us to join our heroine in the rapidly oscillating push and pull between critical abjection (“she’s not really doing it”) and blissful affirmation (“but she still means it”) that our first, naïve cultural exposure to the electronic effect is intended to induce; or finally, Bedhead’s cover of the song, which subverts the initial, frivolous impression of the tribute as a mere aural pun by pushing the emotional range of the effect further, quantizing the singer’s creaky, desperate vocalizations into a heartbreaking, unwilling melody, thereby highlighting the violence of the effect’s jerky, melodic artifacts: Auto-Tune-as-coercion, autotune-as-sweeping-environmental-zeitgeist-at-odds-with-our-singer-subject’s-wishes—how much effort it takes the singer merely to make noise! Auto-Tune is a bright plastic crutch for the voice to hobble on.
The notion of effort (and lack-thereof) is central to all of these high-level effects. Sure, the practicalities of consonance and clarity, in addition to the increasingly strict expectations that pop music have nurtured in modern listeners have contributed to the widespread adoption of Auto-Tune, but the success of the processor’s use as a foregrounded element in any given song is guided by its conceptual salience—whether that salience is the result of active, articulated efforts or simply trial-and-error until something sticks. And while perhaps the theoretical propriety of the effect does not always hinge on a dichotomy of effort, the question of physical and emotional investment seems to come up enough in discussions that it does not seem overcommital to spend some quality time with the issue in mind while listening to songs where it truly does work.
*Read: a copy of the signature audio processor from Antares and the ability to use a mouse without collapsing and foaming at the mouth.
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