It’s been a few years since Jay-Z declared the “Death of Auto-Tune” on his album The Blueprint 3, but the pitch-enhancing software still features prominently in popular songs and on YouTube. Will.i.am, member of the Black Eyed Peas and judge on NBC’s “The Voice,” recently admitted to a reliance on Auto-Tune to execute his musical ideas with speed. He told Alan Carr, host of Britain’s “Alan Carr: Chatty Man,” “The computer allows me to make music, sing it myself, and not wait around for a singer to come along and sing the songs.”
Auto-Tune corrects intonation and is used in the industry to tweak small errors in music recordings and production. It can make a performer out of anyone with a computer, lending them the semblance of a good voice.
Artist T-Pain made the software his own. He brought it to the forefront of popular culture with his music, using it as an instrument. This style of intentionally altered and digitized vocals reflects T-Pain’s aesthetic. But Auto-Tune has been used since the late 1990s by artists across many genres. It allows producers to edit musicians and provides a safety net for performers. For this and other reasons, Auto-Tune will not likely disappear completely from the pop charts, whether listeners notice or not.
With the increasing use and promotion of the software, non-musicians co-opted it for recreation and shenanigans. Students at UW-Madison, for example, took a sober statement from the Dean of Students in early May and turned it into an auto-tuned mockery. She warned students to stop attending an annual block party known for excessive drinking, and students used the software to transform the Dean’s statements and make light of them.
Anyone can Auto-Tune the news or anything else with an audio track, for that matter. YouTube hosts tens of thousands of Auto-Tuned videos from original songs by amateurs to reinterpretations of music, spoken word, and home videos. The Emmy-winning comedy “Modern Family” on ABC even featured the software this past season when an embarrassing moment for the characters goes viral.
No, Auto-Tune is not dead, but it’s headed out of the spotlight. I’m not sure when the stylized Auto-Tune vocals will fade, but they are destined to do so, just as all musical trends pass. In its heyday the synthesizer featured across genres. It dominated the popular soundscape in the ‘80s. Now, music featuring the synth does so facetiously or feels outdated. Perhaps the synthesizer may return, but it will take on new interpretations. Music and cultural forms cycle through popularity, and Auto-Tune effects will not entertain the masses forever.
Jay-Z’s “Death of Auto-Tune” features a soprano saxophone and an electric guitar. His rapping is much better than his singing on the track. He obviously made a statement with the title and lyrics, but the instrumentation reinforced the message. Musicians should be able to perform without electronic correction. Auto-Tune is fun and current, but I, for one, want to hear the music underneath it.