As much as many of us can’t stand the excessive amount of auto-tune being used in music, YouTube, and even television, its prevalence suggests to me that it a special case among effects being used today. There has been much debate about the use of auto-tune in contemporary music. Many music critiques and sophisticated listeners scoff at its exploitation, immediately dismissing auto-tuned music as inauthentic and auto-tuned artists as lazy singers. Yet how could an effect become so popular if its only purpose is to fix “lazy” human error? If listeners enjoy such an effect, have they too become inauthentic and innately lazy people? With little real evaluation of auto-tune available, I propose an examination of the history of the use of auto-tune to get some background traction and then an analysis of its use with the hopes of getting to its core to answer the question: Why has auto-tune permeated most media in such a short period of time and with such extreme application? I think the answer to this question lies in our longing for controlled intimacy with technology and the digital.
Auto-tune began as a tool developed by Exxon engineer Andy Hildebrand. Hildebrand was using sound waves to locate oil reserves under the ocean using a technique called “auto-correlation,” in which sound waves were sent into the Earth and their reflections were then recorded with a geophone (Frere-Jones, "The Gerbil's Revenge"). Hildebrande soon discovered that his technique could detect pitch in addition to oil. In 1997, Hildebrand’s firm Antares released “Auto-tune,” a plug-in that corrects pitch in vocal and instrumental performances (A Brief History of Antares). Basically, auto-tune can locate the pitch of a recorded instrument or voice and then adjust this to the correct pitch in a “user-specified scale (including minor, major, chromatic and 26 historical and microtonal scales),” matching human input with virtual scale pitch (Auto-tune 7). When the retune speed is set to its maximum, natural bending between notes is replaced by “zig-zag” movement, resulting in the “gerbil” or “robotic” sound we know today as the “T-pain effect” or the “Cher effect” (Frere-Jones, "The Gerbil's Revenge)
The history of auto-tube begins with Cher. In 1998, Cher released “Believe,” becoming the first song to make use of auto-tune as an explicit desired effect and as we know it today.
Throughout 1999, the song peaked number one on the Hot 100, number two on Pop Songs, number one on Dance/Club Play Songs, number three on Adult Contemporary, and number five on Adult Pop Songs, and it remained on the charts for 31, 26, 15, 1, and 16 weeks respectively (Billboard, Believe-Cher) With such popularity, it is clear that there was something special about this effect even in its early stages. If the effect had died here, or even maintained a relatively short period of popularity, one could argue that its attractiveness was due to a fascination with something new. However, this is just the beginning of a story that is continuing some 12 years later.
After “Believe,” auto-tune took a break from its explicit role in “Believe,” making small appearances correcting pitch errors in pop songs such as Maroon Five’s “She Will be Loved,” Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated,” and Unkle Kracker’s “Follow Me” (Auto-tune Abuse In Pop Music — 10 Examples). However, the most significant chapter in auto-tune, and the part of its story I wish to explore, begins with T-pain. Beginning in 2005, T-pain released a serious of auto-tuned hits such as “I’m Sprung,” “Bartender,” and “Freeze” that changed its role in music. Where sparring use of auto-tune had become the norm before T-pain, its use shifted to back to an explicit, desired, computerized effect. “Freeze” by T-pain is a quintessential example of the type of robotic sound we are familiar with today.
In a single week in 2007, T-pain had four songs in the Billboard top 100 all making heavy use of auto-tune (Frere-Jones, "The Gerbil's Revenge"). With such hits, T-pain started a revolution. Auto-tune became and still is now everywhere on the radio, with uses ranging from moderate, with artists such as Rascal Flatts, Tim McGraw, and Faith Hill, to extreme pitch correction, with artists such as Lil’ Wayne, Rihanna, Snoop Dog, and Chris Brown. Almost all songs go through some form of auto-tune, and pop songs are especially extreme in their use of the effect. It is often likened to the Photoshop of music. Like in Photoshop where a nip-tuck here or there eventually turns into a fully altered photo perhaps even no longer recognizable as the original, so too did auto-tune begin in small doses and grow into huge use. The stigma of non-authenticity associated with Photoshop also carries over into the parallel with auto-tune.
Auto-tune has found its way into television as well. Glee as well as the United Kingdom’s X Factor both makes heavy use of auto-tune. “Teenage Dream,” receiving the most iTunes downloads of any glee song to date, is an example such use in television.
Even commercials, like a Wendy’s frosty commercial, have made use of auto-tune (Jay-Z Blames Wendy's Commercial — Partially For His 'Death of Auto-tune). Beyond television, Auto-tune has become entertainment in itself through Youtube parodies, remixes, and mashups. There are auto-tuned cats, wolves, Congressmen, laughter, children, and really anything that makes a sound. Auto-tune the news epitomizes the effect’s use as entertainment.
Finally, there is even an I-phone application called I Am T-Pain which allows the speaker’s voice to be auto-tuned. This app reached number two on I-phone app sales charts (Sonja Sharp, Music Monday: T-Pain, Jay-Z, and Auto-tune Death Prediction).
It is important to note that this phenomenon is not strictly occurring within the United States. Auto-tune has spread to the Jamaica, Mexico, Europe, and is especially prominent in North Africa (Clayton, Jace "Perfect Pitch") For example, Moroccan producer Wary claims that it difficult to find an album of Moroccan Berber Pop that does not make use of auto-tune since Algerian Chaba Djenet got the ball rolling in 2000 (Clayton, Jace "Perfect Pitch).
Here is another example of its use abroad in “Champion” by Dj Bakko from Cote d’Ivoire in which an auto-tuned baby serves as the primary sample.
Through tracing its history, we see that auto-tune has shown its face everywhere in a relatively short amount of time. Whether in small, subtle doses or in large explicit ones, we simply cannot get away from the effect. Antares auto-tune plugin remains the best selling plugin to date. I think the secret to the success of auto-tune, especially in its explicit extreme use, lies in its intimacy with the digital. Auto-tune "actively responds to human error and pitch subtitles" yet in a controlled environment—we manipulate the notes to which human voice and instrument is corrected (Clayton, Jace Pitch Perfect"). In this way, we simultaneously penetrate into the virtual as closely as we can while still maintaining a degree of control. Furthermore, we are given the opportunity to use the voice and even instruments beyond their natural capacity, singing impossible vocal runs and “grabbing notes in a way that is totally inhuman” (Frere-Jones, "Perfect Pitch"). It is this give-and-take relationship with technology that is the attractive force of auto-tune. In a world in which technology is permeating and even beginning to dictate our lives, auto-tune provides a controlled relationship with technology. Its boom since 2005 directly correlates with other such intimate relationships to the digital such as Facebook, Myspace, Youtube, and Friendster. Auto-tune thus provides one more outlet, a uniquely musical one at that, with virtual expression and identity manipulation between the virtual and the real.
Still, like other mediums which maintain an intimate relationship with technology, auto-tune is not without ramifications. Through the auto-tuning of practically all music on the radio, what is thought to be a controlled relationship to the digital has been violated. Our ears have adapted to perfection. There is an assumption now that at least pop songs and most rock, country, rap, and R&B get run through some degree of “photoshop polishing.” Where once a vocalist’s unique dissonance and mistakes were the qualities that listeners enjoyed—they both made the singer interesting and provided a connection to the imperfect humanity of our idols, ala Bob Dylan—auto-tune erases such imperfections, generating artistic flawlessness in its place. And we enjoy this now. As musican, producer, and New Yorker contributor Sasha Frere-Jones People mentions in an interview that artists “expect you to tune them.” Frere-Jones recognizes that “old records have stuff out of tune and out of time,” and that this is basically non-existent in contemporary popular music (Frere-Jones, "Perfect Pitch").
With such a boom, one has to wonder when and even if auto-tune will be going away, or at least when its use will move from extreme to moderate. Because previous pop phenomena such as the talkie-box had their period of obsession and slowly trickled out, it would seem, at least on the surface, that “the T-pain effect” will follow this pattern. Yet, as we have discovered, auto-tune is a special case, and I do not think we will be seeing an end to it anytime soon. Just as Facebook continues to become ever popular, I think auto-tune will continue to be used in the way that it is today because it provides yet another outlet to fulfill our desired intimacy with the digital and because our ears have become impatient with imperfection. Until a more intimate and controlled relationship with technology is available, auto-tune will be around. Thus, to dismiss auto-tune as simply lazy singing, while easy, misses out on what is going on its core—an intimation of our desire to maintain a controlled connection with “the virtual”. As long as our obsession with Facebook and YouTube remains, as long as our longing to sustain such a participatory relationship remains, auto-tune will be around, and our ears will remain its victim.