About a week ago, I was out for a stroll and got to wondering if there was anything that technology has not improved over the past century, or even the past few decades. It didn’t take long to think of the obvious answer: music.
Sure, technology has produced better instruments and considerably better production tools. It has probably also eased the act of learning how to make music. But has it had any effect on the one thing that is really needed to produce good music: talent? Of course not. In many ways, those improved production tools have done the opposite—they’ve made it much easier for untalented people to make music.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, many ordinary people have the desire to express themselves through music, but historically they’ve lacked the natural tools to do so. However, computers, digital instruments and even iPad apps now make it possible for anyone to write and record songs. There are millions of people out there doing just that, then sharing their creations on YouTube and elsewhere. For the most part, it’s horrible stuff but at least people are finding an outlet.
Where it gets a little sad is when untalented people use technology to get rich and famous in the music business, or to stay that way.
Case in point: Britney Spears. Don’t get me wrong, when Britney first arrived on the scene back in 1999, I have to admit to treating her as a bit of a guilty pleasure. Her songs were pure pop puffery: upbeat, catchy and bubble-gummy, so much so that they were my favourite to do at karaoke. After all, man cannot live on heavy metal alone.
But Britney’s lunacy and possible drug abuse have caught up with her to the point where if she ever had any talent, it’s long gone. As Ben Rayner, the Toronto Star‘s music critic, said in a review of her recent show here:
Her voice has been processed well beyond recognition on every record since 2007′s Blackout… [She] ran through her rote dance moves like a dead-eyed stripper going through the motions on the early-afternoon shift.
In other words, those people who doubted that a robot could ever sing and dance at the same level as a human being were dead wrong. Britney has set the bar low for those machines.
The vocal processing Rayner mentioned is the result of something called Auto-Tune, a piece of software created by California-based Antares Audio Technologies that corrects bad notes in songs so that they sound pitch perfect. It was first used by Cher in her horrifying-yet-impossible-to-forget song Believe, then by just about every pop singer and rapper since.
For Britney, Auto-Tune means she has to put in about 30 minutes of work to record an album. Other people write her songs, she shows up and “sings” them and the computers do the rest.
Not surprisingly, the software’s elevation of the terrible to the passable resulted in Time magazine naming Auto-Tune one of the world’s 50 worst inventions.
I’m particularly riled up by this particular piece of technology of late because I had to sit through a good chunk of it during Kanye West’s performance Saturday night at the Call of Duty XP event in Los Angeles. I couldn’t help but notice the irony of Kanye singing about “keeping it real” while his voice was drenched in processing.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, South Park had a nice parody of Mr. West’s judicious use of vocal tech. It’s an appropriate swipe because it really is hard to take anyone who uses Auto-Tune seriously.