Britney, Autotune, and new instruments

by James M. Potter

I went to Istanbul last year. A friend and I took a room in a hotel in the Sultanahmet, just south of the Hagia Sophia. It was a beautiful hotel, and our room, though small, was more than equal to our requirements. True to the reviews we had read online prior to our arrival, right outside the window of this room was a loudspeaker, which added the call to prayer to the dawn chorus. Every morning as the sun rose, and then periodically throughout the day, the speaker would erupt into life with a burst of singing, wonderful and strange to us, accustomed as we were to the Western call to prayer of church bells.

These loudspeakers are all over Istanbul. My friend and I sat in the courtyard of the Süleymaniye Mosque and listened for a long time to the muezzins singing to the people and each other across the roofs of the city. It’s a particularly wonderful sound, because while it begins with the human voice, it becomes something very different when broadcast. The singers generally don’t issue the call from the tops of the minarets as in times past, but via microphones which carry the sound through enormous and unwieldy amplification systems. This results in a significant amount of distortion, so that at louder volumes the human singing is joined to all manner of harmonics. The florid, ornamented singing, welded to the system which transmits it, becomes a completely distinct sound. It is not pushing the point to say that what results is a new instrument, created unintentionally from the fusion of man and machine. It’s a sound of unearthly beauty which frequently silenced me during my visit.

I was reminded of this by some of the discourse surrounding the recent leaking of a track from Britney Spears’ new album, Alien. It purports to show the singer performing without the assistance of the now-standard pitch correction generally called Autotune. It’s become de rigeur for a pop producer to use this to adjust to a greater or lesser extent a singer’s vocal performance. I can’t tell on listening whether the leaked track is real or fake – it does remind me of some amusingly detuned performances including this demented one of The King’s Singers – but a post by the producer on his Facebook page seems to indicate that it’s credible. Have a listen, if you dare:

Whether it’s real or fake is not the issue. The producer claims the singer hadn’t warmed up. It was, however, the occasion for a number of people to get on their high horse about the ‘cheating’ inherent in the use of Autotune and the lack of ‘genuine’ talent apparently manifest in pop. Classical music commentator Norman Lebrecht took the opportunity to denounce pop for being ‘fake’ and symptomatic of ‘dumbing down’, lauding opera as the vehicle for true vocal excitement. Now, there are a number of things I find not particularly helpful about this, and I want to address the gloating that has sprung up in some circles at this perceived vindication of the superiority of ‘real music’.

Pop music has an aesthetic of perfection. It’s truly impressive, the way the producers of many of the top-grossing artists carefully sand all the edges of a track and polish it to a burnished sheen. Think of Taylor Swift, probably the reigning queen of the US teen-pop scene, or the various boybands whose image of perfection is a huge part of their appeal to the teen crowd (and many others). Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream is a masterpiece of modern pop production: smooth, propulsive, radio-friendly, an effect achieved at least in the title track by the careful assembling of more than 100 layers of audio, most of which barely register on casual listening. Production is a sort of magic and its masters are wizards.

Autotune is one of their magic spells. We might be tempted to think of it like an illegal performance-enhancing drug, but I view it as more of an augment, a set of contact lenses perhaps, narrowing the focus of vocal accuracy, guiding it onto the right lines. Without it pop – that kind of pop – can’t be perfect, and can’t be subject to the control its producers require of it.

Pop singers are not opera singers and in general they don’t pretend to be. Whether Britney Spears can ‘really sing’ is to me a hugely irrelevant question, and proves nothing about the relative merits of opera or anything else. Britney’s voice, as heard on the final album, is a composite, a unique instrument born from taking her voice and allying it to sophisticated technologies. It doesn’t need to resonate or project in the traditional vocal senses. It can be assembled from any number of takes in order to fit exactly what the producers have in mind for the song, the emotion, the lyrics. It’s part human and part machine.

Now, some clarifications. Firstly, I’m sure that many of the most successful popular artists don’t need or use this technology. That’s fine. Secondly, it would obviously be a problem if pop singers sang badly in concert, but in general they don’t – otherwise we’d hear of it much more often. This must be because either: 1) they can actually sing, 2) there’s some kind of live version of Autotune to keep them in line, or 3) they’re miming. And I don’t have a problem with any of those options. Whether it’s ‘genuine’ or not is beside the point – ‘genuine’ is not a useful concept in this instance. What’s important is the song, the image, the perfection. The complete aesthetic, which extends to marketing, packaging, everything. That needn’t be superficial – if anything it’s a thorough-going creation of an image.

The modern producer has created a new instrument out of the human voice, just like those mosque loudspeakers in Istanbul, but for very different reasons, and with very different intentions. Both of these instruments can be fascinating and wonderful. Those in the pop world don’t claim their genre is superior to the others (with some exceptions). It might be advisable for those in classical music to follow their good example.



Trivia: My attempted straddling of the high and low culture divide is being sabotaged by WordPress, which prefers classical music. I surmise this from its suggested correction of ‘Britney’ to ‘Britten’.