This is the death of auto-tune! I understand Jay-Z’s frustration, and, admittedly, I too am slightly annoyed with the overwhelmingly high amount of heavily treated vocals in pop music. Has my frustration reached the point where I am wishing its death? Not quite, but then again, I am not a prolific hip-hop artist. So then, why is something like auto-tune sparking such a heated debate in popular music?
This is anti-autotune, death of the ringtone
This ain’t for Itunes, this ain’t for sing-along
This is Sinatra at the opera
In D.O.A. Death of Auto-Tune, Jay-Z makes his stance clear: he opposes how far technology has infiltrated music production and distribution. I would argue his connection to ‘Sinatra at the opera’ is rooted in more than just ego. Sinatra sang in an era in which crooners depended on microphones in order to highlight the subtleties of their voices. Similarly, Jay-Z’s persona reflects the ethos of the modern MC in which the artist utilizes the microphone as an amplification instrument that communicates his words across mass audiences. For both Sinatra and Jay-Z, technology is an aid to their authentic human qualities. The microphone is as an extension of the performer as it acts as a mediator between the performer’s vocals and the audience.
Consider the aforementioned verse again. The first line of D.O.A. finds Jay-Z stating that he is the “only rapper to rewrite history without a pen.” So then, we can safely assume Jay-Z is referring to his tremendous grasp of the spoken word. For Jay-Z, all that is essential to the recollection of history is his human voice. Though the microphone aids this process by allowing his voice to reach large audiences, it does not impede on the quality of his voice or the message within it. Jay-Z distances himself from auto-tune because heavily treated vocals, he would argue, lack the aesthetic properties that base his work in an oral culture such as hip-hop. It is not that auto-tune is or should be dead; it is that auto-tune should have nothing to say about the human experience. Artistic appeal in the music of both Jay-Z and Frank Sinatra lies in the transmission of the authentic human voice.
Auto-tune, as the name implies, is more than simply digitizing vocals. The idea of running vocals through auto-tune suggests a method of music production geared towards heightened efficiency. The very practice reflects the notion that vocal mistakes can be digitized into perfection rather than embraced in order to capture a spontaneous moment of authentic human expression. Auto-tune strives for a level of perfection that the human is incapable of. By nature of this very principle, auto-tune identifies a space in our world in which oral culture can be relieved of its human imperfections. As a result, auto-tune does not oppose oral culture; it views human vocal qualities as an impediment to the machine.
Though Kraftwerk were heavily into notions of mass production and dehumanization in their work, much of their music makes a conscious effort to maintain the qualities of the human voice. Their 1977 output, Trans-Europe Express, features untreated human vocals that are delivered as though they are devoid of emotion. Though the cover of Trans-Europe presents depicts the band in strikingly human poses, the members of Kraftwerk seem to appear as glossy, packaged products. With Trans-Europe, Kraftwerk create a space that reflects the principles of auto-tune by considering the existence of the superior being within the human.
Jay-Z’s declaration that auto-tune is dead is not merely an aesthetic opposition. His stance represents an opposition to the infiltration of a superior being into a world in which his talents stand at the height of popular appreciation. If auto-tune is supposed to impose its digital hierarchy on the world of popular hip-hop, Jay-Z lies on the outskirts. His vocals are those of a talented human who embraces mistakes and turns them into strengths. This is of no concern to the superior being, who achieves perfection rather than thrives in the pursuit of it.
The declaration of auto-tune’s death, however, is irrational. Though its practice exposes the imperfections of the human voice, its existence in the sphere of popular music allows for an understanding of the human condition that considers the machine essential to our very being. Daft Punk, for instance, replace their human bodies with robotic figures in order to emphasize the human’s connectedness with the machine. Their music demonstrates how the use of auto-tune does not always threaten to supplant the human. In Daft Punk’s case, the music wishes to acknowledge the fact that in our increasingly digital world, humans must consider the possible existence of a superior digital being.
Much like the microphone for Jay-Z and Sinatra, auto-tune is an instrument that requires human regulation in order for it to achieve its full potential as a possible mediator between artist and audience. While the microphone could have rendered the acoustic singer obsolete, instead it was able to enhance popular music by allowing singers to project their vocal subtleties onto large audiences. Though auto-tune may suppose a threat to traditional notions of oral culture, it also opens the door to an oral culture that includes the digitization of voices.