Technology killed the good music star

About a week ago, I was out for a stroll and got to wondering if there was anything 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 she was 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 rumoured 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 a recent show:

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.




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Technology killed the good music star

  1. Sorry to burst your bubble, but Auto Tune was being used well before Cher ever got her hands on it. All Cher did was bring it to the public consciousness.. and even then only because she used it in such a way that it was impossible to not notice.

    • Indeed, it used to be called “sweetening’ long ago, and was a very quiet part of the recording industry.

      And untalented people getting rich in the music industry is no easier than it used to be. It’s never been that hard. Monkees, anyone?

  2. You talk about tech and music, and you choose to make your main point about AutoTune?

    Tech has broken the label monopoly on being able to produce and distribute music. There are an incredible number of talented non-star artists that are out there and now you can find them; you are no longer obliged to listen to what the labels promote.

    It sounds to me like your issue isn’t with the technology but with the major labels, who see their artists as brands and do everything they can to protect them so long as they think they’ll still sell; Britney Spears would be nothing now if not for label support.

    I’m also not sure that music stars are good and necessary, which seems to be implicit in this post. Star musicians have emerged in good part due to the way the industry has been structured in the past, and that may not be the way forward with all of the changes that are taking place. It could well happen that 50 years from now, musical stars no longer exist.

  3. I wouldn’t have a clue who Brittney Spears is except for the whole celebrity industry that follows her every move to the point that I can’t avoid knowing. The technology isn’t the problem: it’s the self-serving promotion, the fake Top 40 lists, the fake reviews, the fake awards, the fake interviews and the fake reporting of all these fabrications as if they are remotely indicative of quality.

    • Is that a duckin’ joke?

  4. If you want to hear really bad music, just go to your average local Mega church Saturday night or Sunday morning.  There will be between half a dozen and a dozen “musicians” (I use that term in the loosest possible sense of colloquial usage) on the stage, slurping coffee between grinding out songs that have minimal musical accoutrements by “guitarists” (once again I use that term in the loosest possible sense of colloquial usage, etc.) most of whom know only three chords which they twang as they feel led, along with a chap on the drum set. He may or may not be behind a plexiglass barrier, micked over the sound system so he does not drown out the guitars and the “worship leader”.  That is uusally a woman who thinks she can sing.  In comparison Britney shines.  Everyone usually stands up grooving in various levels of disconnect, althought there are sometimes the few disgusted souls who have sufficient self confidence to feel they don’t have to do what the crowd does.  Back to the musicians, sometimes they are actually playing in different keys.  But that has little impact on the over all effect, which is one of rancorous pandemonium, and even the musically inclined, should they by chance happen to be there, probably because they have been invited out afterwards to a promising meal, may not recognize that because of all the racket.  The saddest part of the whole escape is that these people no doubt think they are producing quality music.

  5. Is it just my imagination, but does Cher sound more like Ethel Merman with every passing year? I mean her own voice, not the version passed through a wah-wah-pedal. She really bellows.

    And let’s not even mention those acts (I won’t use the word “singers”) who don’t sing at all because their “songs” don’t have a melody — just chanted or grunted doggerel that sounds like school kids chanting “Strawberry shortcake / Huckleberry pie / V-I-C-T-O-R-Y.”

    Yay rah team, but… that’s music?

  6. I love britney.

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