Before Roland’s new TR-8 Rhythm Performer, a contemporary drum machine, was unveiled this year, the company released a series of promotional videos in which the machine’s designers sought out the original schematics and behavior of its predecessor the TR-808, an iconic analog drum machine from the early 1980s. The TR-808 holds cultural cache–most recently due to its use by Outkast, Baauer, and Kanye West–that Roland is interested in exploiting for the Rhythm Performer. The video features engineers closely examining the TR-808’s sound with an oscilloscope, trying to glean every last detail of the original’s personality.
Things were not always this way. Upon its initial release, the TR-808 was widely dismissed. Because it did not sound like “normal” acoustic drums, many established musicians questioned its utility and many ultimately disregarded it. However, its “cheap” circuit-produced sounds became bargain-bin treasures for emerging artists. Since its sounds now play such a large part in the landscape of electronic music, this essay takes a historical perspective on the TR-808 Rhythm Composer’s use and circulation. By analyzing how Juan Atkins and Marvin Gaye used the TR-808 in the early 1980s, I show how the TR-808 created a sonic space for drum machines in popular music.
Drum machines, though commonplace today, were once seen as kitschy tools for broke amateur musicians. As audio engineer Mitchell Sigman explains, the 808’s low, subsonic kick drum and “tick” snare characterized a departure from the realistic, sampled drum sounds produced by high-end drum machines in the early 1980s. The 808 uses analog oscillators and white noise generators to make sounds resembling the components of a drum set (kick, snare, hi-hats, etc.) And, although these sounds are now commonplace, most contemporary artists use them precisely because they sound robotic, not because they sound like drums. Even though the 808 at first seemed a failed imitation of “real” drums, the comparatively low cost of the 808, which originally retailed around $1,195, attracted musicians who were unable to afford other similar machines such as the LinnDrum that retailed at more than twice that price. Roland advertised the machine as a “studio” for musicians on a budget and even as they began to disinvest from the 808–as testified by the company’s decision to invest in marketing and research for other products–the 808’s so-called noises began their movement into mainstream American popular culture. In Detroit, electronic musician Juan Atkins, now known as one of the innovators of Detroit Techno, began experimenting with the machine’s sonic capabilities as early as 1981, while other artists such as Afrika Bambaataa were also using it in the Bronx by 1982.
A landmark year for the 808, 1982 saw the release of Juan Atkins’ “Clear” and Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” tracks that illuminate the key features each musician realized in the 808. For Atkins, the machine was something he felt could embody his early career; Atkins’ use of the 808 represented a pivotal moment in the American musical landscape, in which the futurism of the sound of synthesizers echoed other segments of the nation’s sonic imagination. Gaye’s use of the 808 was a clear departure from his body of Motown work. Although the instrument enabled different sorts of experimentation for the two, the new sorts of sounds the machine produced allowed them both to explore new possibilities for musical meaning. Just as Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco argue in Analog Days that analog synthesizers required validation by musicians such as Geoff Downes and Keith Emerson a decade before, the 808 broke into the mainstream through artistic experimentation.
In the early ‘80s, Juan Atkins was learning all he could about electronic music. As an able musician and the son of a concert promoter, Atkins was poised to couple his musical knowledge with a new breed of electronic musical instruments such as the 808. Together with a tightly knit group from Detroit, Atkins succeeded in promoting techno from a subculture to part of a global dance music scene. According to Atkins, the popularity of Detroit Techno came from its adoption in European urban centers like London and Berlin, which lent the music additional meaning stateside. In an interview with Dollop UK, Atkins emphasizes that the 808 was central to this musical development, as he calls the 808 (among other machines) “the foundation[s] of electronic dance music.”
Under the moniker of Cybotron, Atkins released the song “Clear” in 1982. “Clear”’s proto-techno soundscape pushes the 808 to the front of his mix, and provides the track’s backbone. The solid, resonant kick, swishy open high hat, and the piercing snare are decidedly machinic, departing from most rhythmic trends in popular music to date, since, as music scholar John Mowitt points out, a sense of “human feeling” comes hand-in-hand with drumming.
Atkins embraced these machine sounds and considered the 808 his “secret weapon.” Its ability to be programmed, manipulated, and warped on the fly lent it a very particular kind of performance and music making that Atkins exploited. Rather than rely on the breaks that DJs could find on records, the 808 allowed Atkins to create beats to his own liking, placing kick, snare, and hi-hat hits where he found them to be most effective. Because of this flexibility, the kitsch of the 808’s sounds empowered the difference between his music and other artists’ creations. The breaks Atkins produced on the 808, for example, were obviously impossible to find on vinyl.
As Bleep43, an online EDM collective, notes, Atkins’ vision for electronic music would eventually pick up in London, where he relocated in the late eighties. Although Detroit Techno had achieved regional success in the US, record sales and performance dates in London signaled techno had found a larger audience abroad. Although Atkins considers himself an eclectically “Detroit” artist, he recognizes the impact of his work globally, and thinks of the modern Berlin flavor of minimal techno as a notably clever offshoot.
Marvin Gaye’s struggle with depression, drug use and relationship issues were the context for the subtle and understated 808 rhythmic backing he used in “Sexual Healing.” Gaye’s use of the 808 in “Sexual Healing” differs vastly from Watkins’ in “Clear,” operating as a tool of texture and punctuation from the noticeable timbric changes to the clever placement of handclaps and clave in the composition. While Gaye recovered from his personal crises in Belgium, Colombia Records sent him an 808 because it was more portable than a studio drummer. It also offered sonic capabilities new and exciting to Gaye’s seasoned ears.
The drum machine’s prevalence in “Sexual Healing” shows how culturally marginal sounds move into mainstream musical culture. Gaye and his producers, already squarely in the center of popular American music, experimented with the sound of the 808 not in an attempt to break through, but rather to exercise musical flexibility. Since he was already an extremely successful pop artist, Gaye’s use of the 808 marks him as a sonic risk-taker and innovator, weaving the machine sounds of the 808 seamlessly but noticeably into R and B.
The machine’s normally powerful snare is invoked only at the quietest of velocities, often being replaced by the now iconic handclap. Unlike many contexts in which the 808 is heard such as “Clear” and Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock,” “Sexual Healing“ manages to keep everything low key. Matching the lyrics that espouse peace, harmony, and sense of internal struggle (Whenever blue tear drops are falling/And my emotional stability is leaving me/Honey I know you’ll be there to relieve me/The love you give to me will free me), Gaye uses the 808 to evoke a surprisingly contemplative and serene atmosphere. It is this use that best shows the machine’s strange versatility, as both a harbinger of radically innovative musical genres and its ability to produce tranquil rhythmic textures for popular music.
Although Atkins and Gaye’s work exemplify the TR-808’s early adoption, a long road toward mainstream popularity remained because of Roger Linn’s more “realistic” sampled drums sounds included in his high-end machines. The LM-1 and its successors (famous for hit singles like Billy Idol’s “White Wedding”, Hall and Oate’s “Maneater,” and Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry”) made sampled drums the gold standard of computerized rhythmic backing. In fact, Roland’s next drum machine, the TR-909, implemented samples alongside synthesis. As a result, 808s couldn’t be given away until musical innovators gave its sounds gravitas (Sigman, 2011, 46).
The 808’s shift from sonically trashy and undesirable to ostensibly hip signifies a culturally important moment within the history of music technology. As shown in the examples above, subtle moments of economic, emotional, and geographic necessity seeded the popular music industry for the eventual 808 boom today. When techno eventually broke through to global popularity, the 808 was so fundamental to the canon of the genre that it has managed to retain a place of fundamental sonic importance for musicians and producers.
11:40, 6/11/14: This essay was re-edited for clarity, grammar, and flow by Jennifer Stoever.
Ian Dunham is a musician and music scholar originally from northeast Ohio. He earned a B.S. from Middle Tennessee State University in the Recording Industry within the College of Mass Communications, and then worked as a recording engineer in Nashville and Germany. Afterward, he earned an M.M. in Ethnomusicology from the University of Texas at Austin, where he also operated a home recording studio. He will start a PhD in Media Studies at Rutgers in the fall, where he will pursue research related to music and copyright.
Featured image: “1980 Roland TR-808” by Flickr user Joseph Holmes, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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When I heard of people flocking to recreate “Gatsby Dress” costumes for Halloween 2013, I couldn’t help but ponder the seemingly-perpetual cultural allure of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, particularly its latest cinematic incarnation in spectacular Baz Luhrmann-style. More than a little of the momentum of the recent revival, however, had everything to do with the film’s soundtrack–executive produced by Jay-Z (who also executive produced the film)–that drew heavily on hip-hop. This sonic move was not without controversy, however, sparking intense debate when the film was released in May 2013. Take this line from Vice Magazine’s UK music blog Noisey (from a post snarkily entitled “Who Let The Great Gatsby Soundtrack Happen?”) that describes Kanye West and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne album, from which many of the film’s songs are taken, as “a record that couldn’t be further removed from West Egg than a pauper trying to gain access to a Gatsby soiree.” This statement reveals more about this particular listener than it does about either the record or the film, which are intimately connected through the labor of Jay-Z and what I theorize here as a “sonic hip hop cosmopolitanism.”
I’ll admit that when I was first hip to The Great Gatsby my junior year of high school, I thought it was boring and couldn’t stand Tom or Daisy Buchanan or their rich white folk problems. I rooted for Jay Gatsby but couldn’t for the life of me understand why he was so sprung over Daisy, who wanted her daughter to be a “beautiful little fool” (17). But as I got older, I found myself returning to the novel time and time again, coming back to Gatsby like a forlorn lover and reconsidering what Jay Gatsby’s character represents: unrequited love, American idealism, (capitalistic) hustle, and (white) masculine performance. However, I’ve always been part of the camp that secretly hoped Gatsby was a black man passing for white, yearning for a life – and a woman – out of his grasp no matter how much “new money” he acquired.
It was not until Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of Gatsby that I realized how hip (hop) Gatsby really could be.
Luhrmann’s modernization of classic literary texts is not new; Romeo + Juliet (1996) got me through high school readings of Shakespeare’s play in ways Sparknotes could not. While Shakespeare’s words remained intact, the scenery and aura of the play burst to life on the big screen. Luhrmann uses in that film sonic cues of contemporary (youth) popular culture to make Shakespeare’s characters relatable. Verona is a hip, urban hub of violence that vibrates to grunge and pop artists such as Garbage, Everclear, and Quindon Tarver instead of mandolins and harps. The grittiness of grunge rock signifies the grittiness of Verona street life while Quindon Tarver’s angelic voice signifies the innocence and vulnerability of (first) love.
But Luhrmann’s Gatsby takes it up a notch, looking to hip hop culture as a bridge between the roar of the 1920s and the noise of the present. Aside from the literal presence of hip hop sound – mostly snippets from Jay-Z and West’s Watch the Throne – the materiality of hip hop sound also serves to update the Gatsby narrative. Consider how Gatsby’s parties are loud and bass-filled with a live jazz band. The loudness of the party and “surround sound” stereo sound of the film amplifies the vibrancy of the Jazz era while drawing in the audience with a contemporary interpretation of live parties seen and heard in contemporary hip hop culture. “The question for me in approaching Gatsby was how to elicit from our audience the same level of excitement and pop cultural immediacy toward the world that Fitzgerald did for his audience?” Luhrmann told Rolling Stone. “And in our age, the energy of jazz is caught in the energy of hip-hop.”
The film itself is stunning: vividly colored with panoramas and ground shots of New York City, Luhrmann’s film draws in an audience possibly unfamiliar with Fitzgerald’s novel. The film utilizes the more traditional jazz aesthetic that captures the novel’s initial element, but invokes hip hop to span a generational divide and update the (black) cool factor of the film. Indeed, both jazz and hip hop best signify black cool and its commodification into mainstream white America. For example, Norman Mailer’s discussion of the white hipster and Jazz aficionado as a “white Negro” is also tantalizingly useful in thinking of Gatsby as a black man passing for white. His affinity for Jazz and throwing jazzy parties incites the probability of Gatsby’s racial and social background. The film uses sound to create a hybrid of timeless black cool, while highlighting the presence of African Americans’ contributions to American culture. Hip hop’s birthplace and the portal for many immigrants into America, New York is arguably America’s most mythological city, grounded in both white and African American culture memory as such. Jay-Z’s own mythic rise to fame, wealth, and power in New York City–exemplified in some lines from 2009’s “Empire State of Mind,” “Yeah I’m out that Brooklyn, now I’m down in TriBeCa/ Right next to De Niro, but I’ll be hood forever/ I’m the new Sinatra, and since I made it here/I can make it anywhere, yeah, they love me everywhere”– grounds the film’s rags-to-riches mystique.
In addition to such extradiegetic associations, the film’s soundscape itself enthralls, with brassy, lively instrumented notes of jazz – which carried the sonic narrative of the 1920s – sounds of the hustle and bustle of urban spaces, particularly New York City, and hip hop. The film’s soundscape presents a hybrid of sonic black identities – jazz and hip hop – and uses their blended aesthetics to speak to the continued framework of black popular culture as a gauge of Americanism. In other words, the marginalized perspective is used to decide whether or not something is authentically American or not.
Hip hop aesthetics bridge old New York with the current New York as a foundation of Americanness. Gatsby bridges the old adage of New York as a space of opportunity with the familiar New York adage that Harlem-born and Mt.-Vernon-raised P. Diddy drops in Jermaine Dupri’s “Welcome to Atlanta,” “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,”a call back to Sinatra’s “New York, New York” that is also echoed by Jay-Z that forms a foundational trope of the film and the novel. A particular striking example of the merging of these adages is a scene in the novel where Nick and Gatsby are on their way to the city. They pass a car with black passengers and a white chauffeur:
As we crossed Blackwell’s Island a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur in which sat three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry.
“Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge,” I thought; “Anything at all” (69).
While the novel does not describe a sonic accompaniment to Carraway’s observation of the black folks in the limousine, there is an inherent understanding of the “modish” fashion of the black folks as jazzy, as cool. In the film, there is an audible sound associated with the black folks. They are sipping champagne and listening to Watch the Throne. Although visibly symbolic of the 1920s – dressed in zoot suits and flapper dresses – the aural blackness associated with the scene suggests a merger of jazz and hip hop cool and cosmopolitanism.
In order to understand how hip hop updates the struggle for realness, entitlement, and respectability in the Gatsby film, it is important to return to the major sonic influence of the literal hip hop sound in the film: Jay-Z and Watch the Throne. Jay-Z’s work on the album raises questions of how hip hop culture impacts not only the American dream but the aspirations of mogul-dom seen and heard in the film and novel. Christopher Holmes Smith’s discussion of hip hop moguls in Social Text (Winter 2003) is particularly useful in teasing out the implications behind the hip hop mogul and such figures’ social-cultural responsibility to their respective communities. Holmes Smith argues:
The hip-hop mogul bears the stamp of American tradition, since the figure is typically male, entrepreneurial, and prestigious both in cultural influence and wealth. The hip-hop mogul is an icon, therefore, of mainstream power and consequently occupies a position of inclusion within many of the nation’s elite social networks and cosmopolitan cultural formations (69).
Jay-Z’s status as a hip hop mogul – serving both as a creative talent and corporate backer – lends credence to thinking about hip hop as a space of entitlement and a site of struggle to attain that entitlement. It is from this perspective that I think of Gatsby as a hip hop figure/mogul: his working class background, hyper-performance of white privilege, materialistic pursuit of wealth for visibility, and desperate need for approval as “authentic.” To borrow from rapper Drake, Gatsby “just wanna be successful.”
Mark Anthony Neal’s discussion of Jay-Z as a hip hop cosmopolitan figure in Looking for Leroy (2013) further enables an understanding of how Jay-Z lends his (sonic) hip hop cosmopolitanism to sonically navigate between hip hop’s working class aesthetics and his own sense of entitlement because of the way he mobilized those working class experiences to become wealthy. While the film does have performances by artists who are not considered hip hop – i.e. Lana Del Rey, Jack White, and Florence+the Machine – Jay-Z’s use of his own raps, including tracks from the Kanye West collaboration Watch the Throne suggests a “sonic hip hop cosmopolitanism” complements any sense of the film as a case study of white entitlement. Tracks like “100$ bill,” “No Church in the Wild,” and “Who Can Stop Me” both prop up and tear down Luhrmann’s visual rendition of Fitzgerald’s critique of the uppercrust of America as corruptibly entitled.
Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby is an intriguing and useful tool through which to analyze the (in)consistencies of race and cultural authenticity in the United States. Both jazz and hip hop exist in the interstitial spaces that lie between black cultural expression and white entitlement to those expressions. Luhrmann uses hip hop’s sonic and cultural aesthetics to pump up the capitalistic and all-American narrative of “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” narrative in Gatsby by also declaring, “get yours by any means necessary.”
Featured Image adapted from Flickr User kata rokkar
Regina Bradley recently completed her PhD at Florida State University in African American Literature. Her dissertation is titled “Race to Post: White Hegemonic Capitalism and Black Empowerment in 21st Century Black Popular Culture and Literature.” She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!
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“The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show and the Soundtrack of Desire“— Marcia Dawkins
As a consumer, you’ve experienced desire: that longing for someone, that appetite for something more, that expectation of pleasure and satisfaction that comes from getting what you want. Whether what you want ranges from an ideal body type, to a cool technological gadget, to fashionable clothes or new cars, someone beautiful is out there selling it to you—beautifully. If you’re like me then you’ve found yourself suddenly and inexplicably under the influence of desire, only later trying to understand where your money went. If you’re a lot like me then you’ll eventually realize that desire has this effect because of the way it looks and, perhaps more importantly, because of the way it sounds.
One of the more interesting snippets of what desire looks and sounds like right now is The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show (VSFS), which aired on November 29th and rebroadcast on December 15th. Rappers and rock stars serenade the audience while Victoria’s Secret Angels don Swarovski crystal-encrusted lingerie and angel wings. The visual and aural cornucopias echo ideas of abundance and break down the boundary between public and private spaces by implying a type of intimacy—Victoria wants to share her secret fantasies (privately) with just us (in public). The intimacy implied is totally illusive, which makes it all the more desirable.
This illusiveness starts with the models, who enact intimacy and embody silence as the sound of desire. The VSFS’s onstage choreography fixes women squarely in the visual domain and undercuts their credibility in the sonic domain. Instead of raising their voices for self-empowerment while on the air the VSFS suggests that women should push up their breasts and show as much cleavage as possible, playing to audiences as seen and not heard.
Bernd Schmitt, David Rogers, and Karen Vrotsos explain what’s behind the VSFS’s strategy of strategic silence in their book, There’s No Business That’s Not Show Business: Marketing in an Experience Culture:
“Since 1995 Victoria’s Secret has gone from imitating marketing ideas of true luxury retailers to becoming the model for some of those retailers… Every step of this dramatic progression has been pure show business—pushing the boundaries of fashion and taste, engaging (and sometimes enraging audiences) and transforming the industry into re-imagining itself. Like a teenager wearing her first Wonderbra.”
Through a maelstrom of controversies and publicity over the lack of women’s voices represented in the fashion shows, the VSFS was re-imagined in the early 2000s and took on a (post-)feminist message of empowerment. Here’s the idea: VSFS models are “superheroines” because they brandish their assets on their own terms on the catwalk, in an emancipatory celebration. Silent, desired objects are glorified as consumers are bewitched.
The show facilitates desire by creating additional intimacy for consumers, incorporating an “All Access” website replete with revealing video clips and exclusive photos, biographical videos about the models. The actual broadcast now also airs backstage interviews in which models share their private thoughts about why the VSFS is more than a pornographic commercial or a fantastic rejection of old-school stereotypical bra-burning feminism. For example, during the show one model commented that she’s “living the American Dream.” Another said that she feels senses of accomplishment and growth because “It’s every girl’s dream to walk in VSFS… the minute I stood on the runway I felt like I became a woman.” Yet another model encouraged young female audience members to aspire to participating in a future VSFS, pronouncing that “someone that’s watching this will be an angel.”
Despite this backstage commentary much goes unsaid. Noticeably absent from the models’ remarks is any mention of how the opportunity to speak their minds is presented only to sell more merchandise that is not certified fair-trade. Then there’s the total silence around the privileging of light skin and thinness and their relations to higher levels of “erotic capital” in mainstream popular culture. Out of 10 models in the 2011 show, 3 appeared to be women of color (Asian-American and African-American or mixed race) and only 1 appeared to be a darker-skinned woman of color. No women of color contributed to VSFS’s on-air backstage footage. And, adding insult to representational injury, the women of color are hypersexualized even as they are muted. What’s more is that all models appeared to be under the size of the actual US female consumer (sizes 10-12), suggesting that most real women are still not considered the target audience for VSFS and thereby suffer a profound lack of agency in voicing images of desire for themselves.
The absence, and silence, of average women and women of color in desire industries has been noted by sociologist Siobhan Brooks in Unequal Desires: Race and Erotic Capital in the Stripping Industry. Brooks writes,
“Many feminists argue that women cannot assert agency within sexual economies; their belief is that women are victimized and/or controlled by heterosexual male desire that is not in the best interest of women. On the other side of the debate… contemporary feminists have focused on sexual agency and the empowerment of women within sexual economies as an expansion of women’s control of their bodies. However, within the debate… there remains a theoretical void in examining US-based racial and sexual hierarchies present within desire industries, and how these hierarchies mirror existing forms of racial stratification in US institutions.”
This racial stratification is stitched into the very soundtrack of the VSFS, which loudly reinforces women’s silence as the sound of desire. The VSFS soundtrack nourishes desire through presenting what Deanna Sellnow and Timothy Sellnow, in their article “The Illusion of Life Rhetorical Perspective: An Integrated Approach to the Study of Music as Communication”, call an “illusion of life—a dynamic interaction between virtual experience (lyrics) and virtual time (music).” Racial, gender and class differences produced virtual experience. Lyrics expressed these differences through some form of heterosexual, aspirational and consumptive desire—from getting one’s ideal sexual partner, to traveling to exotic locales, and enjoying celebrities’ exciting and extravagant lives. The pop and rap songs offered fast tempos, driving rhythms, loud dynamics and full instrumentation, representing intensity and power.
The VSFS’s performers show the gendered dimension of that “illusion of life.” Kanye West’s version of masculinity was on display as he flirted with each model strutting down the runway, making his voice the only one heard as models appeared. His famous line from “Stronger” (“I need you right now”), when coupled with the women’s silent sauntering, sounded as relevant as it was politically incorrect.
Maroon 5’s performance of “Moves Like Jagger” also addressed the theme of desire, especially when lead singer Adam Levine planted a kiss on the cheek of his girlfriend Anne Vyalitsyna (as she remained silent). Jay-Z and West’s show stopping performance of “Niggas in Paris,” in which the duo performed without any models on stage, highlighted the rappers’ “untouchable” status as rap gods and throne-dwellers. The live audience responded more emphatically to this male-only performance than it did to any other segment of the show.
Nicki Minaj was the only female to appear on stage in the role of non-model, performing “Super Bass” with a hint of Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock’s “It Takes Two.” Though her performance can be read as a subtle critique of the lack of authentic audience agency and absence of a womanist standpoint in VSFS, it sounded no less male-centered than any of the other performers’. For instance, the first line of “Super Bass” is directed at a male audience driven by consumption, “This one is for the boys with the booming system.” In this respect Minaj could be seen as The Female Voice of VSFS, as her rapping about self-image and relationships with men is consistent with sanctioned topic areas for women in general.
However, and in keeping with the show’s theme of women’s silence as the sound of desire, Minaj’s performance does offer a quiet critique of hegemonic images of desire and desirability. Unlike the male performers Minaj always stayed behind the models and in the background. Consequently, Minaj’s short stature, colored wig, thicker figure, sneakers, outlandish outfit, and darker skin were presented in sharp contrast with the tall, high-heeled, thin, lighter-skinned, scantily clad, and perfectly coiffed models who she stalked as they came down the runway. A scan through tweets posted as the show aired confirms that audiences got Minaj’s message even if they eventually turned it against themselves, revealing that desire can sometimes be displeasing and painfully restrictive. Take the following tweet from viewer @kelcicoffey: “Going on a diet after watching #VSFashionShow tonight XD.”
Though Minaj’s soundless critique speaks volumes, the VSFS soundscape ultimately seals the edges on a spectacle brimming with hegemonic impressions and sensations of desire. The end product is an illusion of life that is mostly white, nearly naked, always feminized and conspicuously silent.
Marcia Alesan Dawkins is an award-winning writer, speaker, educator and visiting scholar at Brown University. She is the author of Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity (Baylor UP, 2012) and Eminem: The Real Slim Shady (Praeger, 2013).
Marcia writes about racial passing, mixed race identities, media, popular culture, religion and politics for a variety of high-profile publications. She earned her PhD in communication from USC Annenberg, her master’s degrees in humanities from USC and NYU and her bachelor’s degrees in communication arts and honors from Villanova. Contact: www.marciadawkins.com
I am here today to defend auto-tune. I may be late to the party, but if you watched Lil Wayne’s recent schizophrenic performance on MTV’s VMAs you know that auto-tune isn’t going anywhere. The thoughtful and melodic opening song “How to Love” clashed harshly with the expletive-laden guitar-rocking “John” Weezy followed with. Regardless of how you judge that disjunction, what strikes me about the performance is that auto-tune made Weezy’s range possible. The studio magic transposed onto the live moment dared auto-tune’s many haters to revise their criticisms about the relationship between the live and the recorded. It suggested that this technology actually opens up possibilities, rather than marking a limitation.
Auto-tune is mostly synonymous with the intentionally mechanized vocal distortion effect of singers like T-Pain, but it has actually been used for clandestine pitch correction in the studio for over 15 years. Cher’s voice on 1998’s “Believe” is probably the earliest well-known use of the device to distort rather than correct, though at the time her producers claimed to have used a vocoder pedal, probably in an attempt to hide what was then a trade secret—the Antares Auto-Tune machine is widely used to correct imperfections in studio singing. The corrective function of auto-tune is more difficult to note than the obvious distortive effect because when used as intended, auto-tuning is an inaudible process. It blends flubbed or off-key notes to the nearest true semi-tone to create the effect of perfect singing every time. The more off-key a singer is, the harder it is to hide the use of the technology. Furthermore, to make melody out of talking or rapping the sound has to be pushed to the point of sounding robotic.
The dismissal of auto-tuned acts is usually made in terms of a comparison between the modified recording and what is possible in live performance, like indie folk singer Neko Case’s extended tongue-lashing in Stereogum. Auto-tune makes it so that anyone can sing whether they have talent or not, or so the criticism goes, putting determination of talent before evaluation of the outcome. This simple critique conveniently ignores how recording technology has long shaped our expectations in popular music and for live performance. Do we consider how many takes were required for Patti LaBelle to record “Lady Marmalade” when we listen? Do we speculate on whether spliced tape made up for the effects of a fatiguing day of recording? Chances are that even your favorite and most gifted singer has benefited from some form of technology in recording their work. When someone argues that auto-tune allows anyone to sing, what they are really complaining about is that an illusion of authenticity has been dispelled. My question in response is: So what? Why would it so bad if anyone could be a singer through Auto-tuning technology? What is really so threatening about its use?
As Walter Benjamin writes in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” the threat to art presented by mechanical reproduction emerges from the inability for its authenticity to be reproduced—but authenticity is a shibboleth. He explains that what is really threatened is the authority of the original; but how do we determine what is original in a field where the influences of live performance and record artifact are so interwoven? Auto-tune represents just another step forward in undoing the illusion of art’s aura. It is not the quality of art that is endangered by mass access to its creation, but rather the authority of cultural arbiters and the ideological ends they serve.
Auto-tune supposedly obfuscates one of the indicators of authenticity, imperfections in the work of art. However, recording technology already made error less notable as a sign of authenticity to the point where the near perfection of recorded music becomes the sign of authentic talent and the standard to which live performance is compared. We expect the artist to perform the song as we have heard it in countless replays of the single, ignoring that the corrective technologies of recording shaped the contours of our understanding of the song.
In this way, we can think of the audible auto-tune effect is actually re-establishing authenticity by making itself transparent. An auto-tuned song establishes its authority by casting into doubt the ability of any art to be truly authoritative and owning up to that lack. Listen to the auto-tuned hit “Blame It” by Jaime Foxx, featuring T-Pain, and note how their voices are made nearly indistinguishable by the auto-tune effect.
It might be the case that anyone is singing that song, but that doesn’t make it less bumping and less catchy—in fact, I’d argue the slippage makes it catchier. The auto-tuned voice is the sound of a democratic voice. There isn’t much precedent for actors becoming successful singers, but “Blame It” provides evidence of the transcendent power of auto-tune allowing anyone to participate in art and culture making. As Benjamin reminds us, “The fact that the new mode of participation first appeared in a disreputable form must not confuse the spectator.” The fact that “anyone” can do it increases possibilities and casts all-encompassing dismissal of auto-tune as reactionary and elitist.
Mechanical reproduction may “pry an object from its shell” and destroy its aura and authority–demonstrating the democratic possibilities in art as it is repurposed–but I contend that auto-tune goes one step further. It pries singing free from the tyranny of talent and its proscriptive aesthetics. It undermines the authority of the arbiters of talent and lets anyone potentially take part in public musical vocal expression. Even someone like Antoine Dodson, whose rant on the local news, ended up a catchy internet hit thanks to the Songify project.
Auto-tune represents a democratic impulse in music. It is another step in the increasing access to cultural production, going beyond special classes of people in social or economic position to determine what is worthy. Sure, not everyone can afford the Antares Auto-Tune machine, but recent history has demonstrated that such technologies become increasingly affordable and more widely available. Rather than cold and soulless, the mechanized voice can give direct access to the pathos of melody when used by those whose natural talent is not for singing. Listen to Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak, or (again) Lil Wayne’s “How To Love.” These artists aren’t trying to get one over on their listeners, but just the opposite, they want to evoke an earnestness that they feel can only be expressed through the singing voice. Why would you want to resist a world where anyone could sing their hearts out?
Osvaldo Oyola is a regular contributor to Sounding Out! He is also an English PhD student at Binghamton University.