In my younger and more vulnerable years (namely NSOP), I offended a recently acquired acquaintance by stating that one of my favorite Kanye West albums was 808s and Heartbreaks. Though I personally believe that taking offense to such a preference is akin to disliking one for one’s favorite flavor of ice cream or favorite color, I felt like there was a deeper reason for this reaction, which could not be so easily dismissed. I had described the album as “the one where he just sings in auto-tune the whole time.” The person I had affronted was a very accomplished singer.
Now, why did she take personal offense to this assertion of preference? Because she was a singer, she felt personally attacked by the concept of auto-tune, software that corrects off-key pitches in a person’s singing, as a musical device in general. Her art, granted to her by the muses, was being made common and, in her mind, inherently base. Any talentless fool with a microphone and a computer could produce musical sounds that other listened to, which when set beside her long nourished craft was insincere and false. Believing that culture is going to the dogs and that this new technology is turning the “true and pure” art obsolete, the singer equally rejects the new technology with luddite-ish fervor.
Though this conservatism is not unfounded, I prefer to remind myself of the overused words of the Roman playwright Terence: “Nothing human is alien to me.” In this optimistic mindset, it is possible to find purpose and good in all artistic choices. If artists are thoughtful and talented enough, we should give them the benefit of the doubt in their choices and not write them off as a mere cop-out, as an attempt to cover up a lack of natural talent. The prime example of this is T-Pain, the main popularizer of auto-tune, who outside of his heavy use of electronic pitch modulation, is actually an exceptionally talented singer. He uses auto-tune as an instrument in his music in order to create a robotic distance between himself and his music. This detachment is very common in modern R&B and hip-hop, especially in that shadowy space where the words “floor” and “low” almost seem to rhyme, and auto-tune is the perfect instrument for expressing it. Therefore, why demonize it?
Returning to the initial example of Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreaks, an album that divides fans to this day and marks the transition between “old Kanye” and “new Kanye.” Yes, the album may be deemed “too melancholy and sentimental” to be taken seriously. Yes, the songs continue none of the soulful production and bitingly clever verses that Kanye’s earlier work was known for. However, the album opened up the door for artists such as Drake, Childish Gambino, and Kid Cudi and, despite its controversial nature, received overwhelmingly positive critical reviews. Disregarding it and writing it off as an experimental sob story gone awry would be inconsiderate of its influence.
Take the most popular single “Heartless,” a woeful ballad “to a woman so heartless.” The lyrics are deeply personal and sentimental, showing the rapper vacillating between his typical bravado (“You wait a couple of months, then you gonna see/You’ll never find nobody better than me”) and stark admissions of despair (“You got a new friend/Well I got homies/But in the end it’s still so lonely”). Though there are singers better than Kanye in terms of technical ability, the auto-tune adds a layer of detachment that would be nigh impossible achieve without electronic modulation. The artist beautifully illustrates the paradox of his emotional suffering and his lack of feeling because of that very suffering. This hollowness is reinforced with the use of auto-tune. In his recent single “Only One,” where Kanye sings from the perspective of his deceased mother, the dichotomy between the raw emotion of the lyrics and the smoothing effect of the auto-tune could not be greater. Such a disparity reinforces the distance between the speaker (the deceased mother) and the subject matter (Kanye’s daughter), but does not detract from the poignancy of the music.
I will conclude by calling into question the claim that auto-tune is somehow “unnatural” or “artificial” and therefore lesser. The definition of “artificial” is man-made; however, what is man but a product of nature? We call giant metropolises with gray skyscrapers and subways artificial, but wonder at the intricacies of an anthill. However, the anthill, in terms of its complexity or the ingenuity of its design, is in no way inferior to the human city. Why then must we demonize that which we ourselves make, even if the steel and concrete of which our world is made ultimately has natural origins, composed of the same natural elements found in the universe? Auto-tune is an instrument, no different from a violin, a guitar, or the human voice. Its use can be crass, but it can also be extremely artful. Its vilification is merely a misanthropic hypocrisy, which cannot be perpetuated under the guise of preserving art. Both auto-tune and unmodified singing have a place under the sun, one in no way rendering the other obsolete.
Venya Gushchin is a freshman in Columbia College, class of 2018. He has participated and won NaNoWriMo the past two years. He is a member of The Columbia Review’s editorial board, a Senior Editor for the Journal of Politics & Society and a member of the Undergraduate Recruitment Committee.