In Defense of Common Sense: Auto Tune does not make ART!

Bob Lefsetz really sums it up nicely here:
“As a result of crass commercialism, primarily MTV and now the Silicon Valley
rush to riches, our vision of art has been skewed. Money comes first. It’s
readily available to he who succeeds, and there are short cuts to ubiquity. But
most people employing these short cuts are not art.”
—The Lefsetz Letter
I found this after I wrote the blog below. Hang onto it mentally if you decide to read the rest of this.

I have wanted to get at this one all day. Mr. Oyola has the right to his opinion for the same reason people have the right to walk off a dock into freezing waters. Now here is mine. The link above is a blog entitled In Defense of Auto Tune. Auto Tune is a device, and now software, which can be used to modulate a sound wave (a vocal recording) and alter it. Many times this is used to make people who cannot actually sing sound like they can. You can read the blog at the link above but I have included (in bold) most of the main assertions the writer, Mr. Oyola, has made in his blog.

“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?”

First of all I would not argue with anyone whose knowledge base is this challenged about music. The assertion that authenticity is an illusion is a contradiction in terms by the very nature of the statement. If authenticity was an illusion we would not call things authentic, especially since humans have been singing for at least 4-5 thousand years and authenticity gauged that entire time. Magicians create illusions, musicians make music. David Blaine makes us see things that are not there, illusion. Aretha Franklin sings her rear end off, authenticity.
And also to assume that someone who is musically or vocally talented is threatened by auto tune is silly and sophomoric. It is not about the technology being a threat it is about the continual debasement of music or creating a misunderstanding to the uninitiated. Do I care that Lil Wayne uses auto-tune? No. What I care about is someone asserting that authenticity is not real or that it is an illusion. It is a spit in the face of real artists who create music, not because they think it is cool or it would be neat to make a song, but because they have to! They have no choice because there is a compunction inside of them that emits a force which is called authentic talent and it bleeds from their pores.
I have had many experiences in my musical life where a barely functional PA system was in place to reinforce the audio and have had chills run down my spine. Or sat in a room with a group of people and had someone shake my soul with an acoustic guitar and their voice. Or stood in a church and listened to one voice, no accompaniment, bring tears to people’s eyes. Were these experiences illusory? Was there no authenticity present? The only thing inauthentic is the depth of this writer’s experiences.

“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.”

Karaoke does the same exact thing. It is a definite that it potentially allows someone, anyone, to take part in public, musical, vocal expression. But do we call it art? No. For the same reason that people who create vocals exclusively with auto-tune are not artists but hacks. Used to move a note a micrometer up or down the musical scale is not going to be taken to the task maker but if your entire performance is based around the use of auto tune you are not a vocalist nor does it a vocalist make.

“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.”

A person capable of making this assertion has not experienced enough music in a true live setting or during their life in general. There is no illusion of art’s aura or it would not be art in the first place. The whole point of art, any art, being special is that it is a rarity, one of the rare things that make humans human. I would not take anything for experiences like seeing RL Burnside perform whilst sitting at his feet, Steve Earle tell a story and then sing a song the story was based around from 15 feet away, or witness Etta James WAIL “At Last” in front of a crowd of 80,000 in Memphis, TN. No sir. The authenticity of any of these, and many other, experiences are without question. And they were done by humans with their own voice, the aid of auto tune happily absent. I have no ideological ends to serve I just like the idea of a real human’s voice.
Just go sit in a song circle in Nashville,TN, a picking party in Appalachia, or a juke joint in Clarksdale, MS and listen for it. If you do not hear it your ears are broken.

“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.”

The more I read this writer’s word the more I realize that we are not dealing with someone who has really experienced music or understands it. This writer’s grasp or understanding of music should be an inch long and a mile deep but yet it is many miles long and maybe an inch deep. Recording technology does not make talent. It is obvious that this writer has either never recorded in a studio or was not paying attention if he did. The devices available to a modern recording studio only accentuate the sound quality going into the system in the form of a digital capture. Certainly Pro Tools can realign, remix, chop, screw, and blend things into any configuration but at the beginning of each day, each session there has to be something worth opening the mics up for and hitting the red record light.

“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?”

Ok he really jumps the shark on this one. Why would you resist a world where anyone could sing their hearts out? First of all they are not singing their hearts out. They are blathering into a microphone and someone else engineers it to sound like it is melodious. I reject this as valid art for the same reason that I would reject a robot created to mimic the talent of Michael Jordan or Alber Pujols. Sure it would be neat to watch a robot make shot after shot or hit dinger after dinger but after a while it would get old. It would be a pointless exercise devoid of humanness. We follow sports as much for the failures they bring our hearts because every so often a human does something that defies our collective minds and souls, same with art. If I scan a Van Gogh and then reproduce it with a printer in 3D am I an artist? Absolutely not! By the logic of this writer it is totally acceptable and authentic or by his terms it pierces the veil of authenticity which I doubt he would know if it really, not authentically, ran up and bit him in his ass.


The Loser Bartender and the Nazi Doorman: a Short Story

The Loser Bartender and the Nazi Doorman

We were playing a two-man gig at this place called the Pirate’s Bay. Now this was way before all that Pirates of the Caribbean stuff had popped off so don’t think this is involving any of that kind of that action. It was one of those dive places we inevitably ended up and it was a grueler of a three-hour show. I had my harmonica player, Keith Carter, with me and we were on our way to Clarksdale, MS after that particular show to do some more shows and recording. I should have known things were going to be screwy when we pulled up to the place and on the deck/patio area, in broad daylight, a guy pointed a gun at me. I instantly jerked the wheel and the rascal laughed as I wheeled into the back and parked the Ford F-150 I was driving.
I immediately thought this place was nuts. Memphis is nuts but I had never had anyone point a gun at me, well at least not in broad daylight, in Memphis before. We loaded in our stuff and I made my way to the front where the guy sat who had pointed the gun at me. Probably not a great idea but turns out it were a fake and the two guys were kind of funny. The both of them were supposed to be some sort of security for a medical testing facility nearby. I asked who was watching the place while they were drinking draft beer and pointing fake guns at people. One of them casually said “Ah the place can watch itself.”
We sat around and chatted it up with the crowd on the deck and I kept watching as these scantily clad women kept walking by the place. They all seemed to be heading in the same direction. Many of them walked very oddly like on their tippy toes. Finally I asked one of the would be security guys what the deal was with the chicks.
“Ahhh those ain’t chicks dude, those are dudes.”
“What?” I asked.
“Yeah they all are heading to this huge tranny bar down the street.”
“What do they all walk so funny for?”
And the other would be security guy says “You’d walk funny too if you had what they had duct taped up the inside of your rear end.” (That is not verbatim but as close as I will share in this forum.)
They went on to tell me it was not uncommon to see them beating some guy senseless with their high heels, presumably when their prospective date realized they were with a guy and not a girl. Funny thing about that is they realize they are angered about almost being intimate with a dude but then realize that they are also trying to get violent with a dude and get their head bashed in to boot in the process of the whole thing.
“Yeah them trannies can fight like hell” the other one said and they both agreed.
I parted company with the two security guys as the draft beer was taking effect, they were continuing to be rowdy with the fake gun and I wanted no part of that.
We played our first set and it went pretty well. Dennis Brooks, one of my dear friends who is no longer with us, was there and John Lowe and his wife Bev were there also. John, the master of the cigar box Lowebow, actually opened the show and it is always great anytime I can spend with them. We talked, shared some stories and laughs. As I was talking with them a guy came up wanting to buy two CD’s which is a rarity and wanted me to sign one of them for his friend.
As I was making it out he says “Make it out to Steven and write ‘Steven wish you were here.’” I asked who Steven was and he says “Steve Seagal.”
I asked “Like Steven Seagal the movie guy Steven Seagal?”
And he says “yeah Steven Seagal. We are friends.”
I did not know whether to believe him or not but I signed it nonetheless. This guy was a conversationalist and good at his art. I could see why people would like him. He said that a group of Japanese Akido experts came to Memphis once and gave some sort of seminar with Mr. Seagal. He said he asked them “say tell me how bad is he really?” and he said one of the Japanese Akido masters told him “in Japan no one wants to fight Steven Seagal.” I was impressed.
We went back to playing our second set and things went well. After it was over I made conversation with the doorman who I always like to befriend and make good with since they are the one handling the money at the door. Turns out this guy was a Nazi fanatic. I am not talking about like a skinhead, we did not get into any of that, but an actual purveyor of Nazi memorabilia. He gave me a verbal laundry list of the things he had from books to a chess set to a full fledged, authentic storm trooper uniform. He said his grandfather had been in the SS and he got it from him. I suddenly bit back the urge to tell him ‘oh yeah well my grandfather kicked your grandfather’s ass’ because I knew that it would come to no good. He told me he only lived a couple of blocks away if I wanted to see some of it. I started to feel like the opposite of that kid in the Stephen King novella “Apt Pupil”, where the kid hunts down the Nazi war criminal, in that I had inadvertently stumbled upon a Nazi, completely by accident, what luck I have.
It’s not luck really though, I somehow have this awesome super heroic power, I can melt clouds too, of finding the nut in the room in less than 2 hours everywhere I play live. I can never figure out how I could turn this super human power into an actual power but I definitely have it. Last show for example this guy kept pestering me and before he left he extended his hand and exposed a spent .45 round saying “Colt Long Boy!” The crazies abound when I hit the stage. Happens all the time or at least enough I would make note of it.
I excused myself from Her Doorman and went back to the third and last set. I told Keith, my harmonica player, and he said “I kind of figured him to be a dodgy character.” Keith was British and so it seemed here we were again, a Brit and an American with our backs to the wall against the Nazis, quite fitting I think.
We played our set and began packing up. It was then I started to inquire with the bartender about our money for the night and, not to be surprised, he started his shit
“Well dude we really did not do so well at the door and like I don’t have any money for you.”
I was livid but experienced in these matters. Giving pause I collected my thoughts and remained calm.
“Man we have been playing for 3 hours and need our money.”
He was paused and walked to the back. I stood there at the bar acting composed but a tempest was brewing inside. I knew not show out too much because 201 Poplar, the infamous downtown lock up, loomed along the horizon but I was not leaving that place without some money. I suspected this was merely ritual, as it is many times, kind of like a cold sale over the phone, if it works at first there is no more negotiation and the loser bartender and the Nazi doorman split up the door and we drive down 61 mad as hell towards Clarksdale.
He came back and this time with this “look dude I can scrape up $50 dollars but that is about all I can do.”
I could feel my jaws clench and then my head jerk back and forth.
“Man take your ass out in that parking lot and look at what I am driving. I am on tour and have three other dates to make. I need gas money and I have to eat. How you gonna do that? I ain’t leaving until you cough up the money I talked about with John.”
John of course was the other loser bartender who I booked the show over the phone with and was conveniently not present.
“John ain’t here man for me to like ask him” was the response which I fully expected. I stood there and crossed my arms. I am not that menacing but I summoned what bit I had.
He went in the back again, this time I was not going to be surprised if he came back out with a ball bat or something heavy, and then came back.
“Look man I will give you $90 bucks but that is all.”
I took the money from his hand and said “be the last time I play this place again.” And it was, I have never brightened the door of that dank place again and do not plan to.
He kind of smirked and I suspect he still probably made at least $50 bucks over on me so he probably got a little extra cash, but at least we had enough to fill the truck and put some food in our belly. Oh well.

As we were pulling away the two security guys were stumbling drunk and talking with the police who seemed interested in their play gun. The trannies were still going up and down the street with their tippy toe walk and and the Nazi probably got to order a Hitler youth pocket knife from off his share they stole off us from the door. You live and you learn.
All this happened to me one night in Memphis Tennessee.