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.

Stevie Ray Vaughn: a precautionary tale

I was shattered the day Stevie Ray Vaughn died in 1990 about as much as any fan could have been. He was breaking into his own as a complete artist and was finally getting the recognition for this apart from being able to melt the strings off his guitar with a level of soul and power which put blues cats to shame and scared the living daylights out of shredders. Apart from that Stevie Ray Vaughn had overcome years of substance abuse to fully clean himself up and become a great example to others who suffered the same afflictions, even heard saying”If I can do it anyone can.” Then he tragically died.

I use “precautionary” tale not as a warning against substance abuse but rather a warning about originality. Stevie Ray Vaughn was an original, no doubting that, he took his influences, and within the finite framework of the blues he played carved out his own niche and expanded the art form, even past his 60’s and 70’s blues rock predecessors, also known, many of them, as Guitar Gods. Was he derivative? Yes, but in no more or less than Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, or scads of others who aimed in the same direction that Vaughn did.

I played in Austin a couple of times and had the great honor of playing at Antone’s once. When a friend of mine mentioned the show coming up they asked “so what SRV song are you going to do since you are playing at Antone’s?” My answer, one which required little thought, was this, “none.” I also added “why would I do that?” They seemed a bit miffed and I assured them I did not mean that in a derogatory way, I happen to get a kick out Stevie Ray Vaughn’s guitar playing and think a great many things about him, which I will reserve until later. But here is the skinny on the SRV death cult phenomenon.

When Stevie Ray Vaughn died the focus on his life and his accomplishments was tasteful and obviously the executors of his properties, his recordings and performances, used great taste and restraint in releasing only select material for a starved public consumption. It can never be said that the SRV camp overdid his passing by flooding the market with, what had to have been, tons of live and studio recordings. It was sparse, and while though not comparable to all his best, it was still well worth listening too. The same can be said for his live video performances. This is not the case for the death cult and again this is not Stevie Ray Vaughn’s fault, and neither is the following paragraph.

It used to be when I saw a guy in a freaking Zorro hat with conches or any resemblance to the SRV brim, a beat up strat, and an Ibanez tube screamer I would lose my mind and this would happen, enough times to note, to the point that I would dismiss them upon site with “oh here goes another one.” And of course here would come the same attempt at something unoriginal, trying to sound like someone they were never going to be. And any of you that idolize SRV let me clue you in to something: You will never be Stevie Ray Vaughn. And I would add: do not ever feel like you have to be.

I witnessed Stevie Ray Vaughn firsthand the last time he played a big festival in Memphis, TN. I can remember it like yesterday, it had that kind of “this is big” kind of impression on me. Was he the greatest player ever? He was that night. Have I witnessed others that great before? On other nights, yes. But that particular night, in Memphis, TN, in the spring of 1990 he lit the stage up with a guitar on full tilt, kicked you in your face and made you go “whew.” And he kept doing time and time again. I have never witnessed something quite that intense since then.

What I have learned from the witnessing since then is to be yourself because you will never be him. Not in another 5 generations of guitar players will you be Stevie Ray Vaughn and don’t try. Should you copy his licks? Yes. Should you learn his songs? Yes. But you should never copy him or anyone else if you have plans on ever rising above a wannabe. Seek what he sought. And as always:

Go practice your guitar!