“Pop history teaches us that spurious notions of ‘real’ singers and songs go in and out of fashion, but the old adage ‘Familiarity breeds contempt’ will always hold true.”
The end of auto-tune abuse is no longer merely desirable, says Johnny Sharp, it’s inevitable.
Many readers of this blog will have read, or at least read about, Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point. For the uninitiated, it claims to show how many social, economic and cultural ideas, products and trends grow slowly in popularity until a point when they ‘tip’ and quickly snowball into mainstream popularity.
Partly in tribute to Gladwell, I would like to point out the existence of The ‘Oh Dear God Almighty, That Really Is ENOUGH’ point.
I’m not sure whether my theory has enough substance to fuel a global bestseller, but nonetheless you will surely understand what I’m driving at. The ODGATRIE point occurs when a trend grows way past the aforementioned tipping point and becomes ubiquitous, which is when normally tolerant members of society feel a strong impulse towards serious violence whenever they encounter it.
And the ODGATRIE point is approaching right now for the trend of abusing auto-tune on R’n’B and pop records. I’m not talking about the barely detectable studio trick of correcting the vocalist’s pitch – I’d rather that than everyone sounding like your sister singing in the shower – but the wildly fashionable gimmick of using it to create an electronicised, vocoder-style effect on the singer’s voice.
OK, so futuristic popsters have been fond of such tricks ever since Kraftwerk. And the current trend actually had a false start back in the late 1990s (remember Cher’s Believe?). But now it’s back, like a pandemic returning in more virulent form. Turn on a chart radio station and more than half of the pop or R’n’B tunes on there will feature it. While the current wave began as the trademark schtick of hip-hop mediocrities like T-Pain, now it dominates the airwaves like an all-conquering robot smurf.
Even the singer-songwriters are at it. Owl City’s smash hit ‘Fireflies’ may sound inoffensive enough but their new album features an entire album of electro-voiced disco watered down to MOR gloop. Meanwhile, the hotly tipped likes of Ellie Goulding, Ke$ha and Daisy Dares You feature heavily on ‘tips for 2010’ lists, and their self-penned efforts boast the overpowering scent of the chipmunk on virtually every song.
A backlash of sorts began in the US nearly a year ago, with Jay-Z’s ‘D.O.A (Death Of Auto-tune) and Death Cab For Cutie’s endorsement of a semi-official ‘anti-auto-tune campaign’. But their emphasis was on that always worthy-but-dull cause, ‘authenticity’.
Pop history teaches us that spurious notions of ‘real’ singers and songs go in and out of fashion, but the old adage ‘Familiarity breeds contempt’ will always hold true.
That is why I strongly suspect the current inescapability of auto-tune will be its Achilles heel, and we will see the back of it very soon. Yet things can only get worse before they get better.
You may remember back in around 1990 when every other commercial hip hop record featured that ‘Wooh…yeah!’ James Brown/Lyn Collins sample loop. Barely two years after Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock had a hit using it on It Takes Two, everyone was at it, but during the decade afterwards, any artist with the slightest modicum of taste avoided it a farmyard virus.
We had already passed The ODGATRIE point for that sample when middle-aged UK children’s presenter Timmy Mallett was among the last to use it, on his sensitive reading of Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini. The beginning of the end for any trend is when even your parents are jumping on the bandwagon.
That thought was reinforced when I recently turned on my car radio to the traditionally middle-of-the-road BBC Radio 2 to hear Steve Wright In The Afternoon using auto-tune for his signature jingle. The death knell of a trend, encapsulated in three toe-curling seconds. And not a minute too soon.