“Autotune is the new disco”

February 8th, 2011

The above quotation is a text message (the most common contact with friends of late– a techno-criticism all it’s own for another day) received from a friend of mine upon the conclusion of the much-criticized Superbowl halftime performance of the Black-Eyed Peas this past sunday.

While humorous, it did get me thinking about both the validity of such criticism as well as the relevance of criticizing the show in general.

Autotune aside, the sound levels during the performance was beyond terrible, with the vocals rising and dipping erratically all through out the set. However, when taking into account the entire set up that spanned the entirety of the football field. Flashing neon lights and costumes heavily-borrowed (or stolen) from the world of Tron set a futuristic theme of what people in 1984 envisioned the year 2011 to look like.

When considering just the musical performance, it was important to note that the Black-Eyed Peas did not perform any of their songs in their entirety. Their set consisted of a medley of their radio hits from the past 5-6 years mixed with an abbreviated collaboration with Usher and a quasi-cover of Guns N’ Roses’s “Sweet Child of Mine” accompanied by GnR guitarist Slash. In accounting for how brief each individual song was covered and how much turnover there was with stage design/extras, the contrast of how long the entire segment conveys a sense of giving into the short-attention span generation we live in thanks to how technologically engaged we are.

The constant song changes recalled the many mid-song skips that most iPod users do while listening to music. The constant visual changes recalled the constant changing of channels that the average American does as their daily exercise. These realizations make perfect sense for the Superbowl, one of the biggest modern American staples of culture. Those constant changes and flashes seemed a compensation for the many Americans entranced in the event; while the millions (billions?) all were watching the same programming, they still were subjected to the jittery and fickle practices that they enact on smaller, individual levels on their spare time.

To close, I’ll bring my thoughts back to my friends titular slant at the performance. I don’t think autotune is the new disco. I think, for the most part, it’s much, much worse. As a musician, I hear the word autotune get thrown a lot. The way it was used in the superbowl performance (and much of pop radio), it is used to distort voices into robotic sounds, eliminating most of the emotion. And often times, with the genres that employ it in such a way, the emotionality of the vocals is a non-factor, as the songs are more geared towards clubs than they are lyric-lovers. There are some uses of autotune that aren’t so awful (such as those which don’t modify the sound of a voice but can correct specific notes in a vocal track to give a more consistent sound) as they still keep the voice human sounding. Disco, while something I can’t completely comprehend from my distance from its prominence, at least had much more musicianship and personality to it.

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