Sunday, January 4, 2009

Worst of 2008: Autotune

It's way too late to do a 2008 wrap-up post, I know--but with the music industry in danger of staying on this course, the topic bears discussing.

There are only a certain few people who should be allowed to touch a vocoder. Teddy Riley is one of them. Simply put, Teddy is a legend in the music business and a genius in the studio. Though it's not present in the video below, he popularized the use of the vocoder in early- and mid-90s R&B. For those of you not acquainted with the father of New Jack Swing, this is him remixing a song by another King:



(Yes, that is Iman in the video as Eddie Murphy's wife. I love Iman because she was ferocious in her own right before marrying David Bowie, but classy enough not to broadcast her ferocity all over reality television, coughtyrabankscough. But I digress.)


Stevie Wonder is another. If you're not acquainted with Stevie, we shouldn't be friends, but this is him singing into a talkbox (close, but not quite a vocoder) way back in the day:



Stevie Wonder has decades of cred built up; at this point, he can have as many Blue Periods as he thinks are necessary, and no one should say anything. Teddy Riley more or less invented the modern R&B sound, in addition to being the ear behind most of what Michael Jackson put out during the 1990s, so he likewise has a free pass.

But T-Pain, really? The guy who made "I'm In Luv Wit a Stripper" popular? He wouldn't be on the map at all were it not for Akon, another mediocre rapper/singer (whose voice, curiously enough, actually sounds like a talkbox). Digital enhancement--aside from crazy stuff like Kraftwerk and Daft Punk's "One More Time," or "California Love," where it's sprinkled here and there--is for people either too lazy or not talented enough to work at hitting the right note in the studio, so the fact that someone is actually making millions off of the technology kind of cheapens music as a whole. And, really, T-Pain represents everything that is wrong with modern hip-hop--the simplistic ringtone raps and the continued use of cliches like "bottles/Patrón in the club" being the least of the genre's recent transgressions. Interesting, given that some of rap's worst work in recent months (I'm thinking 808s and Heartbreak and Lil' Wayne's Dedication 3 mixtape) have involved T-Pain, Autotune/a talkbox, or both.

Wikipedia reports that T-Pain's next album will have a "Western feel," Tim McGraw cameo and all, and that there will be no Autotune. The fact that he's still a player in the music business at all is disheartening--but there's a silver lining! We're so far vocoder-less in 2009. I hope the coming year treats us just as well.

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