ArchiesThere’s a certain irony to the fact that the BBC decided to name their Xerox X Factor ‘The Voice’; the voice is the one aspect of contemporary popular music that has been effectively eradicated from the airwaves – that is, the distinctive voice that once acted as instant identification when heard emanating from the radio or turntable. Pop in the second half of the twentieth century was peppered with a plethora of distinctive voices that remain unmistakable – Roy Orbison, Frank Sinatra, Frankie Valli, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, James Brown, Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye, Karen Carpenter, Rod Stewart, David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Johnny Rotten, Kate Bush, Boy George, Morrissey – the list goes on and on. None could ever be confused with another, for strength of personality radiated from such voices; these were personalities who could be both fascinating and intimidating, but you couldn’t ignore them.

Some of the most distinctive voices of the pop era were unconventional and untrained; one thinks of, say, Russell Mael from Sparks or Billy MacKenzie from The Associates – those voices didn’t emerge from voice coaches in stage-schools, adhering to manuals that followed tried and tested guidelines; they came from somewhere without rules or regulations, natural and original to the unique individuals who produced them. Think of the way in which Dylan’s raw, rasping vocals cut through every convention of the time or the way in which Marc Almond’s early recordings with Soft Cell often veer perilously out-of-tune as he injects his theatrical electronic epics with wonderfully camp melodrama. There’s as much genuine soul in ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’ as there is in anything by Aretha Franklin.

Various factors brought about the marginalisation of the distinctive voice. The increasing influence of the TV talent show was one, with every participant encouraged to model their vocals on the safest and least challenging mainstream style; but the so-called Fame Academy graduates were no better. They may be able to play instruments and write their own material, but they’ve essentially been taught how to sing in a musical equivalent of a creative writing course, submitting to a system that churns out students whose work is indistinguishable from each other, as bland and unoriginal as any of their talent show contemporaries. But the one element above all others that has changed the game is the invention of the insidious Auto-Tune effect.

The record-buying public’s first exposure to the audio processor that can fix every bum note and ensure every vocal to which it is applied is pitch-perfect to an unnatural degree was Cher’s 1998 chart-topper ‘Believe’. Since then it has become the default mechanism of every pop, R&B and Hip Hop act to have attained success in the twenty-first century, ironing out the last semblance of individual personality in the process. Whereas there had occasionally been big hit records in the past that comprised anonymous session singers and musicians operating under a group name and usually promoted on TV by a fake band that had nothing to do with the recording, Auto-Tune has taken this to a frightening new level. Its widespread, almost compulsory use today has rendered every pop act the modern-day equivalent of The Archies.

I was buying some tuna for the cat in a cut-price supermarket earlier today and found my ears exposed to the local commercial radio station; I entered the shop midway through one record and exited it midway through another; but there was nothing to distinguish either. Granted, at my age there’s no reason why I should recognise who the ‘artist’ was, but I’d hazard a guess most twenty or twenty-five years my junior would probably struggle as well. The watered-down, lowest-common-denominator 90s Dance derivative musical backing was identical, which tends to have a ‘white noise’ effect on me to begin with; but the vocals were Auto-Tuned into castrated android perfection. The voice was as pre-programmed as the music. Hack songwriters and producers have effectively found a way to reduce the human ingredient to the same synthetic cul-de-sac as the sampled instrumentation, making the voice a veritable click-track of soulless uniformity.

There has been an evident reinvention of the old Tin Pan Alley school over the past decade-and-a-half, whereby the majority of the big hit songs come from the same stable and are consequently impossible to tell apart. A small coterie of songwriters and producers have assembled a production line that makes Stock, Aitken and Waterman resemble Crosby, Stills and Nash – dispensable and disposable, cold, clinical fast-food music designed to be consumed and regurgitated like an iPod Big Mac. Any regular reader will know I’m no fan of Adele, but one reason why the flame-haired foghorn has achieved such mammoth success in the past four or five years could possibly be due to the fact that she does have at least one factor in her favour: her voice is undeniably distinctive. And it’s hard to think of many who could lay claim to that discarded distinction in this execrable era of identikit audio processed cheese.

© The Editor

12 thoughts on “NAME THAT (AUTO) TUNE

  1. Good article. I heartily agree with one exception- one of the first, if not the first record to feature the dreaded autotune was the Spice Girls “Wannabe”. Listen to the chorus (if you can bear to) and you can hear it cut in. The advent of sequencers and samplers back in the 80s meant that anyone could make “music” without needing any musical training. The music business needs a kick up the rear every ten years or so- think of 1956 compared to 1946, 1966 compared to 1956, 1976 compared to 1966 etc.
    The artistes you refer to in your article all had one thing in common- they went against the run of the mill- against what the music business was foisting on the public. They had control of the charts (and the money generated) and their response to a Dylan was to find their own, etc etc. The music business doesn’t set trends, it follows them.
    My strategy against the worst excesses of the music business is simple- ignore it, refuse to listen to it and refuse to buy the product. There are hundreds if not thousands of independent artists out there who write their own songs, play their own instruments and have the distinctive voice and persona that you hark back to.
    The music business is dead.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What was interesting about the Spice Girls is that they built on the template founded by Bananarama – a group of girls all singing the same notes simultaneously, as opposed to harmonising and backing up a strong lead vocalist as was the case with the great Motown girl groups. Not one of them had a distinctive voice at all, so in many ways they were depressing pioneers.


  2. I defer to the master! I have no aptitude for popular music at all (well not in a proper way. I might occasionally get 15 on Pop Master). I like odd stuff like this. Late night music.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m sure others will have additions but one glaring omission from your pantheon of distinctive voices has to be Nat King Cole – OK, it may all have been unchallenging, easy-listening stuff, but that honeyed voice (or more likely, a nicotined one) was as unmistakable as it was unforgettable (see what I did there?).

    Back in the early 80s, a work colleague sang in a club-level trio: they were not bad, one of the two females did a superb Karen Carpenter soundalike. He once showed me the sound-deck (name unknown) which, by the manipulation of a few slide controls, magically changed the output of his voice to replicate almost any famous singer, and that was in pre-digital days. I’ve never trusted any microphoned voice since.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Have you listened to James Blake? Great voice, great songs, enhanced by autotune (especially the last track on his new album).

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A fine rant if I may say so. And, pace the Brexit vote, if you’ve never known anything different, you won’t know what you’re missing.

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.