Saturday, February 7, 2015

Tuned Out

So who's going to win the big Grammys tomorrow?  I don't give a twit.  Most of the "artists" nominated are the usual assortment of radio-fodder hacks, so I can't be bothered to care.  Besides, I wonder how many pop performers are doing any actual singing.  
You may have heard of "autotuning," that wonderful technology that turns anyone into a singer by altering their imperfect voices to the tune and the key of the music.  Oringally invented in the late nineties, it was meant to correct off-key notes and match the voice more accurately to the music; namely, it was meant to correct vocal mistakes.  It's since become a shameless device that some of the biggest pop stars use to make their voices sound better - much better - than they are.  By electronically altering a mediocre or just plain vocal and selling it with flashy videos and glamorous stage shows - both relying on pre-recorded vocals - to a gullible and unsuspecting public, anyone can be a star and obtain undeserved success.  Needless to say, Madonna and Britney Spears are known to lip-sync at their shows to autotuned vocal tracks.
They deny it, of course.  Which is ironic, since both of these non-singers have a reputation for refusing to be denied.  But both performers have been known to use this trick in their live shows to hide their mediocre voices, so much to the point that, when Madge got some kind of an award for her "live" singing, Elton John famously protested the honor.  I believe his exact words in response were, "Give me a break!"  Madge, of course, counterprotested - though known for her pointed barbs against others, she famously has no tolerance for any criticism of her - and insisted that she sings live in her "concerts."  Britney has also defended herself by insisting that she, too, sings live onstage.  Uhh . . . yeah, right.  So, people don't go to their shows for the phallic fire poles or the boa constrictors.  They actually go to hear the singing.  Well, if they do, they hear exactly what they hear on Madge's and Brit's records . .  those same altered, antiseptic vocals put together in the studio and laden with enough synthesizers to to bury any chipped notes that no technology can straighten out.  Elton throws stones from a house made of brick rather than glass; he's known to always sing live, all the time.    
Many of today's singers eschew autotuned vocals, including the last performer you'd expect to sing naturally . . . Fabrice Morvan, the surviving member of Milli Vanilli.  Yes. . . that Milli Vanilli, the European pop duo that received the Best New Artist Grammy twenty-five years ago this month, even though Morvan and Robert Pilatus lip-synced to the vocals of American session singers whose own voices were stodgy and uninspired.  But then, their album did sell ten million copies.  (Pilatus eventually died of drug abuse, no doubt brought on by his fall from from grace after he and Morvan confessed to the scam.)  The duo tried to make it without their producer, Frank Farian, and re-billed themselves as Rob and Fab, singing with their own voices on their own record, without much commercial success.  Today, Morvan is a solo artist who has written several songs and has put out a few of his own records in this century.  I've heard him sing, with no autotuning, and he's actually quite good.  That he was forced to mime to an inferior voice a quarter of a century ago to achieve commercial success is monumentally ironic.  (As the old joke goes, Milli Vanilli didn't suck.  Someone else sucked for them.)    
Electronically altered vocals are not new, of course; only the technology is.  But the ease to which bad voices can be massaged into highly listenable singing for the benefit of performers who are all about image and showmanship and not about music only makes it that much easier to push style over substance.  The result?  Now, more than ever, geniuses starve and hacks prosper.  Today, musicians complain about computer streaming cutting into sales of tangible records, but that's not the only technological threat to the recording trade.  The real sin is how electronics are used to create the actual product.
Oh yeah, Madge is performing at the Grammys tomorrow night.  I'll likely be working on one of my blogs then . . . listening to a record from a real singer. :-p      

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