Music and Technology

Kanye West, Auto-Tune Crooner

808s and Heartbreak cover.

Cardiac Kanye is emotionally adrift on his new 808s and Heartbreak. hide caption

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It seems as if, in these waning weeks of our Music & Technology series, we've generated a contradiction. And as it has been so many times before, the resolution is — wait for it — Kanye West.

On one hand, studio technology has improved by leaps and bounds since before the Internet age of music, and can mask bad singers better than ever. On the other, you can no longer be a terrible live performer and expect to be able to sell a record.

Here's a quotation from last week's feature on Auto-Tune, wherein Liane Hansen's voice was "taken to the limit":

Mike Visceglia chimed in. He's a bass player we met at Avatar.

"The upside and downside of pitch correction is that it is a good tool," Visceglia says. "But the technology is so good that it creates singers out of people who really aren't singers."

And one from this week's piece by Laura Sydell on the Internet self-marketing strategies of the independent artist — in particular, a fellow who goes by the nom de guitar City and Colour:

Today's musicians must do more live performances; record companies can no longer hide mediocre artists with lots of in-studio special effects.

"If you're trying to earn a living making music, more than ever you really have to be talented," says Eric Garland of BigChampagne Media Measurement.

All of which raises the question: Whither Kanye West?

The wonderfully egotistic producer-turned-rapper released a new album this week titled 808s and Heartbreak (the Roland TR-808 drum machine itself being an important part of music-technology history). But rather than, say, rapping about his problems, as he's proven he can do rather nicely from time to time, Yeezy channels the anguish of a recent breakup into plaintive, mopish caterwauling.

Which could be amazing; even emo Kanye West continues to create phenomenal beats and sonic atmospheres. And he's nothing if not heartfelt. There's only one problem: he can't sing. All through 808s and Heartbreak, he sends his voice through pitch-correction software, both to fix his intonation problems and to give it that "T-Pain" effect so in vogue. And it still can't completely disguise the bitter fact that he can't hold a tune.

Despite Mr. West's vocal deficiencies (all the more accentuated when he performs live), all indications are that 808s and Heartbreak will be a commercial success. His last album Graduation has so far sold nearly 3 million copies — a rare event in this age of 99-cent iTunes single-song downloads and 0-cent file-sharing. His new singles "Love Lockdown" and "Heartless" are currently enjoying plenty of airplay. And at this point in his career, his fans are willing to follow his branding of anything most anywhere. (I mean, I certainly am, even if my idle curiosity leads to feline homicide.)

So it seems that the new Internet self-promotion game for musicians comes with a loophole. It may be harder than ever to emerge from the independent-label woodwork if you lack talent. But if you're one of today's biggest pop music personalities, and you surround yourself with top-shelf rhythms (which happen to be your own creations), the deliberate application of Auto-Tune will enable you to emote imperfectly in every way you've ever imagined — and score you many dollars in doing so.

For the record, I do think there are certain redeeming qualities to the album. But for the sake of the music industry (and selfishly, for the sake of my own ideological preferences), I hope that Kanye, ever the trend-magnifier, eventually returns to actual rapping. Moreover, I hope that there are no permanent Aesopian morals to be discerned from his pitch-corrected example. And if there are, I suppose that at least I would be one step closer to Auto-Tuning my way onto commercial radio — as opposed to hating on Auto-Tuned rappers for public radio.

P.S.: NPR has solicited actually prominent bloggerati for somewhat contrasting reviews of 808s and Heartbreak:

1. Oliver Wang (of Soul Sides) on All Things Considered
2. Andrew Noz (of, uh, CBRAP) on NPR Music

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