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On Pop Off this week, there was a fascinating conversation between commentator Maura Johnston and readers about the glossy, computer-perfect sound that's dominating the singles charts right now.
Maura put words to one of my big frustrations with the music on the TV show, Glee: the songs are studio-perfect, even when they are supposedly performed in the halls of the high school or Rachel's bedroom. Even when they are covering a Jazmine Sullivan song, like "Bust Your Windows:"
The version of the song sung by Glee actress Amber Riley (playing the jilted Mercedes Jones) sounds significantly brighter than the original; it's pitched in a higher key and, even though the full versions of the two songs are nearly identical in length, it feels as if it's moving along at a slightly peppier pace than its source material. More importantly, Riley's voice is much smoother than Sullivan's, both in timbre and in the way it's presented technologically. . . I'm a fan of musicals, and I don't recall the obvious lip-syncing being that jarring, which makes me wonder if Glee is another example of Jay's point that the software used to perfect music today just does its job too well, wiping out any traces of extraneous sound until all that remains is a dead room.
Most of our commenters agreed with Maura's discomfort with all of the electronic polish on the pop charts. Here are some choice examples:
Carol Shepherd (carush) wrote:
"Autotune is the audio equivalent of Photoshop. These tools are used to remove the pitch inflections and overtones, the beauty spots and the normal-sized waists, and the other unique aspects of us, leaving behind some cyborg corporate idea of abstract perfection."
Roy Wayne Mays (RoyWayne) appreciates that something is lost when computers "perfect" a song:
"But I ... work out to music with headphones. I do not want crackles, pops, warbles, heavy bass, heavy percussion, and anything that distracts from the smoothness. I *love* the over-perfect sound. It has a place, and when the machine is plugged inside my eardrums I *want* it perfect."
Marian Moore (mmoore) made specific reference to the Pop Off on Morning Edition when she wrote:
"During the story I imagined a Supremes' hit "Stop in the Name of Love" dropped into the middle of the stream of songs played. As sappy as that song was, it would have stood out and would have been noticeable. It had silences that pulled your attention to the times when the song was not silent. The use of auto-tune is bad enough, but what is worse is the constant babble in the lyrical music now. There is no pianissimo. Everything is forte."
Maura and Jay have an extended discussion on our podcast, where they dive deeper into the way that every generation has its own idea of what perfection is, plus singers who optimize autotune with their vocal techniques, and what it all has to do with bebop. Want more? Check out NPR's past coverage on The Loudness Wars for more on how we hear music.