Tag Archives: TV

Developing A Voice: The Curse of AutoTune

Macy Gray: more attitude than the sum total of Lower Manhattan.

“My baby works down at the boulevard cafe
Just a fine young man with big dreams
Trying to make his own way
The owner is this mean old bitch
Who degrades him everyday
Then she fires him for no reason
Don’t wanna give him his last pay”

I’ve Committed Murder – Macy Gray

Macy Gray has the strangest voice in the music business. She sounds like a Disney villain being crushed under a boulder. The last chorus of I Try even trumps Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig In The Sky for downright scatty weirdness.

But it’s bloomin’ compelling. You listen to I’ve Committed Murder, and though it’s not the best song in the world, you utterly believe the nastiness and cruelty that comes spilling out of her mouth. It’s riveting.

Frankly, I’m amazed that a talent like Macy was able to prosper in the 90’s female R&B market, which was full of real technical wizards (Whitney, Mariah, Jill Scott etc). Macy’s full of soul, but she’s can’t work the top notes like those girls can.

If she’d have struggled then, she’d be underwater now. AutoTune is used more and more in professional recording studios, especially for female performers. What with the rise of X Factor (American Idol for you Yanks) and the sudden demand for Whitneys it’s brought with it, AutoTune was legitimized simply by necessity: the Top 40 has turned into a vocal arms race.

It starts innocent enough: Can’t quite hit that top note like Mariah? Well, give it your best shot and we’ll bulk it out with a bit of gear. That was a great take, but you just got a bit flat on that middle section. We’ll just lift the whole song to reinforce your vocal. Then you get what happened on Ricky Martin’s Livin’ The Vida Loca, where the producer Desmond Child digitally moved Ricky’s syllables around in the mix for the best effect.

Now we’ve got an environment where TV talent shows, which dictate the public’s view of a good singer, are using AutoTune to bump up the quality of their entrants. If Macy were to walk on to the X Factor stage she’d either come out of post-production sounding like Aretha Franklin – or she’d be laughed off. I shudder to think of what Cowell would have made of a fresh-faced 1960’s Bob Dylan shambling onto the stage.

What with all this public movement towards the AutoTune factory, it’s really quite tempting for us songwriters to go that way. Why don’t I start producing urban hits with just my voice and a bit of kit? I’d probably make a bit of money if the songs were alright.

Because if you’re serious about this singer/songwriter lark, you’ll notice that those with the most devoted fanbases are those who are authentic. Mark Oliver Everett: gritty as gravel but undeniably him. Sufjan Stevens: airy-fairy but full of human weakness. Soul trumps software any day of the week.

Macy, just in case an intern at your lawyer’s office misinterprets the first paragraph of this blog, I’d take you over Whitney any day.


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Aside: The Greatest TV Moment of 2010 – SPOILER ALERT

The Trip (2010) Get it on DVD. Now.

I can unflinchingly say that The Trip is the best thing to appear on telly this year. Ironically, it’s based on a concept that sounds less interesting than Countryfile: Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, two well-known British comics, go for a six-day trip around the north of England reviewing restaurants. Yep, I know. Sounds like a hoot.

But here’s the catch. Both men play fictionalised versions of themselves. And there’s no pussyfooting around when it comes to character exploration. The series revolves around a coruscating analysis of Coogan’s character; he’s shown to be selfish, fame-obsessed, and pretentious. (Disclaimer: I’m sure he’s lovely in real life) Brydon is portrayed as an everyman: the grounded, sensible face of family-oriented decency, in contrast to Coogan’s idiocy.

It is therefore all the more shocking when Brydon attempts to make out with one of Coogan’s co-workers.

It comes out of the blue. During a rendition of Tom Jones’ ‘Delilah’, Brydon playfully leans over the sofa the two are sitting on. He dives in close, but on her flinching back his voice trickles to a halt. I really can’t do it justice: you have to see it, in glorious cringe-worthy technicolour, for yourself.

The most brilliant part is that they keep on chatting: Brydon has attempted to conduct an affair behind his wife’s back, but there is no moral retribution. In any other TV show, he would be punished brutally by some twist in the plot: a potful of scarabs would unexpectedly fall on him, or his wife would be inexplicably watching behind the door. But no. They carry on with their coffee.

The fantastic thing about this moment is just how true it is. Unflinchingly, undeniably true. There’s no false moral message, or any kind of soap-opera justification in his character (Sociopathy, sexual addiction etc). It just tells you the simple fact: sometimes good people do bad things. Deal with it.

Songwriters: this is the ultimate way to avoid cliché. This moment was so good because it was genuinely shocking: the taboo of the sanctity of marriage had been broken, and new moral ground was being explored. The Trip had chiseled out a piece of our collective morality and shown it to be false, with only a camera and a pair of actors.

You can too. And you don’t even need a camera.

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