Simon Reynolds looks back at twenty years of autotuned music and discusses some of the impacts that it has had. It is intriguing to consider this alongside other technologies, such as the Line 6 sampler
and the 808
, as to its influence and how some artists have stretched the possibilities of sound by tinkering with the technology.
The story of Auto-Tune and its commercial rivals in pitch-correction and vocal design is part of a wider phenomenon: the emergence of the voice as the prime area for artistic adventure and innovation in the 21st century. Spanning all the way from Top 40 radio to avant-pop experimentalists, from local dance undergrounds like footwork to internet-spawned micro-genres such as witch house and vaporwave, doing weird shit with the human voice has been the cutting edge for well over a decade now: slowing it down and speeding it up, queering it and mutilating it, micro-editing and resequencing it into new melodic and rhythmic patterns, processing it into amorphous swirly texture-clouds or smearing it across emotional landscapes.
The basic rhythmic grammar of music has not changed as much as we might have expected after the surging advances of the ’90s. For the most part, beat-makers have been modifying or stretching the groove templates spawned in the late 20th century: electro, house, techno, jungle, dancehall, post-Timbaland nu-R&B, the Southern style of drum machine driven rap. Instead, the axis of invention has been in the domain of sound-design—the intricate gloss of high-definition production, now achievable more easily and cheaply than ever before—and in the area of vocal manipulation: treating a singer’s performance not as a sacrosanct emotional expression to be kept intact but as raw material to be sculpted and, at the extreme, overwritten with new emotional content.