Damn you satellite radio. Damn you. From time to time the factory-installed Sirius satellite radio in my West-LA-approved Mercedes SUV periodically updates the station list and instead of returning me to my stalwart Howard 100 (for Howard Stern) or Boneyard (for classic heavy metal and hard rock) it spits me out to Hits 1 when updating the stations. Thanks to this techno-glitch, every few months I get to hear today's artistically and musically questionable "hits" for a few notes until I spasm my arm to the center console to change the channel and regain some level of musical sanity (and ability) to my automotive soundtrack. The last station update update sent me over to Hits 1 to hear what is today the number one song in America - Katy Perry's "California Gurls" (featuring Snoop - of all people). Katy Perry, for those of you who's satellite radio doesn't enlighten you to the musical musings of 13 year old girls, is a smoking hot brunette who became well known thanks to the provocative, techno-pop, bi-curious song "I Kissed a Girl" where she professes (to what sounds an awful lot like the beat of the Garry Glitter song "Rock and Roll Part 2") that she kissed a girl and liked it. Howard Stern would be so proud.
While I am not sure the HomeTheaterReview.com audience is guaranteed to be downloading all of the growing Katy Perry catalog - you have to admit her songs are catchy. Don't believe me? Check out the preview of "California Gurls" on You Tube or AppleTV. The song is pure pop engineering and more catchy than a case of H1N1 floating around the cabin of a trans-Pacific 747. What caught my attention was the way the music is produced - specifically the use of Auto-Tune. Auto-Tune is a synthesizer made by Antares Audio Technologies that uses a computer to help a singer find the exact note that he or she is trying to hit mostly by using phase to mask the inaccuracies. And Auto-Tune has a very specific sound that I know you know. Ozzy uses Auto-Tune. Janet Jackson uses Auto-Tune. Tim McGraw and Faith Hill use Auto-Tune. Cher (don't make me post a You Tube of Cher on my site) had a huge hit with "Believe" that makes her sound like she is singing in triplicate. That's Auto-Tune. It's that underwater sound on the vocals that has become so hard to avoid. Christina Aguilera was reportedly seen wearing an "Auto-Tune is for Pussies" T-shirt, as she is one hell of a pop singer in today's music market. Many other artists, if asked to sing The National Anthem at a Lakers game might sound more like Roseanne than Ms. Aguilera.
Critics of Auto-Tune, and there are a lot of them, point out that the technology makes it possible for a performer to "seem to" hit notes that they couldn't normally hit both live or in the studio. I have long suggested that rap and most of the hip hop genre isn't really music as much as urban poetry spoken over the stolen beats and melodies from the music of Parliament, James Brown or anyone else who could actually create a memorable melody. Today, it's hard to find a hip hop or rap performer who doesn't use Auto-Tune. I argue about this is because you don't need to be able to sing to be a pop start in today's music world. Decades after MTV set the musical standard that it's better to look good than to sing (or play) good to be a star, this is the long term effect. Some in the recording industry suggest that the time saved in the studio with a less-than-Julliard-trained vocalist (and when I mention Julliard I am not speaking of Jell-o Biafra or Lady Gaga here) saves tremendous money in order to be able to get the takes done quickly. Others suggest that today's performers can in fact sing better than you might think; however they use Auto-Tune as a 2010 effect to their sound. There is no question Auto-Tune is a sound that is all over today's popular music. Listen to an hour of Sirius Hits 1 and tell me how many songs don't use it. Seriously, tell me - because I can't make it through more than about 15 seconds over there.
This brings me to the man who redefined the way modern music looked at the electric guitar as well as the way rock and roll music was recorded - Jimi Hendrix. Jimi Hendrix carries the legendary gravitas of a true rock and roll god. In three short years of producing studio albums, he went from a flamboyant R&B player on the "Chitlin' Circuit" playing licks with Little Richard to being the seeker of new sounds from his guitar that came from close-to-exploding Marshall amps, rotating "Leslie" speakers, Fuzz Face distortion pedals, and Wha-wha pedals as well as the use of multi-track recording that he helped refine along with recording engineer Eddie Kramer. If Jimi Hendrix were alive today I think he would in fact use and embrace Auto-Tune. Nothing was off limits to Hendrix when he was making music and he'd find a way to strap on an Auto-Tune, flip it upside down and make it do something that nobody had ever dreamed of before. Jimi wouldn't use Auto-Tune because he couldn't sing, but he might be tempted to use it as he was (as Hendrix historians report) self conscious about his singing voice. Cher can sing but she is always looking for the next new thing. Not to compare Cher with Jimi, but you have to be impressed with the fact that Cher has had Number One hits in nearly every decade that she's been performing. That's from the 1970's through the 2000's. You need new sounds to be relevant. I believe if Jimi Hendrix were alive today he would be finding new sounds, new beats, new effects and would use computers to make his music sound cool.
Paparazzi Versus Auto-Tune
On a walk in Santa Monica with my wife and dog, we saw a very well known movie star jogging with his dog just days before a major movie release. I wouldn't have recognized him at all other than as he and his dog passed us he ran straight at a Paparazzo trying to hide behind a tree. As the movie star passed the obnoxious photog, the star kicked him right in the ass and ran off without missing a stride. It was pretty funny to see. The Paparazzo yelled "You're an asshole" at the top of his lungs and the movie star volleyed back "Stop harassing me every day." As the event ended it left me thinking that Auto-Tune is like the TMZ of music. If mainstream consumers stopped paying attention to TMZ.com and Perez Hilton - photographs of celebrities doing mundane acts wouldn't sell for $5,000. The same goes for Auto-Tune. If people think Auto-Tune is crap - don't buy the records and Auto-Tune will sound as dated as an electro-Theremin (think: The Beach Boys "Good Vibrations"). On the other hand, if Auto-Tune is in fact a sound that defines the sound of today's music, then perhaps it's time to embrace it as Jimi would. Even if it doesn't have a lot of musical weight or is a crutch for people who can't sing - it could be like drinking rotgut - if you like it... then it's good even if it isn't good for you.