Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Autotune Rant Reconsidered

OK, I've calmed down. A little.

A few days ago I ranted about the tasteless, obvious overuse of autotune on Emma Watson's singing voice in Disney's new "Beauty and the Beast" film. I'm quite certain that pitch correction was used for the other singers too, but it was most gratuitously used with Ms. Watson's songs.

First of all, I really enjoyed the movie. A lot. I vehemently deny that I got teary-eyed at the end, y'know, cause, uhhhh, well, I'm a guy and we deny those sorts of things.

But this got me thinking: Why did the truly grotesque amount of pitch correction really bother me quite so much?

I'm no scholar of the movie musical genre, but I do love 'em. In the grand days of the technicolor musicals, MGM did a remarkable job balancing the three pillars of acting, dancing and singing for many years. There were certainly triple-threat stars who had great success doing all three in Hollywood films: Earlier it was Fred Astaire, then came Gene Kelly and Ann Miller. If I were to rank each of them on these three skills, their most notable strength was as dancers, but they were very good actors, too. Perhaps lastly they were singers. Don't get me wrong, they were fine, unique, lovely singers, but one cannot fairly compare their singing skills to the all-time greats (ok, well, Ann Miller was dynamite).

The all-time great singing stars such as Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney and Frank Sinatra could indeed act, so Hollywood created roles for them where they could fulfil both onscreen acting and singing duties.

But when a prominent actor's singing was deemed "inadequate," Hollwood would overdub the musical selections with a professional singer. Vocalist Marni Nixon overdubbed Maria's songs in West Side Story so the audience was watching Natalie Wood lip-sync along. Ms. Nixon did quite a bit of this work, replacing the voices of other stars like Audrey Hepburn and Deborah Kerr in films. Hollywood's inclination to keep beautiful-with-less-than-professional-quality-singing starlets onscreen was the entire plot of the musical "Singin' In the Rain."

I suppose it should come as no surprise that when digital audio processing came along, it would not be too long before Hollywood found that it had yet one more way of "correcting" the perceived shortcomings in their stars' singing.

I get that movies serve as escapist fantasies, so I would understand that for the end product, producers want their stars to sound as good as they can be. Musicians practice long hours for many years to be as good as can be. The problem with abusing autotune is that human beings are flawed, imperfect creatures and our music reflects those flaws. Our music is not perfect. It was never perfect, and never will be perfect. To sound "as good as one can be" is a much different ideal than "as perfect a sound as can ever be."

Perhaps I should explain what I mean by all that. I think a good place to start is with the blues, the form of musical expression that originated within rural black culture that ultimately inspired Rock and Roll, jazz, and much of pop music as well (Of course, the word "inspired" is perhaps not the best term. Early rock 'n' rollers stole the blues outright, but that whole area is for a different discussion). The beauty, soul and humor of the blues comes from their words of course, but also from the performer's ability to play with pitch: bending the notes, slightly lower here, a bit higher there. Great blues artists find ways to vibrate, gliss, scoop and fall from pitches with such variety that each and every blues musician is completely unique. Authentic blues sounds "out of tune" to the novice listener because the pitches often fall in the cracks between the notes of an even-tempered instrument like the piano. These imperfections of pitch are not accidents; they are an integral part of the musical expression. The great conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein does a masterful job teaching this in his 1956 album "What Is Jazz?" (Do click the link and listen if you've never heard it before; I still use this every semester in my Jazz Theory classes to teach the concept to my students.)

Why is this "imperfection" of pitch so important? Because notes themselves carry inherent emotions, such as the difference between major and minor chords. Clearly, minor is sad, major is happy. Quiz any five-year-old with these two chords and they will confirm the difference.

Listen to the following classic example of Billie Holiday singing the blues "Fine and Mellow" from a 1956 TV recording. Pay particular attention to the word "I've" in her line "He's the lowest man that I've ever seen", which you can hear at the 1:14 minute mark in this video:

So, music students, let me ask you: Which note is Billie singing on the word "I've" -- is it the major 3rd or the minor 3rd? Is it the happy or the sad one?

Back it up and listen to it again. And again. Well, which is it?

Of course it's neither. It's both. Her dramatic scoop up from minor to major is broad and lavish. It traverses through the range of sad to happy and every vulnerable, confused, unsure, beautiful feeling between. With her bluesy bending of pitch, she is literally toying with us, the listeners, and with our emotions. At this moment, she is in complete control. It's heartbreaking and joyous and tragic and rapturous. But most of all it is Billie, with all her humanity nakedly on display, warts and all. She was not great jazz singer because she was a great singer; her voice was coarse and her tessitura limited. She was great because her singing was so personal, visceral, and evocative, and above all else, so clearly Billie.

Autotuning Billie Holiday would have castrated her, gutting all her beauty and ugliness, which would have killed the very rawness about her that ultimately made her music so rare. If producers had access to autotune in that era, we would never have known Billie, or such unique individuals as Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Nat Cole, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Jim Morrison, Joan Jett, Bruce Springsteen, or for that matter any and every musical artist we love for their uniqueness and individuality prior to the year 1998. I wonder who are we missing out meeting now.

So, who is Emma Watson? She is an wonderful young actress who became famous her role as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter film series. Recently, she has been spending her fame to speak out for the rights of women everywhere, including a courageous speech at the U.N. I loved that her voice wobbled a bit. She was nervous. Well, of course she was nervous. Who wouldn't be? She's a human being with all the fragility of ego and self doubt we all have. But, she went there and did it. I say bravo.

When I saw the trailer for the updated version of "Beauty and the Beast" and learned that Ms. Watson was cast as Belle, my first reaction was that she seemed a wonderful choice. Belle has an independent streak, so Ms. Watson seemed right for the character. To me, just some random movie lover, Ms. Watson comes across as young yet wise, strong yet frail, smart yet modest. Interesting -- on some level, this is not unlike how I think of Billie Holiday.

I was excited I would get to hear her singing voice and discover if, or how, her singing conveys these qualities. Or alternately, perhaps hearing her sing might change my uninformed opinion -- maybe she would convey a different personality than I was expecting. Maybe she would carry more raw power and energy than I thought possible for her. I also read that Ms. Watson was involved in designing the clothing, insisting on not wearing a corset which would have impeded her movement. Once again, I say bravo. Corsets force fit women into clothes that are impossibly thin, so on some level she must have felt that it was important for her character to appear human.

So the moment I heard the first inhuman, perfectly even-tempered, completely non-vibrating computer-generated pitches of her first entrance, I was profoundly saddened and disappointed. It was clear I was not going to get the chance to know her musically at all.

To my knowledge, Emma Watson is not a musician. I never wanted her to sound "amazing" or "perfect" and I wouldn't expect her to be an expert in the subtlety and nuance of the blues. But I feel we had a unique opportunity to get to know her through her music, and Disney robbed us of that chance by insisting that she sound perfect.

I just wanted her to sound human.


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