Don’t blame it on the A-a-a-a-a-auto-Tune…
I don’t consciously seek out T-Pain music, but I don’t smash a radio when his songs come on either. It’s music that, with a few exceptions, isn’t for me. When I encounter it, I recognize that I’ve probably walked into the wrong room. So my first reaction to listening to T-Pain recount an encounter with Usher in which the R&B icon told him that he “fucked up music for real singers” was indifference. But as the clip from the new Netflix series This is Pop began to circulate on the internet, I took the time to develop, if not feelings, at least a position.
The first red flag in the story is the part about a flight attendant summoning T-Pain on behalf of Usher — when both friends are already sitting in first class. Though setting aside that what Usher did was tacky and insensitive, the more important observation is that he was wrong.
It was never okay to lay the laziness and gluttony of the music industry at T-Pain’s feet… The music industry is always being “ruined” by one development or another.
What Usher told T-Pain does not apply to the entire artform of music, unless one’s listening habits are entirely dictated by whatever is on a Billboard chart. Applying his sentiment to the industry of music, however, is pretty spot-on, even though he picked the wrong target. Seeing as how Usher makes his living as a musician, no one should be surprised that he’d have an opinion on anything that undercuts or hinders what he does as a business entity — I mean, as an artist.
Let’s clear the air on what’s currently unfolding in online debates: Auto-Tune did not fuck up music. You have to unpack at least two things in that statement before you can even have a useful conversation:
I grew up breakdancing to the catalog of Kraftwerk. Everybody popped and spun out to their trash-beat 1981 song “Numbers,” but by 1984 “Tour de France” was the anthem of choice at my recreation center. It was an alien song, as far from mainstream Black music as you could get when it dropped that summer. Modulated heavy breathing, spinning bicycle chains, electronic drums that sounded like children’s blocks being thrown down stairs… It was like a transmission from a planet of robots. There’s nothing inherently funky about “Tour de France.” All of its hip-hop cred is conferred. Black and Brown dancers made it ours, and thus funky. It was a relationship of projection and application. How we used it determined what it was, even if the members of Kraftwerk had no idea that cultural exchange was taking place. In that sense, “Tour de France” was not only art, but a tool, a wedge we used to open the door to even more electronic music by people who didn’t know we existed, but spoke our language.
Auto-Tune is a tool, and wasn’t even a new one when T-Pain started using it in the mid-2000s. The software came out as an industry-facing product in 1997, when the Florida singer/rapper was only 12 years old. Cher is the first notable user of the technology in a “new cool toy” capacity on her 1998 hit “Believe.” Right out the gate there were moves to disguise its use — the industry couldn’t have people out here showing audiences how the sausage behind dozens of their favorite songs was made. So there was pushback on its obvious usage upon arrival, and that usage was largely pushed back into the closet until T-Pain started selling thousands (and then millions) of records using the enhancement like an instrument and not a crutch.
Being mad at Auto-Tune is like being mad at an electric guitar. Besides, music was already in dire straits well before T-Pain hit the scene.
2) …fucked up music
On the subject of musical genius, jazz legend Branford Marsalis once remarked, “In modern music they all say, ‘Well, I knew as soon as I heard this guy he was a genius.’ I said, ‘Well then he ain’t a genius, ’cause history says otherwise. If he was really a genius, you’d think it sucks.’” Marsalis’ point is that people generally don’t like change in music as it’s happening, and it is only through reassessment that we can acknowledge certain developments for the genius bombs that they were.
I’m not saying T-Pain is a genius; I’m saying he’s been ignored for the harmless novelty he brought to the table, and unjustly maligned for the oversaturation of that novelty by a notoriously greedy industry, as well as a society trained to make fun of any and everything.
When people say “music these days sucks,” they generally mean the music that we all have to listen to: popular songs on the radio, music used in television shows and commercials, and soundtracks undergirding equally bad movies. They’re not speaking for all music that can be had, since even a cursory dive on YouTube reveals that good music is alive and well. There is, in fact, more good music than can be heard. The problem isn’t that music has been warped into unlistenable pap; the problem is that the entertainment industry isn’t interested in delivering good music to audiences. We have to go find it ourselves, and who has time for that? (As each of us looks down at our phones hundreds of times per day.)
You know what else has historically fucked up music? Rap. Turntablism. Drum machines. Coarse lyrics. Sampling. Disco. Kenny G. Every time music was supposedly done for, it turned out the art was doing just fine. We just needed gatekeepers we could trust.
T-Pain isn’t the problem here, and he never was. As an artist, I empathize with the pain he described, and the long depression that followed Usher’s misguided and misdirected claim. It was never okay to lay the laziness and gluttony of the music industry at T-Pain’s feet. The music industry is always being “ruined” by one development or another.
Now, if you want to talk about an artist who really ruined the music industry, it was Michael Jackson. But that’s a whole ‘nother essay.
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