Ever since technology gave us the ability to put an endless number of tracks on a recording and to manipulate a voice into perfect pitch, the sound of popular music has changed. It has affected nearly every genre of music. All of this finally hit home earlier this year when I was recording my latest album, This Is M.E., my first on my very own independent label, ME Records. (I’m very “me, me, me” these days.)
With the guidance of my brand-new managers, Steven Greener and Larry Mestel of Primary Wave, I found myself in the studio creating music with their client, a fiery young hip-hop producer named Rocc Starr, who has Chris Brown, Usher and Jennifer Lopez, to name just a few, on his list of productions. It was one of the funnest, funkiest days I’ve ever had in the studio. Rocc’s massive beats and my crunchy Les Paul guitar made for a perfect collision of hip-hop and rock’n’roll. It was thrilling to have my vocals guided by a hip-hop master. My favorite moment was watching Rocc move alongside the engineer so he could take a look at the computer screen. “Hey, where’s the Auto-Tune?” he asked.
“I’d never presume to put Auto-Tune on her voice,” the engineer replied.
“She’s singing like that without Auto-Tune?” was Rocc Starr’s stunned response. That made my day.
It’s true: I do not use Auto-Tune. I learned the art of performing in places like Bud and Faye’s roadside bar and the Parents Without Partners dances at the Knights of Columbus — gigs where you were in danger of getting a beer bottle thrown at you if you sang off-key.
Times have changed and artists are led to the studio where they lay down impossibly dense recordings that blast out of the radio at you, but would require a 20-piece band to re-create on the road. That’s not where they want to spend their money, so they don’t.
It’s not that big of a secret: I feel bad for the scores of artists that have been exposed on YouTube, captured in those embarrassing moments when their computerized vocal tracks crashed.
My two oldest children are well into their teen years, and I adore how much their generation loves music. It defines them just as it did me. They know when it’s real and when it’s not. It’s a currency, something special, when they know an artist can carry their music live onstage and perform it in the moment.
In 1970, robotics specialist Masahiro Mori published a paper introducing the concept of the “uncanny valley,” referring to the -negative response people have when we observe something that seems human but is not, like in The Stepford Wives when poor Katharine Ross realizes the ladies at the grocery store aren’t real.
Human beings are wired to recognize the soul, the living spirit in each other. I believe the more technology re-creates what the human can do, the more precious the real thing becomes.
No amount of technology, no Auto-Tune wizardry, can satisfy the souls that want to be touched in the moment when a human being takes the stage and uses their vocal cords and emotions in ways that can move us to tears.
The uncanny — the thing that is almost human but isn’t quite — only makes the real more valuable.
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 4 issue of Billboard.