“Authenticity is a shibboleth”

by justindburton on September 16, 2011

This week’s post to the Sounding Out! blog is a defense of the autotuner from Osvaldo Oyola. He first makes his case against those who decry the autotuner because of its lack of authenticity, with a little help from Walter Benjamin.

As Walter Benjamin writes in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” the threat to art presented by mechanical reproduction emerges from the inability for its authenticity  to be reproduced—but authenticity is a shibboleth.  He explains that what is really threatened is the authority of the original; but how do we determine what is original in a field where the influences of live performance and record artifact are so interwoven?  Auto-tune represents just another step forward in undoing the illusion of art’s aura. It is not the quality of art that is endangered by mass access to its creation, but rather the authority of cultural arbiters and the ideological ends they serve.

Auto-tune supposedly obfuscates one of the indicators of authenticity, imperfections in the work of art.  However, recording technology already made error less notable as a sign of authenticity to the point where the near perfection of recorded music becomes the sign of authentic talent and the standard to which live performance is compared.  We expect the artist to perform the song as we have heard it in countless replays of the single, ignoring that the corrective technologies of recording shaped the contours of our understanding of the song.

Oyola follows this with an argument that the autotuner actually restores authenticity to popular music, ultimately describing it as the studio tool of democracy, leveling playing fields and allowing any musician to sing expressively.

In this way, we can think of the audible auto-tune effect is actually re-establishing authenticity by making itself transparent.  An auto-tuned song establishes its authority by casting into doubt the ability of any art to be truly authoritative and owning up to that lack.

It makes for a quirky but intriguing juxtaposition that is ultimately a redefinition of what “authenticity” is. What bubbles up under Oyola’s analysis is the idea that the autotuner challenges some notions of authenticity – the pure, bare voice – while reinscribing others – the singing voice as the most expressive and authoritative. You can read Oyola’s full post here.

At play as well in the backlash against autotuned music is the general public’s relationship with technology, where hidden technologies are acceptable but obvious ones are not. For artists like Kanye and Lil Wayne, employing obvious technologies as effects on the all-powerful singing voice may allow some measure of consonance in their warbles, but it also creates a good deal of dissonance with many listeners who cannot accept that soulful singing can actually happen in the presence of the autotuner.

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