Auto-Tune turns the operatic ideal into a shoddy joke

Brooklyn, N.Y.'s Gregory Brothers have gained notoriety on YouTube with their remixing of one family's reaction to a crime in their Huntsville, Ala., home, which was taped for a TV news broadcast.
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 29, 2010

What would the Florentine Camerata think of Antoine Dodson?

The Camerata, a group of intellectuals, poets and musicians working in Florence near the end of the 16th century, was the inventor of opera. Dodson, a young man from Huntsville, Ala., was interviewed on TV after someone invaded his apartment and tried to rape his sister.

The July 29 interview, a wild, rhetorical performance by an obviously outraged brother, was turned into a musical bestseller by some pranksters in New York. The "Bed Intruder Song," created using digital technology that can turn speech into musical tones, hasn't just gone viral -- it has sold thousands of copies on iTunes and appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 list.

The Camerata members thought they were reinventing Greek tragedy, which they knew from their studies had a substantial musical component, long lost to posterity. They dreamed of an ideal fusion of words and music that would restore classical drama to its original power.

Since the days of the Camerata, there have been many twists and turns in the history of opera and an endless debate about whether the ideal should be "prima la musica, dopo le parole" -- first the music, then the words -- or exactly the opposite. Many of the greatest composers, including Wagner, firmly believed in "prima le parole, dopo la musica." Thus, there has been a recurring dream among many practitioners of the art: that music might somehow arise naturally and spontaneously out of speech.

Enter Dodson, who could never have imagined himself a musical phenomenon when a news crew caught him speaking about the man who attacked his sister: "He's climbing in your windows, he's snatching your people up, trying to rape them, so y'all need to hide your kids, hide your wife, and hide your husband, because they're raping everybody."

Dodson, who was wearing a red bandanna on his head, went on, speaking in a voice filled with inflection, drawing out some words for emphasis, accentuating others -- hide your kids, hide your wife -- with a strangely musical rhythm.

The video was picked up by the Gregory Brothers, an all-in-the-family Brooklyn-based group that has gathered a following on YouTube using Auto-Tune, software that can correct musical imperfections in the studio by slightly raising or lowering pitches. It can also be used to turn spoken speech into sung melody, although the results usually have a rather robotic or metallic sound that is familiar in hip-hop recordings, especially those of T-Pain, a rapper and songwriter who uses the technology so extensively that it has become something of a joke in the industry.

Using Auto-Tune, the Gregory Brothers made it seem as if Dodson wasn't ranting, but singing. They have developed a big reputation for a series called "Auto-Tune the News," in which they make famous politicians seem to be engaged in absurdist musical interactions.

Dodson, however, was plucked from total obscurity and made a celebrity by the "Bed Intruder Song," and although the Gregory Brothers are (according to Wired magazine) sharing proceeds of sales of the song with Dodson, it obviously makes him look histrionic, over-the-top and ridiculous. The video has also attracted considerable criticism for seeming to mock African American speech patterns and the poverty of ghetto life.

The song has a life of its own, with other artists creating covers of it and posting them on YouTube. Dodson has taken all of this in stride, embracing his fame and discounting the ridicule that is fueling much of it.

Back to opera. For centuries, people have wondered why the Italians were its first, most enthusiastic and most successful exponents. And the explanation has almost always come back to language: Italian, an observer wrote in 1785, "seems full of interjections, of exclamations, of distinct and perceptible tones."

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