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Auto-Tune turns the operatic ideal into a shoddy joke

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 29, 2010; E01

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."

British scholar Charles Burney wrote that "every dialect has peculiar inflexions of voice, which form a kind of tune in its utterance." The theory was that spoken Italian was already halfway to the music; all Italian composers had to do was coax it along, and voila, you had opera.

There was a good deal of condescension toward the Italians in that view, akin to the idea that African Americans are "naturally musical." But over the centuries, as opera moved from Italy to France, Germany, England, Eastern Europe and finally the United States, composers seeking to introduce new national forms of opera have consistently looked to inflection and rhythmic patterns in speech for hints on how to compose melody.

Perhaps most famous was Leos Janacek, a 20th-century Czech composer who studied the folk songs and speech patterns of Moravian peasants and created a radically innovative musical style that directly mimics the short, punchy, staccato phrases of a language that is log-jammed with consonants.

You might call the "Bed Intruder Song" fundamentally operatic. The composers have uncannily mimicked the contours of Dodson's speech, and like many arias, the song captures a moment of intense emotional condensation. But if this were part of an opera by, say, Handel, there would be something added to it, a contrasting emotional element.

Dodson would exclaim his outrage as the middle section, or the two bookends, of a three-part, ABA aria. In the hands of an 18th-century composer, the missing element in the "Bed Intruder Song" would express, say, Dodson's happy memories of a time when his neighborhood was safer, or tender concern for his sister's well-being. The resulting package would be a more fully dimensional sense of the character.

This is not how the game is played on YouTube. The medium is fundamentally hungry for content, and Auto-Tune is the perfect technology to supply it. Based on the vocoder, a machine that was used to disguise radio transmissions during World War II, Auto-Tune can process speech into music quickly and without need for an actual singer. This has made it controversial: Some pop artists have vociferously protested its overuse.

In some ways, the traffic in quick music clips on YouTube resembles the voraciousness of opera audiences two centuries ago. When a medium is defined by its appetite for new content, that content tends to the lurid, the extreme, the hyper-emotional. Thus, the operas of Handel and Vivaldi, the serial novels of the 19th century, the tabloid press of the 20th century, and finally cable TV and the Internet. When supply and demand are better in balance, the medium tends to become more reflective and nuanced.

But the rapid dissemination of Auto-Tuned songs on YouTube is fundamentally different from opera in one important way. In opera, the characters are created. In songs such as the one based on Dodson, they are simply appropriated. The wonderful, raving lunatics who made 18th-century opera so much fun -- crazy Roman emperors, petty tyrants, jealous barbarian warlords -- had mostly been dead for centuries or were invented from whole cloth. They didn't turn on the news to find themselves caricatured, singing in a voice not their own, for an audience that flits from meme to meme with no more interest or sympathy than a bear snatching salmon from a river.

The Florentine Camerata emerged in Italy in part because of the intense humanism of Renaissance Italy, with its interest in all things classical, and its fundamental belief in the dignity, depth and primacy of man. The earliest operas bore little resemblance to the unhinged emotionalism that would hold the stage in 19th-century Italy.

But throughout the history of opera, reformers have looked to the Camerata when the form seemed out of balance. "First the words, then the music" has generally been a call to return to a focus on real people, real emotion, real depth -- as opposed to florid song, extremes of expression, or wild stage business.

With Auto-Tune, "first the words, then the music" seems like a joke -- the technological realization of an old operatic dream, but at the loss of something elemental, the actual human sympathy that makes us care about what people are singing. Someone forgot to add what would have been so obvious as to not need saying by the Camerata: First the decency.

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