In our young century, public standards for “good singing” have been reshaped by two unrelated phenomena: “American Idol” and Auto-Tune.
The former is a televised singing contest for young amateurs with big lungs and big dreams. The latter is a piece of recording software that corrects wobbly pitches, sometimes at the expense of a singer’s humanity. But listen. In 2016, oodles of vocalists who grew up watching “Idol” sound like over-emotive subnormals, while Auto-Tune’s most artful users are among today’s most sympathetic stars — proof that great pop music remains squirmy, untameable stuff.
After 15 seasons, “American Idol” will air its final episode on Thursday night. Once an indomitable ratings juggernaut, the show will limp quietly into the locker room, having been trounced by “The Voice,” a copycat program in which tuneful wannabes struggle to learn something about artistry from pop stars who have prioritized their game show-hosting over their art. Like “Idol,” the show is a total farce, but it isn’t as cruel.
“American Idol” was never a show about singing. It was a show about humiliation. It taught viewers to espouse the faux-expertise of Simon Cowell and his unimaginative hench-judges, which, in turn, empowered them to crush some stranger’s dreams from behind the safety of their flip phones. But even the show’s telephonic elimination system wasn’t as demeaning as its season-launching audition process, in which our nation’s most hopeless hopefuls eagerly lined up for unprecedented public degradation. Some of these kids were lousy singers, no doubt, but the show’s most awkward auditions perpetuated the cretinous idea that atypical voices are good only for generating cheap laughs. Just imagine how many of your heroes would have been booted off the set. Lou Reed, Kate Bush, Neil Young, David Byrne and probably five dozen more. Sorry, dawgs. You’re not going to Hollywood.
And once each season was underway, “Idol” contestants were required to express big feelings at high volumes, cramming emotive sprays of notes into narrow little boxes. Learning to mimic the most athletic voices in the Anglo-pop canon was a must — which meant that intimacy, reserve, nuance and style weren’t often heard on “Idol.” Those qualities couldn’t thrive inside the noise and flash of a boffo TV program. Therein lies the show’s most egregious failure. It tried to define good singing within in the context of television instead of the context of, y’know, music.
Two more sins: “Idol” invited our ears to conflate competence with skill, and it encouraged our brains to equate skill with artistry. This didn’t play out in the real world. For a television show as crazy-successful as “Idol,” the program’s direct imprint on popular music is embarrassing. Yes, Carrie Underwood became Nashville’s leading lady and a general force for good. And yes, Kelly Clarkson’s hurricane pipes have made her a human delivery system for can-do pop hits. Jennifer Hudson has thrived in Hollywood and Fantasia Barrino deserved better. As for the rest, a blessed few have enjoyed vapors of a fame that they didn’t deserve, while others crashed, burned and vanished from public consciousness.
This doesn’t mean that today’s sound-world isn’t sticky with “Idol” residue. We can hear the show’s influence anytime we hear a young vocalist cram too many notes into a single vowel. Many post-“Idol” pop singers sound as if they’re trying to emote over the babble of the universe. They aren’t singing to communicate so much as to compete.
Auto-Tune was never allowed on “American Idol,” of course. It would have collapsed the entire show’s bogus premise. Initially dismissed as a computerized crutch for singers with bad pitch, this vocal processing tool has become the sonic special-effect most synonymous with the pop of our era, similar to how distorted electric guitars became a hallmark of rock-and-roll.
Auto-Tune has been a remarkably malleable device from the start. In the early ’00s, Cher, Mirwais and Daft Punk used it to make made giddy club tracks. In 2005, T-Pain used it to send playful R&B hits up the charts. In 2008, Kanye West used it as a sort of pathos bomb. Currently, Future, Young Thug and countless others use Auto-Tune to forge paths that might not have been discovered otherwise. Listening to these rappers on a purely melodic level, you can hear them leaning into the effect, allowing it to curve their voices, sending them off on unexpected trajectories — and then responding to what they hear. Used this way, Auto-Tune still cultivates big possibilities.
And if we’re feeling skittish about technology corrupting the integrity of our music, it’s about time we get over that for good. We forget about how, once upon a time, the city of Chicago electrified the blues; about how Jimi Hendrix expressed his desire through effects pedals; about how an entire generation of hip-hop pioneers used samplers to build new kingdoms of sound. We also forget that we use technology to express our individuality every day, that we carry magical portals to all of the world’s information in the pockets of our dungarees.
In a world after “Idol,” Auto-Tuned singing will continue to be the truest sound of humanity’s adaptation to a transforming digital ecosystem. You won’t have to call in and vote for it if you want it to stick around.