Sunday, September 27, 2009

Nobody human in the charts

I enjoyed listening to chart music between 1988 and 1991. Before that it felt like another language, and I instead found solace in my mother's Abba, disco and Motown LPs (and she was still surprised when I came out to her - how charmingly naive!) I didn't get Culture Club, the Thompson Twins, Wham, Duran Duran or any of the other groups who were around then, with their Lady Di hair-styles, baggy blousons and cheap-looking videos set in exotic locations with saxophone players and bad dancing. For most of the 1980s I felt that the world was having a big party and I had been locked outside with just a tatty Agatha Christie book for company. Then, just as I was leaving school, something clicked - it started with the Bangles (who I loved), and then I got into Marc Almond, Hue and Cry and "House" music. I loved Shakespeare's Sister, U2 and King, and my cooler friend Kathryn got me into The Mission and Deelite. By the time the B52s and REM came along, I felt I knew all about pop music.

Sadly, it didn't take though, and by the mid-1990s, I discovered something called "lounge music", which mainly involved the sort of music that gets played on 1960s detective shows. I turned my back on the charts - and radio 1 had gone all shouty and coarse anyway by then, so that was the end.

I caught an episode of the chart show last week, and felt more like an old man than ever. I didn't know any of the names, and everyone sounded like the robot vocoder voice in Cher's "Do you Believe in the Power of Love". I deduced that it must simply be the "fashion" these days, but then fortunately, The One Show (BBC1's daily 7pm magazine programme for the Elderly at Heart) explained it all for me.

Apparently pop artists are so incompetent at their jobs these days that they aren't capable of singing in tune anymore. So their voices are fed into a computer which corrects them, syllable by syllable. Sometimes, if they are really way off, say by about three notes, then the computer has to work extra hard and what comes out sounds distinctly inhuman - like Metal Mickey.

Using machines to alter music isn't a new idea. This clip from the 1960s film Smashing Time was eerily prescient about "manufactured celebrities" of the time, but seems even more accurate now.

And I remember a late 1980s French and Saunders' skit about Bananarama where the music prodcuers simply turned up the volume of the backing music to drown out their awful caterwauling but apparently, in the 1980s, when Culture Club recorded their songs, if they messed up a note, they just had to do it again until they got it right.

Does it matter though? We live in a world where everything is digitally altered. Almost every profersionally photograph that you see (especially if it's used in advertising) has been changed to make the model look more attractive and younger. It's just the way things are now.

But it does bother me, because if everything original can be put through a computer to make it "better" then why try in the first place? Having played the computer game Singstar, which can tell if you're off-key, I know how difficult it is to hold a tune. It's a skill that you have to practice at - over and over. We risk losing skills and the ability to put in the perserverance to gain those skills in the first place, if at a few clicks of a button we can "fix" things. Put simply, it's laziness.

I suspect if I were a teenager, I'd find pop music even more alienating and weird than I did back in the 1980s.

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