From Orchestra to Auto-Tune: The Sound and Meaning of Popular Music in 2012

June 11, 2012 No comments
Written by Guest Contributor

When looking back at the last 60+ years of popular music, it becomes apparent that the trends, techniques, and genres that defined each decade were largely dependent upon the technology available at the time. From the electric guitar to the invention and re-appropriation of auto-tune, technology has always been a defining feature of how popular music is made and what music becomes popular.

It’s easy to forget that the days of blistering tube-amps and untamed, unedited vocals were once regarded as a failure to uphold the purity traditional classical music, similar to the way many of us disregard modern practices of recording for ruining the “spirit” of rock n’ roll. There’s no doubt that most contemporary popular music has been subjected to the slick production of the 21st century, but we must remember the practices of the past that are oh-so-easy to romanticize were simply stepping-stones to achieve the level of “technological- assistance” that we have today. Over the last decade, we seem to have arrived at our destination. Producers, musicians and lovers of music have embraced technology in a way that would be unimaginable in past decades. Digital recording has replaced the tape reel and MIDI has replaced the orchestra.

However, in the past few years, we’ve witnessed a shift. Despite their high-levels of production, heavy-hitters such as Adele and Rebecca Ferguson, epitomize the natural qualities of singing that seemed to be absent from popular music in the past few years. Now, Adele may not seem like the best example of how popular music is turning away from technology, but the point is that Adele is the most popular singer in the world, and whether she’s auto-tuned or not, the aesthetic of her voice is crafted to sound natural, uncontaminated and pure. Bands like Alabama Shakes operate in a similar way; the production is high, but
the tones, arrangements and voice of singer Brittany Howard are expertly crafted to create a musical time warp, while somehow keeping up with mainstream and indie-rock/pop radio.

What’s intriguing about this return of the “natural” is that it spans a much larger scope. It’s not isolated to sub-genre, nor does it signify the characteristic shtick of the “The ________” garage-rock revival of the early 2000s. What’s popular now indicates a subtle but definitive shift from the last decade’s embracement of technology. I’m not suggesting that modern practices and/or technology are being done away with, I’m suggesting that new technology is beginning to be used to create more natural sounding forms of music whereas in the past it was used in a way which flaunted its digital make-up (see
Chillwave or anything with T-Pain).

The dialogue about the negotiation between music and technology in 2012 is important because it reveals that we’re at a stage in popular music that is less homogenized. What I’m trying to say is that I believe that someone like Adele represents the same thing as Arcade Fire; in 2012 you don’t have to sound a certain way to be successful. Technology is crucial to this conversation because it’s an indicator of trendiness and a defining feature of what is popular. Today
musicians are using the same technology as each other for completely different purposes. This suggests a trend that both opposes the notion of technological determinism and envisions the potential of a more open-minded and enlightened music industry. In the end, only time will tell what music defined the 2010s, but based on what we’re hearing now, the task won’t be easy.

Adam Nanji and Katrina Jones are part of the Vancouver-based indie rock band, The Belle Game. Together, they will provide a bi-weekly column showing their perspective on all things music.

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