Have we come to detest the sound of the human voice?
It’s a reasonable question to ask yourself, particularly when you realize that three of the most interesting, creative and compelling collections of new sounds to see release beneath the broad “popular music” banner over the past few weeks - Bon Iver, the Robert Glasper Experiment and Frank Ocean - by feature heavily processed vocals, at times sounding more like the work of machines than men.
The Guardian once described pop party-anthem princess Ke$ha’s voice as “a robo-squawk devoid of all emotion,” and yes, hip-hop and R&B-based pop have been abusing the pitch correction plug-in known as Auto-Tune for a good decade now. But what we’re hearing from post-modern pop-art provocateurs like Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, the Glasper Experiment and Ocean is something else. All of them are excellent singers who don’t need help hitting pitches, projecting or forming a pleasing sound by passing air over their vocal cords. Which is to say that these guys are disguising their voices on purpose, as a means of coloring the voice rather than attempting to make it something it isn’t.
Why? The human voice has long been the instrument that other instruments seek to emulate – the tenor saxophone, for example, and even the electric guitar, which can be manipulated with the addition of sustain-inducing effects pedals and amplification to create a keening, legato sound that is not unlike the human voice. What does it say about us as listeners and creators of music-art pieces that we are attempting to make the human voice sound anything but human?
In 1995, Radiohead released an album now widely regarded as one of the finest of that decade, “OK Computer.” Hidden within the folds of deeply ambitious music was a bit of musique concrete surrounding a computerized voice that singer Thom Yorke achieved by typing his lyrics into a Mac’s simple text voice program. The effect bore a resemblance to the program used by physicist Stephen Hawking, but Radiohead was trying to make a point with the cold, detached and flat tone of the narrative voice, as it intoned a laundry list of items delineating a perfectly ordered but soulless existence. (“Fitter. Happier. More productive. Comfortable. Not drinking too much.") The song exudes an air of existential despair, suggesting the fine line between a human being and an automaton having been crossed.
In a press conference for the “22, A Million” album, Vernon said he watched a friend, Francis Starlite, use the plug-in Harmony Engine. "I basically saw him taking a trumpet line and playing it, but he was kind of doing it after the fact. Instead of playing and recording it, he made it sound like a bunch more. And I just was like, holy cow. That is amazing. That’s really cool,” Vernon said.
It is really cool, actually, and Vernon was clearly enamored of the technology. Thenew album – which is brilliant and brimming with emotion – is all but bathed in it. Ocean’s recent critically acclaimed release “Blond” finds him using harmonizing effects, pitch correction and vocal varispeed to manipulate his voice. The Glasper Experiment’s “ArtScience” is, like the ensemble’s previous efforts, in thrall to the vocoder, a vocal effect that blends the human voice with a computerized tone in an often beautiful but always a little bit weird way.
“The vocoder has always been there with the Experiment, because when you are looking at a live quartet, the traditional thing would be for a saxophone to take that role, and maybe to make it more modern, the sax player would run his horn through effects pedals and all of that [expletive],” Glasper told me in a 2012 interview. “That’s cool, but it’s been done already. The vocoder allows us to do some crazy stuff that’s different, that hasn’t been done to death already.”
It also allows Glasper, like Ocean and Bon Iver, to speak to younger listeners who have grown up with vocal manipulation in pop and hip-hop and to stay in touch with youth-oriented trends. Just as many electric guitarists bought a wah-wah pedal after hearing Jimi Hendrix use one so brilliantly, so too have today’s record makers grabbed hold of technological updates to share a common language with listeners.
This is nothing new, and as ever, technology is not capable of being a force for good or ill – that’s something that only human manipulation can pull off. These musical “toys” cannot make a musician out of someone who isn’t one. Bon Iver, the Glasper Experiment and Ocean have all made valid, intriguing and highly enjoyable art by purposefully exploiting this technology. It's as if they are doing battle to reclaim their humanity from the machines, or perhaps to inject some humanity into the machinery .
And yet, one wonders what message is being sent by the dehumanizing-the-human-voice trend. On my worst days, I fear that what we’re approving with our acceptance of this trend is the whittling away of the imperfections in the human voice that are an integral factor in that voice’s humanity.
Great art always transcends the technology that aids in its production. But what’s next? Will we do away with the human element altogether?