|By Jill Noble, originally published in the November 2011 Socionomist|
“Robo-Pop” Has Much in Common with Disco
When was the last time you listened to Top-40 music? If it was anytime in the past few years, we’re betting that almost every song you heard contained unnatural, robotic-sounding vocals. The air waves are saturated with this style of dance music today, including hits from Katy Perry, Maroon 5 and Lady Gaga.1
The culprit? Pitch correction software. When it is used heavily, it makes the human voice sound computerized. We term this digital-vocoder sound “Robo-Pop,” and arguably it has become its own genre. The New Yorker writes,
… pitch correction has also taken on a second life, as an effect.…Auto-Tune software detects pitch, and when a vocal is routed through Auto-Tune, and a setting called ‘retune speed’ is set to zero, warbling begins.… [W]hen sung pitches alternate too quickly the result sounds unnatural, a fluttering that is described by some engineers as ‘the gerbil’ and by others as ‘robotic.’2
The spark began with Cher’s 1998 hit song “Believe,” and it has fanned into an Auto-Tune wildfire,3 fueled substantially by robot-voiced rapper T-Pain’s 2007 album Epiphany. This year’s widely panned Super Bowl halftime show featured pop artists with multi-platinum albums whose performances relied on Auto-Tuned microphones.4 Last year, award-winning singer Taylor Swift was criticized for a lackluster, Auto-Tuned performance at the Grammys.5 Her album sales didn’t suffer, however—and this year’s nominees included other Robo-Pop artists.
Record producers rely on pitch correction software because it saves money by reducing the amount of time spent in the studio. Plus, according to Chicago engineer/producer Ken Sluiter, “when used creatively, it sounds really cool, and you can get great results.”6
Most music industry pros, however, claim that Auto-Tune software also has ushered in a decline in artistry. Andy Karp, vice president of A&R for Lava/Atlantic Records, says:
… it is something that is cropping up on the records of artists who can actually sing. You’re hearing Auto-Tune all over, and that’s a shame.6
Nic Bertino, a Sacramento-based producer, estimates that 95% of all “radio-ready” recording sessions today use Auto-Tune in some fashion.7
Occasional backlashes have formed, with the public criticizing pitch-corrected live performances.8,9 But will discontent with Robo-Pop ever come to a head?
To answer that question, and to predict the trajectory of the Robo-Pop trend, we turn to socionomics. First, let’s look at a similar era in the past.
A Parallel Phenomenon
As a genre, disco music was a departure from the previously dominant rock, pop and R&B styles that were popular in the preceding positive-mood period.10 Its genesis was in the middle days of a Cycle-degree bear market, which, in inflation-adjusted terms, ran from 1966 to 1982 (see Figure 1).
From its beginnings, disco attracted critics. But by late in the bear market, a surprisingly violent backlash developed. “The world’s largest anti-disco rally,” aka “Disco Demolition Night,” was held on July 12, 1979 at Comiskey Park in Chicago during a baseball game between the Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers. What began as a publicity stunt to blow up a crate full of disco records ended in a riot. Fans charged the field, set fires and destroyed property; flying vinyl records and general brawling caused numerous injuries.11
Yet even as some listeners grew violent toward disco, artists from other genres climbed aboard the disco bandwagon. Blondie, Cher, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Rod Stewart, The Kinks, ELO, George Benson, Queen, Paul McCartney & Wings and Kiss all produced disco hits, and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack ruled the airwaves. The genre finally faded out in 1982, the very year of the bottom in the Dow/PPI ratio.
Prechter observed that polarization in pop music is characteristic of deep negative mood periods (see Figure 2). For example, in the 1970s, disco’s rise and fall coincided with punk music’s heyday and denouement:
… bear market moods produce social opposition as opposed to alignment. In the bull market of the 1950s and 1960s, young people all listened mostly to the same music. The bear market, in contrast, sported two distinct trends, the depressed and angry one [punk] and another that relentlessly pursued a sunny, singin’-in-the-rain outlook [disco]. Fans of each genre hated the other with a passion.12
Where Will Robo-Pop Go From Here?
Just as social mood produced both a large-degree bear market and disco between 1966 and 1982, it is producing a big bear market and the Auto-Tune craze today. There are multiple parallels in both the markets and the music. Both eras were preceded by long bull markets. Both bear markets sport sharp declines and rallies. Both periods have some measures of stock values rising while others are falling—the latter in inflation-adjusted indexes. Disco and Robo-Pop both appeared first in the nascent days of respective bear mood phases (see Figures 1 and 3). Both genres feature synthesized instrumentation and vocals, orchestral builds and breaks and instrumental layering that create sonic “highs.” Critics of both styles contend that they suffer from electronic over-production and a dearth of artistry.
Today, as Robo-Pop is on the rise, angry rock bands such as Seether, The Used and Avenged Sevenfold are gaining popularity. Fringe music such as dubstep (featuring electronic layers of aggressive, bass-heavy sound)13 is also climbing, just as The Socionomist contributors Matt Lampert and Euan Wilson predicted two years ago:
[When] social mood turns negative, lyrical themes will become dark and melody will diminish. …the vibrant underground community of noise artists will have their best chance to break into the mainstream.14
Recent singles across the charts, including Korn’s “Get Up,” Britney Spears’ “Hold it Against Me” and Kanye West/Jay-Z’s “Ni***s in Paris,” all incorporate dubstep elements. Drake’s new single, “Marvin’s Room,” and another track from Kanye West & Jay-Z, “New Day,” distort melody and darken the sound—ironically by employing Auto-Tune to produce a very non-Robo-Pop experience. This is another example of negative-mood polarization.
As with disco in the 1966–1982 period, we expect Robo-Pop to peak in popularity and experience its most violent backlash when the current social mood decline is further along (see Figure 4).
What’s Next for Top 40?
Although there are rumblings about pitch correction’s overuse, it’s a bit early for bonfires. Objections to Auto-Tune thus far have been limited to a small number of artists and music aficionados.
Socionomists have observed that large-degree market turns tend to signal seismic shifts in popular music. Compare, for example, two iconic Beatles’ singles that the band released on either side of a major mood peak: the bubble-gum hit “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (1963) and “Helter Skelter” (1968), which Paul McCartney called the “Loudest, nastiest, sweatiest rock number” the band could perform15 (For an in-depth report on music, see “Popular Culture and the Stock Market,” 1985.) Popular music will undergo changes in style until the current market trend bottoms. Hatred for Robo-Pop should snowball, too, as the bear market progresses. Before social mood turns positive again, expect to see massive popular opposition to Auto-Tune and a purging of the tracks from many people’s digital music collections.■
Jill Noble is a guest contributor to The Socionomist.
1Too much auto-tune. Virgin Media, Retrieved from http://www.virginmedia.com/music/features/too-much-autotune.php?
2Frere-Jones, S. (2008, June 9). The gerbil’s revenge. The New Yorker, Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/musical/2008/06/09/080609crmu_music_frerejones?currentPage=all.
3Recording Cher’s ‘Believe’ (1999, February). Sound on Sound, Retrieved from http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/feb99/articles/tracks661.htm.
4Gallo, D.J. (2011, February 7). NFL hangover: Super Bowl winners. ESPN, Retrieved from http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=gallo/110207&sportCat=nfl.
5Richards, C. (2011, February 1). Beyonce, Swift score big at the Grammys. The Washington Post, Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/01/31/AR2010013100757.html.
6Ryan, M. (2003, April 27). What, no pitch correction? Raising a flag on vocal effects. Chicago Tribune, Retrieved from http://msl1.mit.edu/furdlog/docs/2003-04-28_chitrib_pitch_correction.pdf.
7Freeman, M. (2009, February 2). A brief history of auto-tune. State, Retrieved from http://www.state.ie/6599-features/a-brief-history-of-auto-tune.
8X Factor 2010: Outraged viewers take to Twitter to complain ‘auto-tune’ technology was used on first episode. The Daily Mail, Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-1305115/X-Factor-2010-Outraged-viewers-Twitter-complain-auto-tune-technology-used-episode.html.
9A call to stop vocal pitch correction abuse in the Fox TV series ‘Glee’. PetitionOnline.com, Retrieved from http://www.petitiononline.com/glpitch/.
10Disco (2007, May 8). The Origin Of, Retrieved from http://www.theoriginof.com/disco.html.
11Disco demolition night: A midsummer nightmare. SteveMandich.com, Retrieved from http://www.stevemandich.com/otherstuff/disco.htm.
12Prechter, R. (1999). The Wave Principle of Human Social Behavior (p. 248). Gainesville, Georgia: New Classics Library.
13Gaerig, A. (2011, September 12). Dubstep 101: A U.S. primer. Spin, Retrieved from http://www.spin.com/articles/dubstep-101-us-primer.
14Lampert, M., & Wilson, E. (2009, October). Melody and mood: An update on the socionomics of popular music. The Socionomist.
15Helter Skelter. Songfacts, retrieved from http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=169.
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