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Durham University


Music, Media and Technologies

Bridget Coulter (University of Sheffield) - Authenticity and auto-tune: technology and the construction of vocal 'naturalness' in popular music

09:10-10:40 - Session I: Digital technologies in studio and performance

The use of technology in popular music has long been a source of conflict and controversy. As Simon Frith notes in his 1986 paper ‘Art versus technology’, within popular music culture technology is often constructed as ‘fake’, in opposition to ideas of authenticity. In contrast, the human voice – with its links to notions corporeality and selfhood – is constructed as inherently natural. Consequently, technology that is thought to interfere with the process of vocal communication, such as auto-tune, is seen as a corrupting influence. Given that ideas of authenticity shape listeners’ judgements of musical value, a more in-depth investigation of the concept is needed, which interrogates constructions of vocal ‘naturalness’ and explores listeners’ opinions about vocal technologies.

My research critically examines the beliefs of a specific audience (adolescent girls) about the use of vocal technology in popular music. By conducting focus groups and interviews with 53 girls between the ages of 10 and 13, I carried out an investigation of girls’ opinions about music. Many of my participants had strong opinions about auto-tune, and their discussions centred around ideas of morality, truth and honesty. Some of the girls argued that the use of auto-tune was dishonest and deceptive; because they saw vocal performance as an act of emotional communication, they felt that auto-tune interfered with the ‘purity’ of this communication.

This paper explores the contentious role of vocal technology in popular music, offering an insight into the beliefs of a particular audience about technology and authenticity. By considering participants’ attitudes towards auto-tune, my research examines the ways in which auto-tune is constructed as unnatural, inauthentic and dishonest. These findings shed light on the discourses of authenticity and value employed by popular music audiences to justify musical judgements.