Music

20 years of Auto-Tune: The best and worst of Auto-Tune's warbling legacy

Two decades ago this month Cher's Believe popularised the use of Auto-Tune in pop music, and suddenly everything changed. Is it a good thing or a bad thing? Malcolm Jack tries to decide by sorting the auto tunes from the auto goons...

With the weird digitised warblings of a singer who sounded like she’d swallowed a dial-up modem, it was exactly 20 years ago this month that Cher and her song Believe opened the fresh hell of Auto-Tune upon music, and nothing has been quite the same since.

Suddenly singers who had never in their lives been in so much as the same postcode as the correct key could, with liberal applications of this extraordinary vocal Viagra, range freely and wildly through the scales like a kind of robot Whitney Houston on heat.

Other, less disingenuous, artists saw potential to use it to manipulate their voice in unusual ways, to sometimes cool and to sometimes toe-curling effect. Cher meanwhile strode off into the sunset to later become an unlikely septuagenarian Twitter badass and star of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, seemingly uncaring as to the dark forces she had unleashed.

Do you believe in life for music after Auto-Tune, or do you really not think you’re strong enough? Decide by perusing this helpful list of Auto-Tune lows and highs.

Auto Goons

Jason Derulo: Whatcha Say

If there’s one thing that Jason Derulo loves more than singing his own name as a sort of narcissistic audio ident – and above there’s a 57-minute-long YouTube compilation of clips of him doing that if you require proof – then it’s slathering his voice in Auto-Tune. Then singing his own name.

Paris Hilton: Come Alive

To be fair to Paris Hilton, in that same way that she has no other discernable talents beyond basic stuff like walking and talking and breathing air, nobody expected her to be able to sing either. Thus the hotel heiress’s short and extravagantly Auto-Tuned pop career, which was less high-end Hilton than it was motorway service Travelodge.

U2: Love Is All We Have Left

Listening to the extraneous Auto-Tuned passage from the opener to U2’s entirely missable latest album Songs of Experience, one is reminded of that oft-repeated tale about Bono supposedly writing to Captain Beefheart sometime in the Eighties requesting that they collaborate, only for Beefheart to reply simply: “Dear Bongo, no”.

Rebecca Black: Friday

Practically the Sistine Chapel of bad pop, one-hit wonder child star Black’s incomprehensibly awful 2011 ode to the end of the week is in the Top Five most disliked videos ever on YouTube. It also has be the most Auto-Tuned song of all time. Presumably nobody wanted to be so mean as to tell a 13-year-old she couldn’t sing, which is probably fair enough.

Auto Tunes

Daft Punk: One More Time

Interesting fact: Cher’s Believe is based around a sample from Daft Punk’s single Revolution 909. The French duo were well entitled to take up the Auto-Tune mantle in 2000, then, with this humanoid French house classic. Considering their whole robot conceit, the machine-processed vocals felt fantastically apt.

Kanye West: Runaway

Even if Jay-Z claimed to have killed auto-tune in 2009 with his track DOA (Death of Auto-Tune), it remains a common and often cleverly used device in loads of modern hip-hop. Kanye West is rap’s Auto-Tune auteur, and the screwed-up vocal solo in Runaway proves it.

Bon Iver: 715 – CRΣΣKS

Not to be dismissed as an indie-folk wet blanket, Justin ‘Bon Iver’ Vernon’s album 22, A Million saw him create a strange, mysterious and sublime new sound world for himself slathered in enough Auto-Tune-as-instrument trickery to correct even Simon Le Bon at Live Aid.

Cher: Believe

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Uu3kCEEc98

Say what you like about Believe – ideally in a comedy Auto-Tune voice – it was one of the last great pop hits of the 20th century, and an epic game-changer. It’s still the biggest UK single of all time by a female artist, with 1.8 million sales. Believe!

Image: iStock

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