The vanishing voice
Is the untreated voice disappearing from music? Rory Williamson discusses the omnipresence of vocal alteration
by Rory Williamson
Saturday 29th September 2012, 20:30 BST
“This is the death of auto-tune, moment of silence,” prophesied Jay-Z in 2009; 3 years on and the buzz of mechanised vocals are all the more deafening. From the aural stabwounds inflicted by Britney’s ‘Piece of Me’ to everything released by Ke$ha, auto-tune certainly has a lot to answer for; however, it is merely the most prominent element of the wider dearth of untreated vocals in contemporary music.
While auto-tune homogenises the top 40 into one pitch-perfect voice, navel-gazing indie bands cloak their work in nostalgic reverb. With our ears now largely desensitized to such effects, we are consistently expectant of vocal perfection. Although albums like The Knife’s Silent Shout have showcased the full potential of electronically mutating the human voice into unnatural forms, all too often a lack of such inventiveness means that vocals are sapped of their ability to engage the listener.
Take the much-hyped Grimes, for instance: although the melodies of ‘Genesis’ and ‘Oblivion’ may be infectious, her effects-laden voice is an insubstantial wisp of an instrument, failing to connect on any humanly emotional level. Indeed, when she sings, “Soft skin/You can touch me again,” the lack of visceral impact becomes painfully clear. The effect of the reverb treasured by bands like Deerhunter and Camera Obscura can be similar: the muffled voices float off into the larger soundscape as the artificial echo places a distancing barrier between vocalist and listener.
Listening to more direct vocals like the sharp intakes of breath audible on Björk’s Vespertine, it becomes clear that part of what such approaches are losing out on is a sense of the voice as a bodily instrument, as the product of dynamic muscular effort.
Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel, released earlier this year, was a timely reminder of the stark power of hearing a human voice tear its way up the throat without alteration. It’s as though Apple slept through both the birth of auto-tune and its proclaimed death. Her spartan arrangements foreground a voice that is at once imperfect and captivating; pitch issues, cracks and all, its spontaneous energy and rawness are at times ugly but always searingly direct. In the album’s focus on the primal, emotional power of the untreated voice, it seems almost entirely removed from its contemporary setting, but this in itself could be taken as forcible commentary.
A movement away from vocal alteration does not necessarily mean a separation from the cultural moment, though, as evidenced by Laurel Halo’s Quarantine. Here, although Halo’s voice appears in many electronically enhanced guises, the most otherworldly effect comes from the unedited, at times atonal delivery that acts as the record’s defining feature.
Now that our ears are accustomed to artificial tonal perfection, Halo’s decision has proved bold and divisive, as well as ironically avant-garde. The untouched, human roughness of these vocals slices through an entirely synthesised backdrop, creating a disjunction that is both jarring as well as excitingly modern, even futuristic. She makes the human voice sound alien by divorcing it from its surrounding landscape, and the result is as entrancing as it is disorienting.
Apple and Halo, though worlds apart musically, have both exploited the surprise with which the untreated voice is now heard; in doing so, they have pointed to the fact that what was once a stylistic choice has become a tiring prerequisite. Ironically, then, it seems that in 2012 the sound of a pure, untouched human voice is more innovative than the use of the most advanced technology. The disappearance of the voice serves only to make its return more vital and effective.