Ok, this is going to be harrowing and arduous but I would just say hang in there. I think we will all get to a better place by the end of this. I’ve decided to blog about this song at length (something which would otherwise be a chapter in pop culture analysis) because I didn’t think all that much of the song myself until last week (sure it was fun and influential, but not substantial). But I’ve been educated a bit more on its inner workings and I now see much more clearly how those workings and arguments overlap very closely to my own arguements around other Cher products.
Which is all to say the song “Believe” was never a hill I wanted to die on. “Gypsys, Tramps and Thieves” is the hill I want to die on. But I finally had a chance to read the Cambridge University Press, Popular Music journal article from October 2001, “Believe, Vocoders, Digitalised Female Identity and Camp” by Kay Dickinson and I’ve had my head taken off.
(I found the article recently by searching through the academic database JSTOR. And as an aside, I’ve come to believe a paid JSTOR account is a barometer of true nerdom. In fact, most academics get their nerdy essays for free through their academic institution's paid JSTOR [or the like]. You have to be a real hardhat nerd to pay for your own subscription.)
Anyway, so "Believe." Not one of my touchstones. But I have found myself oftentimes forced into a defensive position relative to the song in certain fanboy circles, some of which reside in my own family. And in this blog I’m often writing from the defensive position and I’ve been thinking this probably has to do with coming of age while a part of marginalized groups (girl culture and socially, gay culture) and most certainly growing up in a house with two older brothers who tried to assert musical dominance over my campy appetites.
Dickinson's article forcuses on cultural meanings around the use of the vocoder, which "Believe" was falsely believed to have used for its "Cher effect." But we’ll get to that later. Her points about the vocoder are still germaine for their historical context.
Dicksionson reviews how the vocoder was invented “in Germany in 1939 as a means of disguising military voice transmissions” and how the technology has been previously used mostly only by “avant garde male performers." Dickinson traces the vocoder as “a piece of analogue equipment” often used to signal over a keyboard or guitar track to “render it more sonically complex.”
The Boys of Music
“Unsurprisingly, then, early pop interest in the vocoder came from (mainly) male musicials with heavy investments in types of futurism, artists such as Kraftwerk, Stevie Wonder, Deveo, Jean-Michel Jarre, Cabare Voltaire and Laurie Anderson. Later, the vocoder became a stalwart technology of early electro and has, since then, infused contemporary hip hop and the work of more retro-tinged dance acts such as Daft Punk and Air.”
And here’s the crux of the issue, according to Dickinson:
“Sooner or later during these exercises, the manipulated human voice bangs into some deeply rooted beliefs about expressiveness within popular music, beliefs which so often grow out of how we constitute ‘the human body’ at any given time…the vocoder’s sound then carries along certain questions about music’s position vis-à-vis technology and the bodily self, where one starts and the other stops….Evidently, there are conventions and conditions controlling what ‘real’ talent and ‘real’ music are at any given time.”
She quotes extensively from E. Leach from an article called “Vicars of ‘Wannabie’: Authenticity and the Spice Girls” and this marker for inauthenticity could easily be (and has been) applied to all of Cher’s musical outputs:
“Makers for authenticity in rock are the presence of a talented individual or small group formed organically from ‘naturally’ knowing one another, driven to write songs…who forge the music and play it themselves, typically in the standard musical arrangement of two different guitars, lead and bass, with optional keyboard, obligatory drums and a vocalist who might also be a guitarist, and is usually the songwriter…The fundamental White masculinity of these groups is epitomized in their organic unity and the way the group channels its identity through one singer who forms the expression of a group-originated song. Such a band should progress naturally as artists (rather than being an industry confection and being told what to do) and would be able to perform live (rather than requiring the artifice of technology or the commercialization of recording).”
Okay, so that’s a lot to chew one right there. I don’t think Leach (or Dickinson) is suggesting the configuration above is bad or wrong (and Dickinson later conceds the setup above is still a product happily engaged with by girls and gay cultures), just that it’s the dominant culture’s status quo, and although it was once a revolutionary design, it has since left out a lot of participants outside of its arguably, mostly, straight white-male paradigm. Basically, its assignments of authenticity are very, very strict.
Dickinson then says,
“These comforting and involving fantasies about value and meaningful expression have been and continue to be outrageously selective in their recourse to technology, labour and self-hood. Guitars and microphones—to pick the easiest examples—are somehow less intrusive in their mediation of artistic expression than other equipment, such as the vocoder…The convention of loading the notion of artistic authentic onto the human voice weighs heavily upon what the sound of the vocoder means….the expulsion of feeling through the voice, through visceral bodily vibrations, consequently bears the potential to trigger sentient responses within the listener too, responses which vary from elation to the threat of harm…
[that there is] a dichotomy between the vocoded voice and the more ‘organic’ one…crumbles upon closer inspection, most obviously both are presented as exuding from the same human source-point…..Cher’s voice in ‘Believe’ does not strike us as coming totally from within; nor though should any recorded voice which has inevitably been minced through various pieces of machinery before we hear it it, including those which turn it into and back out of zeros and ones, adding and subtracting along the way.
..in vocoder tracks, the vitality and creativity inherent in the technologies in use stand centre stange, pontificating on questions of authenticity and immediacy….many of the current vocoder tracks are shrugged off as meaningless gimmickry because they spring from that lowlier, more ersatz genre, pop….seen as a sparkly bauble….(it is read as being done to, rather than done by, the artist’s voice)…questions circling some tenuous notions of single-handed musical genius.”
The Girls of Music
In any case, Dickinson says her main goal is to investigate how the vocoder as a technology might actually be empowering, now that it's being considered as part of female or more marginalized music forms, and what access to technology itself means to women and gay culture,
“which types of tehnological mastery garner prestige and which do not (knowing one’s way around Cubase ranking significantly higher than being able to work a ‘domestic’ or sweat shop tool like a sewing machine) are telling here.
Pop, maybe more than other genres, has seen many skirmishes over artifice’s actual meaning and worth, but, although pop has economic clout here, its ideas often go undear in the bustle to cynically cash in without admitting any actual faith in the genre’s politics…..’It is only pop and the vocoder is just another means of pulling a wool spun of talentlessness over the eyes of the gullible.'”
Dickinson lightly touches on theories of cyber-feminism and how their readings might apply here. Which brings us to my other life durrently studying dgital poetry and in this part of the essay, ideas overlap around the failed promises of the Internet:
“Thus, while the computer technology seems to promise a world beyond gender differences, the gender gap grows wider….increasing polarization of resources and means…..and the proliferation of all kinds of differences through the new technologies will not be nearly as liberating as the cyber-artists and internet addicts would want us to believe…the alleged triumph of high-technologies is not matched by a leap of the human imagination to create new images and representations.
[Which is to say slurs against marginalized groups and stereotypes have become accelerated on the Internet, not diminished. I’ll be stealing this quote for my other blog, thank you!]
The question that now arises is whether certain uses of the vocoder sympathize with a reactionary or an empowering configuration of femininity...
The vocoder’s popularity may well lie in the symbolic bridge it is seen to form between the vacillating perceptions of the person and the machine….obviously, anything which draws attention to borderlines might also help elucidate old-guard distinctions which have been drawn up in the past.”
Dickinson talks about how the female voice “serves as an emblem” in dance music with its “stark automation” and its focus on instrumentation and how "Believe" differs here because although it uses a “trancier end of techno, it’s stylistically linked to disco, Hi-NRG (and thus “certain gay subcultural histories). She says the vocals are “uncharacteristically high in the mix—as they would be in a pop track” making the song a hybrid of genres, “it dwells on borderlines.”
She says the vocals evoke “a sense of the multiplicity and incoherence of the self through the voice” ...which is why I feel it so destabilizes people’s ideas around the self and the voice.
At the same time, the lyrics deal with very human emotions of suffering ("believing and loving") reinforcing the humanity of the vocalist.
Dickinson also explores the idea of prosthetics, a kind of addition to the human self which is acceptable with “such accoutrements as guns, guitars, spectacles and tooth fillings.” But not vocal add ons. It's in this context, she explores Cher's plastic surgeries, how Cher’s own public identity “encompasses many of these ideas about the body and technology and gender and so the some can’t help but become 'a feminist concern'...her plastic surgery calls to bear “debates surrounding representation, production and the perception of women. " She says this is undeniably a “Cher” song that contains all the baggage of Cherness, however “assembled” we interpret that to be.
She goes into more detail about plastic surgery, which is a separate thesis in itself, but the main point is that Cher is comfortable with prosthetics. This article fails to mention Cher's underwritting of various plastic surgeries for children with Craniofacial Dysplasia which (1) illustrates how Cher’s investment in plastic surgery goes beyond her own face and (2) how society finds plastic surgery and prosthetics desirable (even if occassionally elective) for "correcting" issues beyond the scope of aging.
This article simply maintains that some feminist read elective surgery as another body transfiguration and that despite any alterations Cher has made to her voice (which is iconic) or her body (ditto),
"she has not lost her coherence. She perpetuates a very firm sense of self and, whilst she mutates from time to time (as all good technology does), she is engineered according to principles which equate with notions of autonomous choice. This seems largely possible because of her position within the genre of pop (so often seen as disempowering space).”
Isn’t that amazing?
It’s certainly a challenge to deciphering what authenticity means. As we discussed recently, Cher has always faced this challenge of authenticity throughout her career, and yet simultaneously is so much herself she's stubornly imbued in her freaking doll! (See A Cher Doll Story) Cher also challenges the idea of a core artistic self and proposes the opportunities of multiple creative identities.
But what about the male producers?
“Are Taylor and Rawling just other types of surgeons moulding ‘Cher’ into something which cannot help but represent masculine dominance and the male resuscitation of a waning female singing career…male producers chopping chunks out of a woman’s performance”? Or is there still a lot to be said for the fact that pop’s systems of stardom place the female Cher at the song’s helm?”
She quotes B. Bradby as pointing out the typical “transient position” of women in dance music, women who are “often ‘featured’ rather than a secure member of any outfit.”
But she ultimately disagrees: Cher’s “fetishization has encased her in a kind of armour—she has been ‘technologised’ as it were and the end result works more in her favor” [and cannot] outshine what Cher has to offer the re-negotiation of women’s musical presences”
And what about women wielding (or appearing to wield) technology?
“The vocoder strongly prompts us to think through some newer possibilities for women’s profitable social mobility through music…
…as I have argued, women are usually held to be more instinctive and pre-technological , further away from harnessing the powers of machinery (musical or elsewhere) than men, so performers such as Cher can help but putting spanners in these work… [people] often refer to it by terms like ‘that Cher noise.’ This attributes mastery to a woman, even if she was not part of that particular production process and here the benefits of pop stardom become evident…she does become a metaphor for what women could possibly achieve with more prestigious forms of technology.”
Dickinsom maintains that previous efforts at feminism in pop music have only extended to looks and behaviors in videos, on stage and in personal gestures:
“Cultural studies have long applauded women who engage in gender parody of a visual order—such as Madonna and Annie Lennox—but, in some ways, this can lessen the worth of the work they do within their careers as musicians. A vocoder intervenes at an unavoidable level of musical expression—it uses the medium as the message—encouraging the listener to think of these women as professionals within the practice. Interestingly, the voice is a sphere where a lot of female artists with complex philosophies about masquerade maintain a particularly staid paradigm…”
The Other Boys of Music
Dickinson then explores the intersection between technology, camp and gay culture. She points out how “the camp markers of fussiness and nisppy asides “ have been attributed to many automated characters in movies: HAL (2001), KIT (Knight Rider) andC-3PO (Star Wars).
I had never noticed that. Very interesting, that.
Cher is “a recognized icon with gay male culture and "Believe," says Dickinson, “invokes a theme familiar to gay dance classices: the triumph and liberation of the downtrodden or unloved….[with the lyric] 'Maybe I’m too good for you’, Cher conjures up certain allusions to the vocabularies of gay pride.”
“One of camp’s more pervasive projects is a certain delight in the inauthentic, in things which are obviously pretending to be what they are not and to some degree, speak to the difficulties of existing within an ill-fitting public façade.”
And this is a small explaination of Cher’s gay following that I feel has not been articulated quite this way before, jubilance in the face of oppression:
"[Cher’s] “jubilance, despite not belonging, loops back into camp and certain strategies of queer everyday life.”
“Hand in hand with this enjoyment of the unconvincing comes a partiality for things which are maybe out of date, which have fallen by the wayside, and this, again, shows support for the neglected undersdog….'Believe' may have had to jostle particularly hard for political attention because it is a product of a more derided genre. Not so in the mainstream of queer musical aesthetics where pop…disco, the torch song [are] the most politicised musical forms..
Esentially camp….gives its objects subversive qualities without worrying about whether they are ‘authentic’…in the first place….camp has long been a shared pleasure within gay communities, a way of coping within a culture which marginlises you…[and this] might include female musicians and female fans.
Camp may seem to make light, but that does not mean it is to be taken lightly.”
And yet there are precious few other strategies for actually falling in love with the mainstream and keeping one’s political convictions intact. By pushing current (largely straight male) standards of pop, perfection, fakery and behind-the-scenes mechanization in unusual directions….a vocoder might complicate staid notions of reality, the body, femininity and female capability…Camp has always been about making do within the mainstream, twisiting it, adorning aspects of it…wobbling its more restrictive given meanings.”
Yes, yes and yes.
Auto-Tune and the Adorability of T-Pain
Ok, so the main problem with Dickinson's essay is that Mark Taylor lied when he said he was using a vocoder. This essay came out in 2001 and the truth about "Believe" wasn’t out yet. Taylor used the now infamous Auto-Tune pitch correction software with the Retune dial set to zero.
But here’s the thing, does that change much about Dickinson’s argument about political and aesthetic uses of technology in pop music for marginilized cultures? Just go back to the top of this whole diatribe and replace every use of word vocoder with Auto-Tune and see what happens.
But you don’t even need to do that because we have Netflix’s This is Pop series and its episode on Auto-Tune, which also incorporates the historical flack over the vocoder. It’s all of a piece, it turns out. And as we will soon see, the show illuminates beautifully the politics around the idea of the borderline (human/machine, man/woman, black/white, pop/art.)
The show begins with clips of all the jokes and commentary surrounding Auto-Tune: it's evil, it has destroyed the music business by editing the human element out, it's bland, stale and boring, how Usher told his friend T-Pain that he had “fucked up music for real singers” and how this led to T-Pains four-year depression (T-Pain comes across as adorable in this documentary, I have to say, as does his wife).
In this episode, we first meet the 1996 inventor of Auto-Tune and learn about his interest in the mathematics of sound, which was interesting in itself. We then meet engineer Ken Scott who talks about producing the Beatles and David Bowie. He says David Bowie was the best singer he's worked with in 55 years, how 95% of the Bowie recordings were first take. “It’s a performance,” he said but “very few people have that skill” in his experience.
The software plug-in was used surreptitiously until Cher’s use of it in 1998 which made her voice sound somewhat alien. This was a willful misuse of the technology that the inventor laughs about and claims never once occurred to him as a possible use-case.
We then talk to Robin A. Smith, orchestral arranger on "Believe." He says the pressure for perfect vocals came with the synthesizer. A clip of Mark Taylor then shows him talking about how the setting he used bends notes. He plays Cher’s vocal with and without the effect.
Then we pivot to T-Pain and his solo career trajectory from a singer in a rap group to developing his solo career in the early 2000s. He claims he first heard the vocal effect on a piece of J. Lo audio. For a year he researched every preset of every plugin to find Auto-Tune.
We then return to the 1980s to visit previous criticism of the vocoder under the use of Roger Troutman and in an old video Troutman explains how in live performances the use of the vocoder got people excited and dancing.
We then talk to “award-winning electronic music pioneer” Suzanne Ciani. She talks about how there is a backlash for any new technology, especially ones “not tethered to a reality,” ones that are a challenge to what we already know. We see her on David Letterman explaining her voicebox and enduring dismissive comments about sounding weird. She says she has always considered her voicebox/vocoder a new instrument, a tool. She says she uses her voice to shape an electronic sound.
T-Pain talks about how Auto-Tune wasn’t respected until an artist already considered to be a musical genius, Kanyee West, used it and then a lot of rappers started using it. T-Pain even says West predicted to T-Pain this would happen even as they were recording.
Music critic Julianne Escobedo Shepherd then talks about all the backlash and derogatory commentary that resumed.
I have to stop here to say how easy it is to get defensive when confronted with some "new thing" or something contractitory to one's own project. This is true for all the arts. I have felt it myself. You either think "Aww, I wanna do that!" or "Should I be doing that? I don't wanna do that." It’s hard not to wonder 'how does this reflect back on me?' But I keep reminding myself, sometimes it’s not all about you.
Shepherd puts this very succinctly when she reminds us of Death Cab For Cuties attempt to get a boycott going against Auto-Tune: “Nobody is trying to hear you sing with auto-tune anyway, dudes.”
Next in the episode, we turn to the satirical YouTube viral videos from Gregory Brothers (Schmoyoho), their "Auto-Tune the News" videos, particularly videos with then-Vice-President Joe Biden and the similar video Very Thin Ice with Katy Couric. According to brother Michael Gregory, the Internet loves the satiric and the accidental and having Biden and Couric accidentally sing the news with auto-tune fit the bill perfectly.
We then talk to musician-writer Jace Clayton who says the history of electornic music is the creative misuse of available tools. He talks about the rap DJ practice of misusing record turntables in scratching and layering. This is the seat of creativity, Clayton says and he says Internet access to the Auto-Tune tool was part of its appeal.
And interestingly he also points to the popularity of auto-tune in countries like Morocco and in Arab music generally due to a very specific appreciation of the call to prayer, which Muslims have heard five times a day for the last 1,300 years. The call to prayer usese the melisma singing style where pitch is pushed up and down across one syllable. Clayton points out that this is also popular in African American singing tradtions and R&B. He uses the opening bars of Whitney Houston’s version of "I Will Always Love You" to visually illustrate this. It’s helpful here to compare Houston’s version in this way to Dolly Parton’s version(s). Clayton says a diva is often known as someone who can hit these notes, make these pitch runs and that auto-tune does a version of this.
We then return to T-Pain who insists the “modulation passing through me is me.” Asked why, in the face of all the adversity and his own desire to throw in the towel, did he decide to keep going with auto-tune, he said his wife told him it was fine.
(Aw! Now here is where I start to swoon).
His wife is of mixed race (a borderline) and she said she received “shit from both sides” about who she should be (“you should be this…you should be that”) “I’m just me,” she said. (OMG!) She had already been through it, she says, and told T-Pain “You don’t have to fit to what a singer is supposed to sound like.” (!!!!)
Then in 2014 T-Pain did NPR's Tiny Desk Concert without Auto-Tune and the Internet lost its mind with the realization that his was a good songwriter and singer. T-Pain said this just made him more angry. As if “all my success was just some software plugin” not the writing, producing and the rest of it.
Suzanne Ciani says technology is its own language, not a substitute. Jace Clayton says Auto-Tune is the most “important musical tool of the 21st century because it’s an active and complicated engagement with a machine at the level of the human voice. It’s using us as a carrier…a tool [that makes us] rethink what it means to be a human today. That’s a lot. You just can’t shake it off as a sound that’s goofy.”
Michael Gregory says the tool is not inherently good or bad but that it’s bad for people to constantly expect people to be perfect.
And it can't be overstated, not every artist should pick up every tool. But we should definitely check our own prejudices about something as innocuous as a knob on a software plugin.
Does it really rise to the level of evil and why should you think so?