it's just common sense

The musings of an over qualified white male on matters of media, music, science, politics, etc, that are patently obvious.

Monday, August 30, 2004

From Dinah Washington to Britney Spears: Technology and the Decline of Musical Integrity

Today, 08/29/04, is the 80th anniversary of the birth of Dinah Washington, ( ), (, for many years one of my favorite female vocalists. Dinah left us, all too early, at the age of 39, (not 42), in 1963. Dinah's work, despite her artistic and commercial successes has lived in the shadows of other, for some reason bigger legends such as Ella, (We only need her first name to identify her), Billie Holiday, and others. Over the years, I have given out more than my fair share of Dinah recordings as xmas or birthday presents, as a way of saying to the recipient, "Here is someone equally marvelous that you will appreciate knowing about".

True vocalists share an array of traits; purity of tone, range, signature phrasing, the ability to comfortably and convincingly convey the emotional content of a composition, as well as the capacity to interpret and offer a diverse set of material. True vocalists are also able to imprint a song with their own particular style, no matter how many times in the past it may have been recorded, their version of the song belongs to them. Take the Kurt Weil composition Mack the Knife as but one of the thousands of examples available. Over the decades this tune, has belonged to Ella, Frank Sinatra, or Bobby Darin to name merely three. Each singer put such a personal stamp on the performance that each recording can be said to be definitive, and bears the mark of greatness through the ability to make the song their own.

Dinah shared each and every one of these elements with other true vocalists. Listen for example to her top ten recording of the old torch song, What a Difference a Day Made, along with the raucous and funny, Judge, I Say Judge, Give Me the Electric Chair. ( See link for a brief biography and discography, ). This is a mere 6 minute foray into what Dinah was, yet dramatically displays the diversity and depth that she brought to the microphone; pure tones, phrasing, emotion, and individuality were hers.

As technology grows however, bringing with it all manner of things that it can do, not only for music, but also to music, new issues of artistic integrity and music criticism arise. It becomes necessary, along the waves of digital change to reemphasize one aspect of greatness that was at one time an absolute given. Astonishingly, this would be the notion that the live performance or CD recording we are hearing is what the musicians and singers actually did. As time goes on, the music that is being offered to us, whether recorded or live, is simply no longer the result of human beings "performing", but the result of software and digital processors that literally change the notes of voices and instruments by raising or lowering off key pitches to the next closest note in the key. Thus, it has become, not only impossible to make a harmonic mistake, but also has become unnecessary to have vocal or instrumental proficiency, and equally unnecessary to strive for perfection. The artist no longer has the compulsion to pay attention, to muster the energy, effort, discipline, and most importantly the integrity that perfection, or near perfection used to require. Digital wizardry will cover for any shortcomings they may have. This is grave and unnerving.

Current technology has evolved devices that are currently called autotuners. Autotuners have the ability to alter tones, that are off key, of both singers and musicians into tones that are perfectly in key. In the beginning, this was something that could only be done in the studio, after the fact. Engineers would apply what was then called pitch correction software to a recording and push the offending tones into pleasing perfection. With the advent of autotuners however, this can now be done in real time, even during a live performance. In short, for so called artists who would choose to use such devices, the "music" we hear is not the result of what they are doing, but rather is some kind of product that has been formulated by a machine and software. I refuse to call this music or artistry. It is disrespectful to other artists and dishonest to the audience, it is cheating, plain and simple.

The reach of digital technology however, is not restricted to the tones of instruments and voices, but to one of the most basic aspects of western music and musicians, and that is rhythm. It is possible in the studio, via a process that at least one manufacturer calls nudging, to take a performance, and to literally "nudge" the beat of the drums, the chords of a guitar, or anything else for that matter into a perfect unison, right on the beat, thus improving what the musicians themselves are doing on yet another level of shame.

If nothing else, the process of art is the process of putting oneself "out there" on a very risky and personal level. It is as though to say, "Here is what I do, this is what I think is good, this is what is inside of me." It takes courage for an artist to actually put oneself out there, no matter what the medium. Prior to the courage, it takes time, lots of time, practice, discipline, and dedication. Or is it just a good brand of autotuner?

There has been a loss of purity in live music for many years now. Dinah or Ella could bring an audience to deep and quiet tears with nothing but their voices and a pianist, truly putting themselves "out there". Increasingly, modern artists seem to need light shows, pyrotechnics, dancers, taped accompaniment of layered voicings, (How else do you think Britney gets to sing harmony with herself in 4 parts?). Yes, even without autotuners, the live performance has become less pure, and we lose sight as a society of the beauty in unadorned music.

Abbey Lincoln, ( ), tells a story about appearing live with Ella Fitzgerald, obviously fairly late in Ella's career. Apparently, it was normal for Ella to walk around back stage, before a performance, worrying and hoping that she would sing in a way that the audience would enjoy. The First Lady of Song never disappointed, and never used the "gift" of digital perfect pitch, she, like Dinah Washington, and many others managed that on her own.

Shame on the so called artists who use such devices, and shame on the audiences and consumers who accept such artificial tripe. Being an artist means having talent, and having talent means hard work and practice. It does not mean having a good autotuner.

Happy Birthday Dinah !

The List of Digital Shame
(To be periodically updated as new information becomes available)

Cher, N'Sync, Shania Twain,
Britney Spears, Reba MacIntyre, Sum 41,
Good Charlotte, Mariah Carey,
95% of music from Nashville, (Gee, what a surprise),

And Now This: Ashlee Simpson walks off the stage at Saturday Night Live. The band started playing one song, and with her microphone at her side, the pre-recorded vocal track, (that she was presumably to lip sync), was actualy some OTHER song. Ashlee, in one of the great show biz ad libs of all time, opted to walk off the stage, rather than sing the correct song live. Of course the microphone she held was probably not turned on anyhow.

Ms Simpson, at first selfishly blamed the band for starting the wrong song, but as of 10/25/04, she had recanted and apologized to the musicians. Interesting as a final that Simpson had previously made public statements to the effect of' "I would never think of lip syncing, that's just not me" note Can anyone say Milli Vanilli?


  • At March 22, 2006 at 6:00 PM, Blogger cms said…

    It's so refreshing to find a fellow Dinah fan. I'm disgusted by the decline you write of. I'm also a Kate Hepburn fan. Cheers for a well written blog.

  • At September 25, 2008 at 8:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Well said, as Dinah fan myself I can fully understand your feelings.
    Listening to Dinah has actually helped me to better appreciate the modern day "Dinah's", to a point that I now mostly prefer to listen to artists with their own style and who are fully capabale to express what they are singing about.

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