Who knew that a technology first conceived to search for oil and gas deposits would end up revitalizing Cher’s career? Or changing the very nature of pop music? That’s the legacy of Auto-Tune, the studio bumfluffery that can make any singer sounds machine-perfect (i.e. inhumanly perfect).
Pitchfork has this history.
It happened exactly 36 seconds into the song—a glimpse of the shape of pop to come, a feel of the fabric of the future we now inhabit. The phrase “I can’t break through” turned crystalline, like the singer suddenly disappeared behind frosted glass. That sparkly special effect reappeared in the next verse, but this time a robotic warble wobbled, “So sa-a-a-ad that you’re leaving.”
The song, of course, was Cher’s “Believe,” a worldwide smash on its October 1998 release. And what we were really “leaving” was the 20th century.
The pitch-correction technology Auto-Tune had been on the market for about a year before “Believe” hit the charts, but its previous appearances had been discreet, as its makers, Antares Audio Technologies, intended. “Believe” was the first record where the effect drew attention to itself: The glow-and-flutter of Cher’s voice at key points in the song announced its own technological artifice—a blend of posthuman perfection and angelic transcendence ideal for the vague religiosity of the chorus, “Do you believe in life after love?”
The song’s producers, Mark Taylor and Brian Rawling, tried to keep secret the source of their magic trick, even coming up with a cover story that identified the machine as a brand of vocoder pedal, that robotic-sounding analog-era effect widely used in disco and funk. But the truth seeped out. Soon overtly Auto-Tuned vocals were cropping up all over the sonic landscape, in R&B and dancehall, pop, house, and even country.
Right from the start, it always felt like a gimmick, something forever on the brink of falling from public favor. But Auto-Tune proved to be the fad that just wouldn’t fade. Its use is now more entrenched than ever. Despite all the premature expectations of its imminent demise, Auto-Tune’s potential as a creative tool turned out to be wider and wilder than anybody could ever have dreamt back when “Believe” topped the charts in 23 countries.
One recent measure of its triumph is Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s “Apeshit.” Here Queen Bey jumps on the trap bandwagon, tracing over verses written by Migos’ Quavo and Offset through the crinkled sheen of over-cranked Auto-Tune. Some might take “Apeshit” as yet another example of Beyoncé’s Midas-touch mastery, but really it was a transparent attempt to compete on urban radio by adopting the prevailing template of commercial-yet-street rap. Jay-Z certainly doesn’t sound overjoyed about being surrounded on all sides by the effect, having proclaimed the “death of Auto-Tune” a decade ago.
What follows is the story of the life of Auto-Tune—its unexpected staying power, its global penetration, its freakily persistent power to thrill listeners.