The Big Hurt: Pop 3000!

At the dawn of a new millennium, pop cries out for innovation
By DAVID THORPE  |  December 29, 2008

I'm sometimes pigeonholed as some kind of Negative Nelly: a pessimist, a cynic, a grouch, even. Nothing could be further from the truth. I'm totally optimistic that pop music will rise to new heights of artistic excellence; the only reason it hasn't yet is because everything always sucks and everyone's an idiot but me. If we sort that stuff out, 2009 just might be a turning point in pop history.

It feels like innovation has been a little slow for the past few years, and it's time for musicians to step their game up. They've got precious little time left to make their mark — just one year from now, they'll be at some fancy musician New Year's Eve shindig, watching the date roll over from 12/31/2009 to 01/01/3000 in silent contemplation. Will they be proud of their achievements, or will they be hanging their heads in shame for accomplishing so little in their millennium? (Although, to be fair, it did seem weirdly shorter than the last one.) If they listen to me, for goddamned once, maybe they'll have something to be proud of.

A few months ago, I wrote a brilliant list of suggestions for how music could be improved: new instruments, like a piano-banjo combo or some kind of a whistle that causes orgasms; new vocal styles to replace rapping, like maybe coughing or making really slow croaking noises; increased holiday-related content in pop songs to prevent having to listen to a whole different set of songs at Christmastime; et cetera. I guess I was just casting pearls before swine — artists totally failed to take my constructive criticism seriously, and we were stuck with another year of mostly boring music.

There were a few bright spots, though: as Richard Beck's recent column detailed, something called Auto-Tune recently became the future of vocals, supplanting singing and rapping as the pinnacle of musical utterance. Considering my suggestion to advance vocal techniques, I think it's fair to say that I'm responsible for the whole Auto-Tune thing (in case you're wondering who to thank). I listened to a few Kenny West tracks showcasing the technology, and I was pretty impressed. It's some kind of machine that takes imperfect, off-key vocals and automatically transforms them into smooth, pitch-perfect campy disco robot burbling. I applaud the efforts of Kenny, Little Wayne, and T-Pain, but technology has actually been around for years — I'm pretty sure Peter Frampton somehow did it with a guitar and a weird spit-tube — but these guys have found new ways to abuse it. Well, not new ways, but they're abusing it more often, and hey, that's kind of a thing.

If you want to add some real innovation, though, I've got another million-dollar idea: how about a reverse-Auto-Tune, where you sing into it with actual notes and it translates those into normal speech, making your lyrics easier to understand? Then you could get that baby and a regular Auto-Tune going at the same time and it'll probably create a crazy psychedelic feedback loop. I have no idea what it would sound like (I'm not a musician), but as a critic I can speculate that it would be pretty fuckin' far out.

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