Popping Off: T-Pain’s “Natural” Voice Isn’t Any More Real Than His Auto-Tune Hits

Why do we celebrate the ability to sing to a culturally acceptable standard over driving innovation in the pop industry?

November 14, 2014

We pride ourselves at The FADER on scouring the globe to introduce you to some of the most left-field music around. But in our monthly column Popping Off, Aimee Cliff takes the temperature of mainstream pop music.

"What are normative sonics?" It's a good question, and one that left me stumped when it was posed to me by experimental artist Planningtorock in an interview last year. I was trying to understand what she meant when she said her latest album was an exercise in "queering" sound. She pointed to her use of her own voice—which is a broad, friendly, Northern English accent when speaking, and a deeply pitch-shifted, quasi-American croon when singing—as the most explicit example of her bending expectations of what sound she "should" be making. "I don't believe in this essential thinking [that] there's a 'natural voice,'" she explained. "I mean, my voice is never the same once. It's like this idea of a 'truth,' or a 'real you.' I think what you hear on the record is as much me as anything else; in fact I think it's even more me."

I thought of her words a few weeks ago when I was bummed out that a man in the pub guessed, based on my speaking voice, that I'm from affluent London district Kensington (I'm not; apparently I've subconsciously dropped my Midlands accent after too much time in the south). I thought about it again when listening to PC Music's cartoonishly pitched-up vocals this summer, looking for the cracks of humanity in their cyber sheen, and realizing there was as much to connect with in their uncanny vocal snippets as there is in a "traditional" singer's melisma. It occurred to me again when the internet sneered over leaked recordings of Courtney Love's raw live vocal a few months back; and again a couple weeks ago, when millions had the opposite, cringingly fawning reaction to T-Pain's un-Auto-Tuned live performance for NPR.

It's an essentialist belief in the existence of a "natural voice" that causes our mass feverish obsession with hearing an artist's unedited vocal. Never mind the fact that we "edit" our voices constantly in order to acclimatize: we might alter our pitch if we want to read as more masculine or feminine, code-switch to attempt to cross boundaries of race or class, or speak in a hometown dialect when on the phone to family members. Still, this cultural idea persists that there's one acceptable, true voice in which a person may express themselves most honestly; and concurrently, that the goal of Good Music should be to achieve that honesty. In the case of Auto-Tune pioneer T-Pain, he's been met with shock and rapture this month for using his "true" voice, as his NPR performance went viral: "Makes me sad given how much talent he has...he's done well...by disguising his voice" reads one of the current top comments on the video. "Why did he not just use his real voice," says another, "the song would have sounded so much better." That same attitude has formed the undercurrent in the slew of online news coverage that has found it to be a revelation that T-Pain is, in fact, able to sing to a traditional standard. (We weren't immune too.)

This is patronizing on two fronts. For one thing, it exposes the widespread belief that T-Pain wasn't actually a good singer; that he was dependent on Auto-Tune, rather than using it as a creative choice. On the other hand, it also attaches an aura of "authenticity" to his un-"disguised" voice, as if the best thing T-Pain ever did was learn to sing to a culturally acceptable standard, rather than changing the pop industry with his ambitious and innovative cyber-club sound. To explore both attitudes a bit more, it's worth backing up a little to look at Auto-Tune itself.

Growing up, my first memorable experience of Auto-Tune was the 1998 Cher song "Believe," which shamelessly wore its robotic coating like a sequined cape—I'd pinch my nose in order to imitate it. Later iterations were more insidious, and this is where the Auto-Tune backlash started. In a tale that's probably familiar to most kids growing up in the '90s and '00s, my parents' grumbled that the music I liked to listen to wasn't "real," that my faves weren't as great as their beloved '80s stars because they couldn't really sing. Back then, I couldn't tell the difference between edited and unedited voices, and thought stuffy adults were just inventing this magic software that could make a person's voice "good." Listening back to some pre-T-Pain classics now, the use of Auto-Tune is bewitchingly uncanny: Britney Spears always had an inhumanly smooth vocal; and to A. G. Cook of PC Music, Cassie's voice epitomizes the "synthetic, almost robotic potential of commercial music." There were traces of deliberate weirdness in the tool's use, like the cyborg backing vocals on Britney's 2003 hit "Toxic," but for the most part, a mistrustful relationship arose as the public felt the Auto-Tune's main use was to mask or deceive.

T-Pain's debut full-length Rappa Ternt Sanga came out in 2005, and was the first commercial pop album to flagrantly own the Auto-Tune sound. His voice glitched beautifully over tracks like "I'm N Luv (Wit A Stripper)," splicing with the instrumental in totally new ways. Over the years, his hits all demonstrated a backlash against the more "deceitful" form of Auto-Tune, using it so blatantly he was clearly exploiting its futuristic sheen rather than masking himself. The dominant understanding, though, was that he was using it to hide the fact he couldn't really sing. "People have been lead to believe that Auto-Tune just completely changes your voice," T-Pain explained in an interview recently. "People feel like you can sing like crap, and you put Auto-Tune on and you just sound like an angel. It's like any effect, a delay or something like that. People have been taught to think that Auto-Tune destroyed 'real' singers, not knowing that the 'real' singers use Auto-Tune more than I do; they just use it correctly."

Even if he wasn't able to sing, T-Pain's sonic boldness would be worthy of note. But in a world saturated with popstars who move through a revolving door of talent shows—serving their time as contestants and/or judges—it seems we're more hung up than ever on the flawed perception that a dazzling "natural" voice is the best route to stardom. That those with the best voices deserve to win. It's this kind of scrutiny that led to the mass gloating over Courtney Love's live vocal, as well as this one of Britney, which is one of many others you can scroll through on YouTube.

Debates about his actual singing ability aside, it's even more bizarre that in the explosion of Auto-Tune experimentation since T-Pain first bleeped blame it on the a-a-a-a-alcohol and or blooped we in the bed like ooh, ooh, the singer has yet to be fully recognized as the first to go into that territory. These days, Kanye's 808s and Heartbreak is the most frequent touchstone for the launch of Auto-Tune's new direction—a tool to create disaffected robotic sounds rather than a mask for bad singing; now everyone from Sweden's Sad Boys to Chris Brown are self-consciously exploring its alien potential. When asked why he thought Brown is regarded as more of a "real" singer than him—despite the fact the R&B star piggybacked on his Auto-Tune sound—T-Pain mused it was simply because "they heard his natural voice first." There it is again: that idea of the "natural" voice winning out. It triumphs even when, compared with Brown, T-Pain is clearly the artist with the more distinctive personal sound.

"[T-Pain] introduced an instrument to the game, that shouldn't be taken lightly," said rapper-turned-reporter Sway during an interview on Shade 45 last year. "T-Pain did something different with the tool, and made it something great and relevant." In the same interview, T-Pain revealed how Kanye told him that Rappa Ternt Sanga was a crucial inspiration for 808s and Heartbreak, as the hip-hop mogul was inspired by its formula of "love songs and bass." Not so long ago, everyone from E-40 to Akon to Wiz Khalifa was seeking out T-Pain's consultation and feature on their hits; skim the Billboard 100 now and you'll come across a whole generation of artists, from Omarion to Future and August Alsina, who are using uncannily similar techniques, while T-Pain is nowhere to be seen. "I was using Auto-Tune in order to make myself sound different," T-Pain told Sway, "and then, when everybody else started using it, I sounded the same again."

A couple of years ago, a nasty cultural assumption was brewing that T-Pain—who played the fool in public, with his top-hat and relentlessly optimistic club hits—was just a silent participant in the creation of his own music, someone who couldn't sing and, it was assumed by extension, didn't write or produce his own music. In an ill-fated promo for his fifth album rEVOLVEr in 2011, T-Pain showed that he was painfully aware of this. The sketch, which in retrospect is more uncomfortably tragic than it is funny, shows two chuckling white dude producers speaking to the camera as if letting the audience in on a hilarious secret—T-Pain doesn't even sound like a man when he sings! He actually sings with the voice of a shrill British woman, and it's the job of these guys to edit him for the radio! LOL! The clip was clearly intended as a self-conscious send-up of the offensive idea that T-Pain was just a schmuck with a bad voice who relied on smart studio engineers to make him sound good; the promo and the album both tanked, though, and given the shock that T-Pain's raw voice is being met with in 2014, the message clearly wasn't received.

"No matter how many times people try to fuck with that Auto-Tune style, nobody's done it better than me," T-Pain said last year, in an encouraging statement of self-belief. A cruel industry that subordinated and stole his innovation left T-Pain battling clinical depression. His reinvention is invigorating—not because of the new ways in which he's using his voice, but because of the confidence with which he's now owning this narrative, and refusing to let anyone belittle his success. His is a peculiar story: he pioneered a sound that changed the face of pop, and yet instead of being celebrated for his innovation, he was painted as someone who had accidentally stumbled on something great without any awareness. Nobody thought I knew what I was doing, he huffs on "Stoicville," the confessional title track from his in-the-works next album. But nobody achieved what I achieved.

Much has been made of the sonic touchstones of "authenticity" he's now using: the new track has a sparse, twinkling instrumental, and displays his voice totally free of Auto-Tune. While it's exciting to see him explore new ways of telling stories (and to hear he's been working with FKA Twigs), his ability to make people sit down and listen is no less commendable than his ability to make them turn up and dance. "Natural" or not, he's always had one of the most distinctive voices in the game—as much for his unparalleled songwriting and his zig-zagging productions, as his pioneering vocal distortions. Take a leaf out of Planningtorock's book when you listen to "Stoicville": though it's a great new experiment for him, T-Pain doesn't sound any more "real" here than he did on his career-making hits. On "Buy U A Drank," he grinned: I'm T-Pain, you know me. He's been right in front of us all along.


Photo credit: Ethan Miller / Getty Images

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Popping Off
Posted: November 14, 2014
Popping Off: T-Pain’s “Natural” Voice Isn’t Any More Real Than His Auto-Tune Hits