'Fakery' in Music

The posts below are selected and edited from a Metafilter thread started on 14 February 2002 by theplayethic. Comments by other people than myself are highlighted in blue. (The original thread has a lot more than this in it, so go and have a look.)


Does anyone care that nobody needs to sing well anymore? Spot-on piece about the way that digital music tools aren't just making rotten singers sound OK (with software that shifts their pitch upwards), but good singers lazy ("hey that's fine, just copy'n'paste it into the next chorus"). And removing the excitement from studio performance. Is the only honest response to this electro-fakery to go all Daft Punk? Or am I just an old Stevie'n'Retha'n'Marvin nostalgist? ¶ posted by theplayethic

Um, that second thing. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

From the article: "It's evolved to where any kid in Keokuk, Iowa, with a Pro Tools system thinks that he's competing with Max Martin. And he is."

And this is bad why?

This perceived "fakery" is already driving a counteracting desire in some musicians and fans for "authenticity". They'll co-exist. And anyway, how is releasing the best of thirty takes less "fake" than doing a quick edit?

The best of thirty takes a lot more realistic than editing your voice so you don't sound like a gravelly-voiced truck driver.¶ posted by Dark Messiah

But how is it 'realistic' to choose the best performance out of thirty and have it create expectations that all of your performances are like that? And this isn't just a pop-music issue; it's an issue in classical music, too, where every cough and sneeze from the audience gets edited out.

And why is 'realism' so important anyway? What does it mean in this context? How is one particular disembodied voice reaching my ears via electronic speakers, wires, amplifier, CD player, laser beam, bits encoded on plastic, mass-produced from a master recorded on tape or hard disk from a microphone in front of a singer standing in a sound-proof booth, any more 'real' than another that's all of those things plus an extra line dropped into the third verse and the vocals sped up five percent?

If you're listening to recordings the whole question of 'realism' is moot. You want real, go and play your grandmother's piano.

Fake what you want in a studio... You can't fake it live on stage ¶ posted by Baud

You couldn't fake 'Strawberry Fields', 'A Day in the Life' and 'I am the Walrus' on stage, either, and I'll take those over a perfunctory run-through of 'Love Me Do' any day.

I'm not complaining that this technology is evil, rather that it can be used for evil. Britney Spears' horribly overproduced vocals, BTW, are EVIL!!! ¶ posted by Dark Messiah

Yeah, but horrible overproduction has been a feature of the pop music industry for y-e-a-r-s. As in, the horrible syrupy schmaltz that predated rock and roll in the 50s; the horrible syrupy schmalz that post-dated rock and roll and pre-dated the Beatles in the 60s; bubblegum music; any number of awful glam and disco bands in the 70s; that ghastly period in the mid-80s when synths were hitting their stride and the saxophone was in vogue; and so on, and so on.

Musicians who love to sing will still sing. Musicians who love to do other things now have better tools to do it with. And if a few teen-pop bands sound a bit better than they used to through "fakery", is this worse than the days when producers would use session singers and enlist good-looking non-singers to front a band?

Granted a couple of things: that using digital tools to make music is a skill in itself. ... Granted also that the natural and the artificial don't just coexist in pop and rock, they bang around in the mosh pit together. ... But, Rory, would you agree that rock and pop (like other kinds of music) are heavily involved with, maybe even partially dependent on certain tropes, one of which is the trope of spontaneity, of "live" performance. Without getting all grad school about it, methinks the dismissal of "authenticity" as a concern is premature, because it's a legitimate beef to say "is this element of a cultural practice in danger?" ... If you found out that Stephen Merritt was a tenor altering his voice digitally to make it a bass, wouldn't the music sour a little bit for you? ¶ posted by BT

Which comes back to the heart of the issue (thanks, Bill), the idea of authenticity: are these musicians pretending to be something they aren't? The answers being a messy 'it depends' and 'what's it to ya?'

Certainly no one has been fooled by digital trickery into thinking that Cher sings like she's gargling; a lot of digital tricks are so obviously 'unreal' (surreal? hyperreal?) that no one will be 'fooled'; instead, we get to enjoy sounds that couldn't otherwise exist. The supposed problem is this one of faked perfection, of singers purporting to be something they're not. But this 'fakery' has existed for a very long time, as various people here have pointed out, to the point where modern music lovers are aware of it and prepared for it.

Yes, perhaps the first time you hear your favourite singer turn in a dud performance you'll feel disillusioned; but after a while you learn and accept that this is just an inevitable difference between studio and live performances.

Perhaps, I concede, in certain cases the seal of 'authenticity' is so necessary a part of a particular musician's reputation that their reputation will suffer if they're found to be faking. An opera singer would be a good case in point (at the moment; but will it always be, and was it ever thus? Were the castrati 'authentic'?) But it's hard to see why this should matter in the case of most pop artists, who would never have achieved anything like their current standing without the aid of the recording studio and MTV. That's why I linked to the piece about Milli Vanilli—why all the fuss about a band that everyone knew was a disposable producer-driven pop band?

I guess it's yet another case of people chafing against the contemporary world, which is such an elaborate edifice of artifice, of layer on layer of manufacture and mass collaboration to the point where it's hard to tell who did what and what's 'real' and what's 'original' and 'authentic', that it's driving some of us in the opposite direction, to seek out the 'genuine', the solo singer-songwriter on acoustic guitar, the world music section at the CD store, the Buena Vista Social Club and the original demo recordings...

I can understand that desire to keep a sense of what's authentic, so that we have a base-line to keep in mind when listening to the 'fake'. But when you're familiar with a wide range of music, a sense of 'authenticity' distils from your musical experience almost without you trying. And that then frees you to enjoy the wildly 'inauthentic'—techno, house, trance, bangra; the indigenous music of the late twentieth century—because it's just as authentic to its own time and culture. The Chemical Brothers says much, much more about England in the 1990s and early 2000s than Elgar, Vera Lynn or even the Beatles. This is the authentic music of the moment. Performing 'pure', 'real' music with unedited voices and unplugged instruments is now reactionary, in the sense of 'a reaction against the mainstream'.

Calling electronic instruments and digital editing 'fakery' in 2002 is like insisting that orchestras go back to playing with lutes and harpsichords. Interestingly, some orchestras are doing just that. Both are signs that popular culture is redefining and reorienting itself, but hasn't quite finished yet. Personally, I'd be happy if it never finishes.

Let me tell you why the article got to me. Yep, me musician too. And the other day on a fan site, I heard this old live track of me singing—just some throwaway at the end of a concert. And damn, if that one take wasn't better than anything I'd ever sweated over in a studio. ... (Don't worry, I'm not promoting product—I retired a while ago). ¶ The only consolation I have is that my favorite singer of all time (F.A.Sinatra) was just as much a "technohead" as Daft Punk—he worked all the possibilities of close-mike singing as much as he could, coming up with an "artificially" intimate sound that killed all competitors stone dead. But you gotta have a tension between authentic and fake—i don't go with the blithe postmodernism that it's always been tinsel and glitter forever, and forever will be. For one thing, if it's all a camp construction, then that gives the A&R man as much of a right to tell you how your horn section should sound, as you do. And all I need to say about that is: Pop Idol. ¶ posted by theplayethic

"You gotta have a tension between authentic and fake"... Well, as the 'blithe postmodernist' (I guess), I'll defend myself by pointing out that I said much the same at the end of my last comment.

Great performance, theplayethic; I wish I could pick you from the recording, but sadly can't! I'll play devil's advocate, though, by asking (a) how we can tell it's an authentic live performance other than your telling us so (yes, of course I believe it is, but the point being that with today's tricks an emotional one-take like that could be spliced out of two or three), and (b) would it really matter—it matters to you that it was one take, it mattered to your audience on that night, but why should it matter to us 'out here' if we get pleasure from it either way? Just a thought.

And as for all music being a camp construction, I wouldn't want that any more than you, I suspect—but there was a definite overtone in that Denver Post article that somehow the fact that 'teen-pop music is manufactured' was news to the author, and grim and ominous news at that—look at the producer he profiles, Max Martin of Britney and N Sync fame. Which is kind of like complaining that game shows are crass and commercial, or that soap operas aren't Shakespeare.

Still, a bit of camp construction has its place—viva Esquivel! But I'll happily come to your concert if you ever come out of retirement.

I think pop music is one of those "both-and", rather than "either-or" mediums... pax vobiscum. (And I'm rather a tortured postmodernist myself, so feel no fret.) ¶ posted by theplayethic

I'd like to add that apart from the musicality of a song or performance, there's also a unique—umm, the word that comes to mind is "texture"—involved. As cool and wonderful as digital technology can be, there are certain characteristics of a live acoustic performance that just can't be captured, synthesized or replicated. ¶ posted by groundhog

"Both-and"... I'll definitely go with that; got a very "both-and" music collection myself. I agree that a performance where everything comes together perfectly in the one room at the one time is something to be treasured; and that there's a warmth about such performances that's valuable too.

Just wouldn't want to give up my Impossible Music now that it's Possible.



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