Did you know that Cher’s record company wanted to remove the now-famous auto-tuning that producer Mark Taylor added to the vocals of her 1998 hit, “Believe“? Crazy, right? What do you think the world would be like nowadays if Warner Brothers had gotten their way? Would we have flying cars? Would Lehman Brothers still have collapsed? Would there be an independent Palestinian state? What would T-Pain be doing at this very moment? We’ll never know, because Cher responded to her label’s request by saying that the digital effect on her voice would be removed “over [her] dead body.” Well then. But with all due respect to “Believe,” it stands to reason that, much like a synthesized disease that squirms its way out of a top-secret government lab, setting in motion a zombie apocalypse that sweeps the entire planet, leaving nothing but horror, violence and destruction in its wake: auto-tune was bound to get out at some point. OK, maybe that’s a hyperbolic analogy. And in truth, I’m not campaigning against auto-tune at all. On the contrary, auto-tune is a fascinating phenomenon to think about, especially when you’re dealing with a group like Fun. and a singer like Nate Ruess.
Ruess has some serious pipes. His voice has power, a ridiculous range and a huge amount of personality. It’s the kind of voice that seems like it can do anything its owner asks it to do. So why all the auto-tune on Fun.’s new album, the wildly engaging and enjoyable Some Nights? He certainly doesn’t need help from no stinkin’ ‘puter – at least not in the same way that Kanye West needed help to make 2008’s divisive masterpiece, 808s & Heartbreak. For Kanye, the software was necessary. It meant that he could, in spite of his poor singing voice, record a collection of dark and deeply personal pop songs about the loss of his mother and his broken engagement. It was an extremely brave move on his part, and I can’t imagine the result being nearly as meaningful or impactful had he handed off the album’s lyrics to another singer. The notion that Ruess needs auto-tune to bring his singing up to snuff is ridiculous, so what gives? Can we blame some producer with an itchy auto-tune trigger finger? Would you believe me if I told you that Some Nights and 808s & Heartbreak actually share a producer?
It’s true! Jeff Bhasker worked on both, but Fun. has said that they chose to work with Bhasker in part because they wanted to incorporate more of the production elements found in hip hop, and it’s not like they hadn’t heard “Love Lockdown” before. And as ironic as it is to hear Ruess’ voice auto-tuned, it’s not the only pop music coding going on. There are a zillion other hallmarks of heavy-handed production on Some Nights — stacked vocal harmonies, string outros, an into track that would seem like a skit if the lyrics weren’t so good — that send the same message the vocal effects do. It’s the same message Cher and Kanye were both trying to send: THIS IS A POP RECORD. It’s like the opposite of a dog whistle. Not, like, the dogs having the whistles… more like if you turned the whistle around (OK, I know whistles don’t work like binoculars, but you get my drift, right?).
That said, I really don’t think we should hold this decision against Fun., even though it would seem to land them squarely on the wrong side of the Grohl Doctrine, as outlined on stage at this year’s Grammys (“…it’s not about sounding absolutely correct, it’s not about what goes on in a computer. It’s about what goes on in here [your heart] and what goes on in here [your head].”). In all honesty, I don’t think Fun.’s decision is all that different from Foo Fighters opting to record an album in Dave Grohl’s garage. Both are stylistic choices that open up the creative space a band is interested in exploring. In fact, it would be easy to make the case that Foo Fighters’ garage aesthetic is actually more artificial than the samples and auto-tune you hear on Some Nights (I’m not actually gonna make that case — my inner 10-year-old would jump out and kick my outer 28-year-old’s ass).
I’d love to see a pop music paradigm where people just accept that, just like with cable news, you need to filter what you hear, accept that nothing is 100% true (Foo Fighters can still made edits when using tape) and use common sense to determine what’s worth listening to and what’s worth disregarding completely. To my ears, Fun. most definitely belongs in the “what’s worth listening to” category, and I encourage you to listen for yourself and see if you agree. Look below to try out the auto-tune heavy “Stars,” which has to be the most buoyant lament I’ve ever heard, and if you dig it, click here to snag Some Nights on iTunes.
Fun. — “Stars”