Feature by Max Luebbers
In 1998, the music production world collectively lost its mind 37 seconds into Cher’s comeback single “Believe,” when her voice magically warbles in and out of tune for a split second. Following the release, there was widespread speculation about what effects processor or studio trickery could have created the now iconic sound that made the track an instant dance floor hit. Cher’s producers at the time were cagey about giving away any of their secrets for fear that other artists would be quick to copy. They even attempted to throw prying media off the scent by crediting the sound to vocoders and vocal synthesizers.
The truth about “Believe” was only revealed much later, when a producer on the track admitted they had used the studio pitch-correction software Auto-Tune. The software saw widespread use before the release of “Believe” but only for making minor alterations to a given track to polish vocal imperfections. Cher’s single would be the first harness its creative potential by pushing the software beyond its limits and making it correct Cher’s voice much faster and more aggressively than had ever been done in the studio up to that point. The result is unpredictable and robotic, yet infectiously catchy.
This glitchy, broken version of Auto-Tune, became ubiquitous in the late 2000s with major support from artists like T-Pain and Kanye West. It’s largely become a dirty word in the alternative music world today because of its connotation as a lazy fall-back for mediocre vocalists, but the public’s fascination with Auto-Tune reflects a general pattern in music that has been apparent since the early days of experimental and electronic music. We are enamored with unique audio glitches. They're bizarre quirks of modern day technology turned into sonic spice for any musical artist, popular or otherwise, and while Auto-Tune is a fairly recent development, there is a long lineage of experimentation leading up to Cher’s comeback hit.
Even though these glitches are most often attributed to the rise of computers, the technique and theory behind them were being developed far before computers were ever used in music. The movement was spearheaded by Italian futurists in the early 1900s with the beginnings of noise music, but it was truly solidified by an American named John Cage. Generally credited as the most influential and important composer (perhaps even artist) of the 20th century, Cage was the grandfather of post-modern arrangement and Fluxus, a 1960s avant garde performance art movement that placed the conception of artistic ideas over the finished product. He influenced musicians from the Beatles to modern Japanese noise rock. His work eschewed established aesthetic limitations of the time to free sound from the grips of the composer. He embraced indeterminacy and randomness in his music to create pieces that are unreplicable and as close to nature as possible. Cage’s most famous work is “4:33” which, true to its name, involves 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence. In a filled concert hall, the ambient rustles of the audience become the composition.
The legendary Brian Eno also embrace the ambient possibilities of music albeit with the help of synthesizers and computers. In 1978, he released the landmark Ambient 1: Music for Airports, a sprawling, 48-minute tone piece that solidified ambient electronic music as a viable genre. While Eno is one of the most often cited influences for electronic musicians today, his most important contribution to glitch was his work with computer generated music in the 1990s. To achieve his goal of truly “ambient” works, he had to find a way for his music to play infinitely, without end. The solution lay in computer algorithms that systematically produced compositions by altering and adding onto existing progressions and melodies. While Eno’s pieces are for the most part peaceful and understated, his work still borrowed concepts from John Cage’s more dissonant work and further added to the foundations of more established glitch music entering the 1990s and 2000s. Embracing the innate and unique qualities of different sounds over their arrangement and composition, both Eno and Cage were unknowingly the forefathers of a movement of producers and artists that incorporated deliberate malfunctions and technological quirks into their musical work.
When the Robert Moog and Donald Buchla released the first modular synthesizers to the general public in 1964, musicians first wanted to replicate already existing instruments, hoping that it would legitimize the new technology. The Moog Synthesizer’s first major breakthrough came in the form of Brown graduate Wendy Carlos’s 1968 classical album, Switched on Bach. However, artists soon discovered that the most exciting possibilities for synthesizers lay outside the realm of what the general public understood to be “musical.” Electronic musicians were now deliberately acknowledging the limitations and affordances of the technology in their music. Japanese musician Yasunao Tone embodies this formalist approach to electronic music. Once a member of Fluxus, Tone pioneered Japanese noise music by producing a series of ear-shredding pieces throughout the '90s, his most famous being Solo For Wounded CD in ‘97. Tone practiced a kind of musical kintsugi, the art of repairing broken objects. His creative process would involve damaging CDs and stitching their various malfunctions and erratic sounds back together to form a new piece. While Tone’s music is certainly hard to listen to, the German group, Oval, took inspiration from his methods and produced more accessible work by further arranging and editing the sounds. It was a departure from Cages teachings of indeterminacy, but it was a necessary step in legitimizing the possibilities of glitch in the greater musical community. Oval was still niche, but it laid the groundwork for the popularization of glitch techniques.
By the late 2000s the inclusion of technological imperfections in music had become both intentional and mainstream. The end of the decade saw the release of “Heartless” by Kanye West, and “Boom Boom Pow” by the Black-Eyed Peas. Both tracks would take cues from Cher’s “Believe” and aggressively pitch correct the vocal tracks. “Boom Boom Pow” would additionally use stutter effects to create a staccato, robotic effect. Both tracks would become pop classics, but even beyond the realm of hip-hop, artists were experimenting with the newer possibilities. The 2010s saw a rise in Dubstep and other EDM sub-genres that embraced unpredictable industrial sounds and broken vocals. Even folk groups began turn to the computer. Bon Iver released the EP Blood Bank in 2009 in the same year as “Boom Boom Pow”. The EP’s final track, “Woods”, was a far-cry from the group’s previous work, featuring only Justin Vernon’s voice, pitch shifted and corrected to create intricate harmonies and intriguing pitch modulations. Kanye West had taken notice of Bon Iver by this point, and the two artists began collaborating. West’s 2010 record, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, featured “Woods” as a prominent sample on the track “ Lost in The World”. The two mutually influenced each other for the next half-decade, resulting in perhaps the most mainstream glitch albums to date: Bon Iver’s 22, A Million in 2016. Despite the group's previous electronic experimentation, many fans were surprised by the dominance of synths and vocal samples, replacing the traditional acoustic instrumentation. 22, A Million relied on many of the techniques the group had been developing over the past decade. Sound engineer Chris Messina even created a new instrument that acted as a harmonizer and was responsible for many of the watery, resonant, choral lines throughout the album. It was a sound unlike anything listeners had heard before.
The electronic glitch is unique and often unable to be replicated, due to its accidental and experimental creation. Glitch artists, and now even mainstream musicians have allowed nature to take hold of technology, one of Cage’s driving theories. The appeal of Cher’s unnatural warble lies in its own unpredictability. When used properly, the glitch catches our attention, but only long enough to pique our curiosity. Gone in an instant, we are left to wonder whether it was there on purpose, when it will come back, and how the sound was even created. True glitch music will never fully catch on; it’s too dissonant, and for the mainstream consumer, there isn’t much substance. But, lessons can be learned from these niche artists like Eno and Oval. Despite the seemingly endless cycle of predictable pop songs, some of the most well remembered and respected are the ones that poke at the boundaries of what's been done before, often taking cues from lesser-known artists. Many casual listeners will forget that the Beatles, the most recognizable pop act in the world, borrowed elements from French experimental music of the 1950s, and pushed music as a whole towards experimentation and psychedelia in the late 60s. My hope is that the same will happen again for Cher, and now Bon Iver and Kanye West. They are prominent voices in the music industry and popular taste, for better or worse, tends to follow prominent voices.