In the world of viral video, “hey check this out!” YouTube amusements, there’s nothing hotter right now than the “Auto-Tune the News” creations of The Gregory Brothers, Brookyln’s zeitgeist-capturing wunderkinds.
Taking clips from the news–which range from local news crime reports to cable news debates about the legalization of pot–and auto-tuning them into catchy songs, the Gregory Bros are masters of the craft of Internet-era recombinant pop art (or “modern-day Warholianism” as The Village Voice described it). They are vaudevillian ringmasters of the circus that is contemporary media, playfully subversive archeologists of the “aggregator-as-artist, remix-as-reality” world. They’re cultural icons in the post-Justin Bieber landscape of irony, absurdity and RSS discontinuity. Even if all they’re really doing is having fun with Final Cut and Pro Tools.
The videos are, above all, fun and catchy. It’s fun to see people who take themselves so seriously get the auto-tune treatment. But what is it about auto-tune that makes someone instantly seem ridiculous? In a matter of a few short years, auto-tune has gone from being a rite of 90s nostalgia, to being avant-garde, to being too trendy and somewhat grating (to Jay-Z especially), and now (courtesy of The Gregory Bros) to being a strangely therapeutic medium of collective cultural synthesis.
Auto-tune is ridiculous (and thus a perfect asset in the art of skewering) because it represents humanity’s goofy but persistent Star Trek cyborgian dreams. It represents the “technology will purge human imperfections” mentality that leads to all sorts of bad things like cloning, designer babies, botox and bluetooth ear pieces. It represents our dissatisfaction with the natural when the digitally-enhanced is so much… cleaner. Auto-tune began in the 90s as a way to make chronically-off-pitch popstars sound more perfect than they were. And the silliness and quaintness of that “Look what we can do with technology!” moment in pop history is what has made the tool so gleefully ironic for us today.
But auto-tune is just one of many digital enhancement tools in the air-brush arsenal of the Photoshop world. The irony of auto-tune’s disposition as the joke of Y2K remix culture is that it’s really no worse than any of the other digital tools we have at our disposal to, for example, take clips from TV and turn them into re-edited assemblages ripe for viral video glory.
Maybe auto-tune is so stigmatized because it is utterly unapologetic and unsubtle… there’s no mistaking its intentions. And while it strives to be graceful and inconspicuous in correcting pitch, it more often comes across as an ostentatious “hey look at me!” gimmick. And so for that and other reasons, it’s just hilarious and appropriate for the task of highlighting outrageous things.
Props to the Gregory Brothers for so aptly assuming the role of our culture’s most prolific auto-tune auteurs (sorry Kanye). Enjoy some of their best work:
“Bed Intruder Song”:
“Rent: Too Damn High”:
“I’m Not a Witch”: