Wherefore the autotune?
April 4, 2009 12:53 PM   Subscribe

Why did Bon Iver decide to use auto-tune in "Woods?" The song is stunning. But the eletronic filter is breaking my heart. I might be able to reconcile my disappointment if I can make sense of this as an artistic choice.
posted by kitcat to Grab Bag (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The same reason Kanye uses it, I think: autotune is the sound of emotional alienation in the 21st century.
posted by felix betachat at 1:01 PM on April 4, 2009 [15 favorites]

The same reason Kanye uses it

Yes and no. If it was just the voices, the song would be just a cappella, but he is using the auto-tune itself as an instrument. And to take it a step further he is layering multiple tracks of these treated vocals on top of each other, creating a kind of ambiance or atmosphere, what Germans call a "Ton Teppich". If you imagine björk doing the same thing, it might make more sense. That's my take. YMMV.
posted by chillmost at 1:10 PM on April 4, 2009

Pushing the boundaries, not wishing to be put in a box, making an ironic commentary on the position of a post-folk balladeer in a hip-hop world? A lot of people fussed when Bob Dylan went electric, you know.
posted by nanojath at 1:12 PM on April 4, 2009

I don't listen to Bon Iver really, though I did seem live once. I have to imagine that he or someone close to him knows that the effect has been used to death recently, so I'm not sure what the reason was behind it. I don't think anyone can really see the effect as being groundbreaking anymore, no matter what genre they're working in. It's too widely heard through Kanye, etc.

I definitely think a purely a capella version would be more moving. I am not comparing and will not compare Bon Iver (or anyone, really) to Elliott Smith, but I /Didn't Understand off of XO is more powerful due to its lack of effects in my opinion.
posted by Camel of Space at 1:26 PM on April 4, 2009

Wait a minute. Kanye uses autotune for reasons other than that he's an awful, awful singer?

I like the way it's used in this track. I agree with felix betachat that the autotune gives the song a cerrtain sound of emotional alienation, and I also agree with chillmost's take on how it's used as an instrument. In my opinion the vocal arrangement works because of the autotune. Without the effects I think it would start to sound really muddy, particularly in the heavily layered sections.
posted by Balonious Assault at 1:48 PM on April 4, 2009 [3 favorites]

Some other people have similar theories:
Mark Asch: My guess is that it’s something to do with the way it makes your voice sound like, well, not your voice. As such, an increasingly conflicted, schizoid rap celebrity and a breakup-nursing troubadour have filtered their voices through it, and found some kind of musical confirmation of their personal sense of disconnect. We’re all familiar with the story of Bon Iver—guy goes to woods to re-center himself through music—and “Woods”, with its synthetic howls, sounds like getting lost in order to, hopefully, be found. Which isn’t to say that “Woods” is successful as a standalone song—it’s not. It’s a throwaway experimental track on a filler EP. But it’s still valuable as a passkey to what’s maybe been going on in Vernon’s head as he makes Bon Iver’s music.
A positive review from MOG: What makes this use of auto-tune effective is the way in which it enables the song to build from a robotic beginning to a vibrant end. “Woods” begins with a clearly auto-tuned solo voice. But as voice after voice is added, the harmony becomes increasingly lush, and the rhythmic twitches and melodic peculiarities within each line combine to form an increasingly dense sonic mass that, by the end, seems to quiver with life. It's like the song progresses from seed to flower before your ears.
I haven't seen any interviews confirming any of these theories, but all intentions aside, this is, at best, a noble failure for me. It's not just that it starts out sounding like a pile of other horrible autotuned songs, but that it keeps sounding like them, masterful layering or no, because the association with aural crap is just too strong for me.

So while you may get a variety of interesting explanations from us about what the artistic intent was, and while you may be able respect the effort, it's OK if you just don't like it anyway. If your objection to autotune is visceral, like mine, you may never like it, but if it's just intellectual, you may be on your way to really enjoying the song.
posted by maudlin at 2:09 PM on April 4, 2009

Because he heard Imogen Heap do it and wanted join the party.
posted by Glum at 2:55 PM on April 4, 2009

maudlin: you should try listening to "The Wolves (Act 1 & 2) again. I think you can figure out from it what Vernon thinks he's doing with autotune. At 2:53 of that song, he's shifted into the closing figure: the plaintive repetition of "what might've been lost..." After a few repeats, he starts bending just the end of the phrase with autotune. To me, it's a devastating effect. It gives the impression of a heartfelt melodic line becoming something very much beyond that.

His normal falsetto is also artifice, a conscious decision to sing in a voice which is not his natural one. When his falsetto gets augmented with the autotune, it feels like he's giving in completely to artifice, transcending, at the moment of highest emotional pitch, his own humanity. It's as if Vernon recognizes the artificiality of his own pathos and chooses to sing through that, achieving, in the process, a moment of what is both emotional clarity and profound alienation.

This is very different, I think, than the heavier vocal processing in "Woods", but the difference is in degree and not kind.
posted by felix betachat at 3:01 PM on April 4, 2009 [4 favorites]

The way he uses it, it makes his voice sound austere and creepy, but organic in a computerized sort of way. Kinda like a Moog synth. That's how I'd summarize it.
posted by abcde at 3:20 PM on April 4, 2009

felix, thanks for the pointer to The Wolves and your explanation. This was actually the first time I'd heard that, and I liked it a lot more than Woods. But when I got to the autotuned notes, it was devastating for me in completely different way, because even that near-homeopathic dose of autotune kicked me right out of the song. I recognize intellectually what his intent was, but it just doesn't work for me.

(kitcat, where is all this taking you? Can you listen to Woods differently now?)
posted by maudlin at 3:35 PM on April 4, 2009

Yeah, I think it's an aesthetic choice (alienation and all that jazz), as well as a little bit of "i know it's played out but fuck off, i like it"
posted by saul wright at 3:56 PM on April 4, 2009

Since you asked...

I'm thrilled by the discussion that's evolved here. I really, really like felix's interpretation and it's definitely allowed me to hear the song differently. It's interesting - I think what really pushed me to ask this question was listening to a fairly nice cover of the song. At first, I thought the cover almost improved upon the original, in that - well, no autotone. But when I listen to the cover now, I don't hear the pathos. Thanks to you, now I'm noticing how his (more) bare voice comes in halfway through the song and the two seem to have melded together by the end. There's still a tension between them, mind you. If one voice is meant to be the artifice, or the alienated, numb self, and the other is meant to be the 'soul', then the song is about integrating the two in some kind of harmony.

As a former lit student, I tend to be convinced that a work of art is as good as its best interpretation.

Thanks, guys. I'm looking forward to listening to this song and his others a lot more carefully.
posted by kitcat at 6:53 PM on April 4, 2009

Oh, and thanks, maudlin. I guess it is ok if I just don't enjoy the song.
posted by kitcat at 7:13 PM on April 4, 2009

I'm not a big Bon Iver fan, but I couldn't even listen to "The Woods" because of the pain, the autotune pain. I'm sorry, I would have found this really cool 8 years ago, but autotune brings a particular thing to mind now, and that's a hundred bad rap songs with way too much autotune.

I kind of liked it in "The Wolves 1&2" though. That's about how much autotune I can stand.
posted by mmoncur at 9:55 PM on April 4, 2009

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