Lately I’ve tried to stay away from saying anything too disagreeable when I get on my soapbox. I didn’t feel like getting into any debates online and I was too lazy to properly research my position, so for the most part I’ve been keeping my opinions to myself. However, I think I’m ready to subject some of my thoughts to peer review. The topic is “intonation as a measure of musical quality”. Go ahead and tear into it, you vicious, liberal...
The progression of music through history, like any progression of art through history, can be charted by its stages of rule-breaking. Music establishes its boundaries, visionary artists transcend those boundaries, and then music establishes new boundaries. Throughout history, almost every element of music, from rhythm to dynamics, from melody to meter, has had rules broken by some class of music, ranging from high-brow classical to low-brow popular.
While this is not an exact science, trends of music culture can be identified. Before Beethoven, few composers would dare modulate outside of their parallel and relative keys, but the introduction of new dissonances in the Romantic era of classical music saw artists bring on increasingly chaotic chord progressions. Brahms did things with the orchestra that Mozart wouldn’t dream of; he bent and broke rules, and established new rules of conduct for the same works; symphonies, concertos, and whatnot.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the classical world started getting tired of even the most fundamental rules of music; the paradigm of keys and traditional rhythmic patterns. French Impressionism paved the way for the likes of Schoenberg and Stravinsky and their work in atonal music (music that essentially lacks a central key signature). Everyone began experimenting with unconventional time signatures; ones where the numbers aren’t always divisible by either 2 or 3.
The astute connoisseur of music will identify these trends in any genre. The Beatles aren’t iconic just because of their great music and its represented ideology; they revived the traditional guitar-based rock band and paved the way for all rock music afterwards. The patron saint of alternative rock music is U2; there are few alternative artists who haven’t stolen (or borrowed, or w/e you want to call it) from their familiar delay-pedal electric riffs. Before jazz got big, seventh chords were unheard of and likely to be considered noise rather than music!
Anyway, I’m painting with broad brushstrokes and generalizations, but my point is, there are no musical rules that haven’t been broken. Good, new music happens when a forward-thinking artist says, “hey, let me try this that no one’s ever done before” and it catches on.
Now, of all the rules that have ever existed and of all the ones broken, one rule in my mind that has stood steadfast across all genres and time periods is the rule of intonation. What I mean is, I CAN'T THINK OF ANY KIND OF MUSIC WHERE A RULE GOVERNING QUALITY ISN'T "THE SINGER OR MUSIC MUST BE IN TUNE*. We’ve left all the other rules in the dust; thanks to the foggy world of Indie, good music nowadays doesn’t even have to have discernible conflict and resolution, cadences, refrains, theme and variation, consistent key or time signature. thanks to pop radio, good music nowadays doesn’t even need to have real instrumentalists! For every rule, there’s at least one accepted artist breaking it.
BUT THE ONE RULE IN MY MIND THAT IS STILL UNTOUCHABLE IS THE RULE OF INTONATION. I can’t accept as a musician an artist that intentionally sings off-key, no matter what cultural messages it sends out. I don’t think I am ready for it, and I don’t think our world is ready for it. Does anyone else feel this way? I am thinking primarily of two songs. One is “Paper Airplanes” by MIA and another is “Anyone else but you” Moldy Peaches, which was featured in the recent film, “Juno”. Oftentimes on the radio, you’ll hear musicians who don’t rely on auto-tune enough and have off-key parts in their songs, but I think these two offenders are particularly egregious because to me, in their music they don’t even sound like they’re trying.
I think because of alternative and indie music, the traditional standards of judging vocal quality is now out the window. People with “bad voices” can still earn fans if the fans feel that their voice is unique enough to stand out. With the birth of rap, there is now “good rapping” and “bad rapping”, although of course there’s vast disagreement as to what is which. However, no matter what timbre of your voice and what inflection of your rhythmic poetry, one rule that still stands fast to me is, “IF YOU'RE OUT OF TUNE, YOU SUCK”. I’m sorry MLIA, I know you’re trying to convey to us your laid-back, gangsta lifestyle full of swagger with your relaxed style of singing, but it’s no excuse to relax your vocal chords to the point of wretched tonal quality. It’s one thing to try to bend some rules; it’s another to make my ears bleed and make me want to kill something when I listen to your music. I’m sorry, but I’m not ready for it.
Does anyone else feel this way, or am I too doggedly stubborn with my musical preferences? Are most people really okay with out of tune singers; is intonation perhaps just a wretchedly joy-draining pet peeve of mine? No one else wants to slay an innocent victim when “Paper Airplanes” comes on the radio?
My final point is this. I admire Jay-Z and I love his music. I also support his campaign against the over-use of auto-tune. From a firmly ethical standpoint, I’m still undecided about whether auto-tune is good or bad for the music world; whether its considered cheating or its as legitimate as any other electronic aids. But, come on Jay-Z! If you’re going to sing that poorly in the first 10 seconds of your song, how the heck do you expect to convince people that auto-tune is bad? Plus, you’re a rapper! This isn’t even your fight! Why don’t you let the indie artists, who stand to lose a lot more, take the lead in this crusade?
*The closest exception I can think of is the use of the whammy pedal by electric guitarists, which in a way is a descendant of the classical vibrato; but even then the controlled pitch-shifting is a far cry from the junk you hear from artists who don’t even try to sound good.