Music that makes you feel: Autotune and the collapse of meaning

In “Music that Makes You Feel,” columnist Sam Waddoups ’23 recommends albums that take the listener through a specific emotional journey. This week, he covers two albums that express themselves through autotune: Ritt Momney’s “Her And All Of My Friends” and 100 gecs’s “10,000 gecs.”

Autotune used to be the boogeyman of the music industry.

Invented in the late 1990s, it could smooth vocals down to note-perfect performances, warping it in the process. Critics decried it as the collapse of human skill in music. Synthesizers and drum machines had replaced instrumentation throughout the 70s and 80s, and the voice was the last bastion of humanity to fall.

With autotune, the old meaning of music — a representation of human expression — appeared to have collapsed. Nothing was real anymore.

This postmodern collapse of the human narrative was an opportunity, though: you can either cry about it or run with it.

Two albums represent these two possible responses to a collapse of meaning. On one side, Ritt Momney’s “Her And All Of My Friends” uses autotune to mourn a loss of faith. On the other, “1000 gecs” by 100 gecs makes a party out of the ruins.

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Like many debut albums, “Her And All Of My Friends” comes with its own complex backstory. After Jack Rutter (who performed with his friends under the pseudonym Ritt Momney) finished high school in his hometown Salt Lake City, he was left abandoned. His girlfriend moved away to a religious college and his friends all left for missions, just as Rutter left his childhood faith and started to write music of his own.

The album is a series of bedroom pop monologues, exploring parallel themes of loss of love and loss of faith over whirring synths and grooving beats.

Most songs employ a stream-of-consciousness mode over looping instrumentations and repeating melodies, its simplicity offering Momney a chance to process his emotions in real time. The beats are masterful, kicking into gear at just the right moment in each song to provide a rush of catharsis. At times, the vocals are spoken-word confessions of his deepest thoughts. (His performance is stronger, however, when he’s singing.)

Momney’s complex and emotional lyrics are purposefully hidden under the songs’ production. His warped, detached voice evokes his distance from his past — friends, love and faith — and masks his wounded heart. Even when it’s not autotuned, the voice is cut, remixed, blurred or distanced.

Under the glitchy autotune, though, somehow the human ear can identify the emotion that leaks through the computerized vocal track. The melody’s impenetrability makes you search closely for — and find — its small human moments.

His yearning, over-processed voice is a prominent feature of the album’s standout track, “Wormwood.” In the opening line, his falsetto intones, “It’s been two years since the last time I cried,” and the autotune protects his voice from breaking just as an emotional shell protects him from tears.

As the song continues, Momney comes to terms with his loss of faith. “I heard that in heaven bad things don’t exist,” he sings, “but I heard the same thing goes for non-existence.” His glitched-out sound shows that in the time that he needed it most, his religious system crashed like a computer program. “For one who’s all loving, you turned on me quickly,” he sings, to both his religious friends and God himself.

Ritt Momney wasn’t the first to do this. R&B and rap artists of the 2000s — T-Pain, Lil Wayne and Kanye West — also used autotune to emote through crises in a tragic, detached way. Momney’s tracks, particularly the theological “(If) the Book doesn’t Sell,” fit in this legacy of rap.

However, more than his predecessors of the 2000s, Momney’s follow in the footsteps of an unexpected artist: Bo Burnham. Burnham’s flippant but heartbreaking appropriations of West’s autotuned style on Inside’s “All Eyes on Me” and Make Happy’s “Can’t Handle This” closely resemble Momney’s autotuned breakdowns.

It’s paradoxical that the more you warp the voice away from its humanity, the more tragically human it gets. The aching heart beneath it all simultaneously reveals and hides itself through its pixelated screen.

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Others have taken the fracturing that postmodernity (and autotune) provided and used it as a license to get wacky. Whereas Ritt Momney makes autotune a self-conscious dirge, 100 gecs makes it a maximalist thrill.

100 gecs’ playful hyperpop throws everything and the kitchen sink into the soundscape. The album’s opener, “Dumbest Girl Alive,” samples the classic ”Deep Note” sound from the beginning of THX movies before jumping into a crunchy metal riff and a trap beat — all in the first minute. Unburdened by the weight of conscience and conventionality, 100 gecs embodies the mindless: “Put emojis on my grave / I’m the dumbest girl alive,” they sing. If computers can replace all our musical skill, it seems, we might as well learn to have fun being dumb. Programs can’t glitch on purpose, but we can.

The voices of 100 gecs’ members Laura Les and Dylan Brady are warped even further than Momney’s, sometimes to the point of a singularity between human and digital. You don’t have to care that they’re human; you just have to get down to the catchy hook, like in the irresistible “Hollywood Baby.” The fun is more in the new sounds they can create — like the bizarre text-to-speech voices on “One Million Dollars” or the glitchy screams in “Billy Knows Jamie.”

100 gecs loves the hyper-processed, deep-fried palate of postmodernity as symbolized by the titular snacks of choice in “Doritos & Fritos.” Their songs are sonic memes, bringing together so many cultural modes and genres into one bite-sized song that’s both gleeful and shareable. Seriously — a single song can feel like polka, punk, metal and pop ballad all at once. They even sometimes resemble childhood chants, like “Frog on the Floor” and “I Got My Tooth Removed.”

In “10,000 gecs,” the only meaning that matters is the visceral pleasure of jamming out. They’re not worried about their souls or the existential state of music; they just want to dance and sing and scream and shout. Strangely, that thrill takes them all the way back to the joy of the human voice, even as they relish its destruction.

So when you feel like life is collapsing around you, you’ve got options. You can listen to “Her And All Of My Friends” and feel the tragedy of your fragmented existence, or you can bop to the glitchy ecstasy of meaninglessness in “10,000 gecs.” There’s a place for both.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and contains subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.

Originally posted 2023-05-25 06:15:43.


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