In Defense of Britney Spears, Auto-Tuning, and Electronic Music

Originally posted November 30, 2010

OK, let me be clear right from the top. I’m not a Britney Spears fan. When I have the time to sit down and listen to music, I usually gravitate to towards my favourite recordings of Rachmaninoff, Chopin, or Beethoven. Or if I’m in a more “current” mood, perhaps the Beatles, Pink Floyd, or Philip Glass, to name a few.

So why then am I defending Britney Spears? Well, frankly because I’m not a big fan of music snobbery. And for the sake of this article, I will use the name of Britney Spears simply to represent her type of entertainment, and you can replace her name with whoever you may dislike, whether it be Lady Gaga, Madonna, or the Jonas Brothers.

When I hear people complain about Britney – whether it be about her over-use of auto-tuning or her surgically enhanced body, I think people are comparing apples to oranges (or melons). Her type of entertainment is just that – entertainment. When one goes to a concert by such a performer, he or she is going for the whole package “experience” – the lights, the dancing, the choreography, the special effects, the loud pulsing music, and the crowds. So what if she is vocally and physically enhanced? Even when one knows that, it shouldn’t diminish the enjoyment of the spectacle. Have you ever heard someone leaving a movie theatre say something along the lines of “I’m sure those were only special effects with those spaceships and explosions, even though they looked and sounded real, and I’m sure those actors, even though they were convincing, were only acting. And the main actor/actress (insert your favourite actor’s name here) was just too good-looking to be real – so much so that I just couldn’t look at them. Man, I shouldn’t have wasted my money.” Not likely. It’s called the suspension of disbelief. And that’s all performers like Britney are doing – entertaining, along with all of the included special effects – audible and visual.

I kind of get the sense that people who complain about her style of digitally enhanced music somehow feel threatened that their favourite type of music is somehow at risk of disappearing. I’m not sure why. The music industry no longer has as much control as it used to. We are currently far more freer than we have ever been to decide for ourselves what we like, without major record companies limiting what we are exposed to. We all know that since the advent of digital recording technology and the Internet, the rules of the music business have changed radically. But that’s a good thing. It has given the unknown but talented music artist an enormous opportunity to get his or her product “out there.” All it takes is a little Internet marketing savvy and some time. Of course this has led to a whole lot of junk out there, with everyone and his or her dog now able to afford high-quality recording technology. But so what? It doesn’t mean you have to like it at all. No one’s forcing you. You are free to work through as much as you want and find the music you enjoy and appreciate. In fact, the same digital and electronic technology that enables Britney Spears to do what she does has given us are own opportunities – the Internet, YouTube, affordable high-quality recording gear, MP3s (debatable of course), and on and on. Anyone who spends anytime on YouTube (admit it, you probably spend way more time on there than you should) can attest to the fact you can find a plethora of talented musical performers – without digital enhancement – to suit your personal tastes. Has Britney ruined this for you? I doubt it.

There have always been large numbers of people who enjoy “pop” music. That’s what pop means – popular. Just like the American Idol TV show. It’s a popularity contest and doesn’t even shy away from that fact, as the winner is chosen by popular vote. And I personally enjoy the show because of the people – the rags to riches stories. And even if it were all “rigged” – who cares? I enjoy it for its overall entertainment value, not the music. To bash the show because of what one may perceive as damaging to the music industry is missing the point. It’s not about the music. It’s about the popularity of the contestants. How has this harmed other types of music and its performers? It hasn’t.

Along with pop music in any given generation, there have always been those with more refined musical tastes. In fact, if it weren’t for the existence of musically “fluffy” pop, there would be no backdrop to highlight more creative and innovative music. Without the crowd, how can one “stick out” of it? The existence of pop certainly hasn’t ruined the performances of my favourite contemporary pianists – Valentina Lisitsa, Evgeny Kissin, Lang Lang, or Hyun-Jung LIM. I can access those artists anytime I like on YouTube, and I’m quite sure Britney Spears has had no impact on their performances whatsoever. Zilch. Maybe that’s a bad example, as pianos are usually pre-tuned and don’t need auto-tuning.

Now, if Britney and her fans were claiming that she was one of the best vocalists on the scene, while obviously employing auto-tuning, then that would be an entirely different issue worthy of criticizing. But even if those claims are being made, I highly doubt anyone is taking them seriously. And performers who do try to pull one over on us eventually get found out (remember Milli Vanilli?). Or if people insist that we MUST like her music and spend money on it, that would also be an issue worth fighting. But so far, no one has knocked on my door to evangelize me into the music of Britney Spears. And I’m always free to change the channel if it gets in my face (as long as the remote is handy).

So I’m quite happy to let fans of Britney Spears carry on and spend their money on her products and concerts. I don’t care. It doesn’t bother me in the least. Like wise old Thomas Jefferson once said regarding other people’s personal beliefs and preferences, “It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

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