In the hands of Planningtorock and other progressive artists, Auto-Tune can be a challenge to gender paradigms and a tool for social change, argues Steph Kretowicz.
If I had to choose a song that defined 2012, it would have to be Planningtorock’s Patriarchy Over & Out. Through typically sexless vocal manipulations, Berlin-based producer Janine Rostron sings, “patriarchal life, you’re out of date,” over an eager and insistent march, punctured by the occasional Amazonian war cry. It’s a simple though profound statement made by an artist who has been exploring the limits of gender through music for almost six years. Last year’s brilliant ‘W’ debuted Rostron’s neuter alter ego, a prosthetic Frankenstein whose bizarre androgyny is matched by vocals equally dark, funny and ultimately perplexing. Of course, Planningtorock isn’t the only one to do it. The Knife have been playing with pitch-shifting and sexual ambiguity since the early noughties (see their 2004 release Manhood specifically) but it’s in more recent years that some of the most radical and complex investigations of voice as a mode for creating alternative identities have surfaced.
“It’s almost like how men idealise the female shape and if you create this mystical ‘other’ how detrimental it is to women in society.” – Holly Herndon
In 2012, Laurel Halo, Maria Minerva and Holly Herndon all released albums challenging the idealised feminine in their vocal delivery. Respectively, there was the jarring off-tune vocals in ‘Quarantine’, the consciously artless take on womanhood for ‘Will Happiness Find Me?’ and the distorted, bestial oral experiments of ‘Movement’. In fact, it was something that Herndon had said to me in an interview that made me really consider vocal processing and music production as something specifically “gendered”. She pointed out that the field of electronic music and production is still very a much male-dominated one. That fact in it self isn’t so surprising, but it’s the implication of the way female vocals are favoured and transmitted to its audience (as filtered through a masculine perception of the ideal) that is: “It’s almost like how men idealise the female shape and if you create this mystical ‘other’ how detrimental it is to women in society.” Hence Herndon’s preoccupation with disembodied music and “the power to transcend whatever your current status is” through technology.
It should be noted that all three of these artists mentioned self-produce. That’s not so much a luxury but a freedom that has surfaced in parallel to technological development. That’s why Laurel Halo, following her days as the spectral and angelic voice behind Daniel Lopatin and Joel Ford’s Games track Strawberry Skies, this year produced a list-topping assault on the ears with her bold foray into untreated vocal tracking for ‘Quarantine’. In Years, a desperate persona bleats, “you’re mad ‘cause I will not leave you aloooone” over layered vocals that waver in and out of tune at varied pitches. What makes it all the more jarring is that the tracking is lifted from the mix and propped just above a twinkling synth ambience. Yet, addressing potential criticism for the unrefined nature of her vocals, Laurel Halo tweeted, “Just a heads up that I didn’t autotune this record on purpose so if you like vocals fake perfect look elsewhere”[sic].
Laurel Halo – Years
Stripping back to a raw and realistic perception of the self is one thing, but manipulating the actual tropes of identity is another. In her typically self-aware nature, Maria Minerva has positioned herself over a prolific output as a hypercritical though conflicted persona, awkwardly grasping for balance between reason and emotionality. That clumsy and self-conscious character is no more apparent than in the tuneless warble of a song like Heart Like A Microphone (“my heart is like a an open door, just walk in”), establishing a discomfiture in reconciling her lofty artistic pursuits with those imposed ideas of feminine desirability.
Mykki Blanco’s ‘Cosmic Angel: Illuminati Prince/ss’ mixtape challenged the very idea of aggression and bragadaccio as something specifically masculine.
Of course, discourse on these shifting paradigms through voice isn’t restricted to women. As Selim Bulut noted recently for Dummy, Steve Hauschildt’s ‘Sequitur’ explored the connotations of his androgynous vocal manipulations in synthesised and choral sounds, while gender-bending New York rapper Mykki Blanco’s ‘Cosmic Angel: Illuminati Prince/ss’ mixtape challenged the very idea of aggression and bragadaccio as something specifically masculine. She delivers her cocky and politically charged attacks in a feminised and pitched-up voice that is so convincing that it’s hard to tell whether it is in fact Mykki Blanco reciting the dystopian epic of Mendocino California or an actual dead-eyed tween. Her most powerful rhyme is in a squeaky Katy Perry tribute in TeenageDream, further highlighting the weirdness of said pop product by submerging an a capella sample of Perry’s original in haunting distortion and wavy echo, while Blanco’s First Freestyle announces, “I am the fifth element, since I came to earth them other bitches ain’t relevant”.
It’s in precisely that relevance that the success of something like Planningtorock’s Patriarchy Over & Out lies. In being one of a generation of artists, musicians and producers attempting to create a new and inclusive language in music, Rostron’s is a track that explores that which is hitherto largely unexplored. Like it or not, ours is still a world mediated by men; a patriarchal society that functions on an imposed set of standards, based on a restrictive and ultimately detrimental set of ideals with regard to gender. So when an artist like Laurel Halo bravely exposes her humanity in untreated vocal production or Planningtorock uses sound to create a “third language” unrestricted by the semantic archetypes of words, then you create all sorts of potentially fascinating possibilities for exploring gender and power relations. Those are ideas far more progressive than patriarchy, and a lot more fun to boot.