Even though the Internet is, in theory, a technology which opens the floodgates and makes the acquisition of information more fluid, more chaotic, and more free, the simple truth is that as a result of that (over-)abundance, we feel the need to divide lest we forget how to conquer. What hypothetically should enable us to digest music without its labels ultimately leads us to label it even more ridiculously than we did before, to compartmentalise in new, almost innovative ways just in order to construct a road-map through the hell of cyberspace and the ideas with which we’re presented.
This isn’t exactly a revelation, but what interests me is the way we handle it when an unexpected event screws with our neat ideas of what constitutes good, bad, pop, metal: how do we adjust when someone moves the goalposts artistically? This has to be a test, because no person is capable of removing the art they’re experiencing entirely from its context or from the discourses surrounding it. Would that it were possible, but it isn’t.
So when Bon Iver punched through the speakers to deliver the curveball that was “Woods” way back on his Blood Bank EP, everyone went insane. You’ll recall that this was a point, distant though it now may seem, when Justin Vernon was still in most regards a cult superstar and perceived as a lonely, bearded guy with a guitar. Nobody expected anything else from him; if they claim they did, they’re having you on. But here he was, on the finale of his new mini-release, using vocoder in such a bold and unequivocal fashion as to almost explicitly ask: “does this still make my music feel personal?” And it did.
Quite why that was a surprise is answered simply by the chain of events I detailed earlier. Cher’s chart-storming “Believe” had brought on demonised opinions of digitally-altered vocals for the last however many years, and the revelation that now such technology was being used to help artists “cheat” – even when “playing live” – did the sound no good at all. But the stigma attached to it didn’t cling to Vernon and Bon Iver the way it did most artists – we have For Emma, Forever Ago’s intimacy to thank for that – and so we learnt to look at it from a different angle, because our notion of Vernon as a genuine artist mattered more to us than our notion of auto-tune as a fundamental symbol of pop music artifice. It was a simple matter of sub-conscious priorities.
I ask, and ramble about these things, because the new Fun. album (did you even see this coming?!) contains several heavily vocoder’d (what’s the correct way of saying that?) passages that are likely to throw off people who were big on Nate Ruess’ raw-ish pop stylings on earlier releases. But have we reached a stage now, through Bon Iver and Kanye (ft. Bon Iver, as well), where we can perceive the charm of something auto-tuned on its own merits, rather than linking it back and forth with the last instances we knew? Are we capable of hearing a song like “Stars” and looking at it as one artistic whole instead of two distinct styles? Probably. It’ll probably be a while before Titus Andronicus go all “Woods” on us, though.