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Catherine Provenzano

Catherine Provenzano is a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at New York University. Her research is on vocal production in contemporary North American pop and pop country, and she conducts ethnographic work in New York, Los Angeles, and Nashville recording studios. She focuses particularly on tuning plug-ins, the ways they inform performance, production, and listening practices, and the ways the voice is parametrized in software. She is also a singer.

“Feeling the Human and the Politics of Vocal Pitch Correction: Notes from the Field”
In 2014, T-Pain performed for NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series, and Taylor Swift released her first fully pop-branded album, 1989. Both events ignited swirls of media assertions, many of which centered on the artists’ voices, their goodness or badness, their cheapness or value, their realness or fakeness. These designations hinged in large part on the use or non-use of a specific technology: Auto-Tune. 

In this presentation, I draw on ethnographic work with artists, producers, audio engineers, and software engineers in Los Angeles and New York City—including Auto-Tune inventor Dr. Andy Hildebrand—to interrogate the politics and aesthetics of pitch correction through a focused reading of the above events. I argue that as the voiced self that is seen to be lost through Auto-Tune’s application is discursively reconstituted in the press, a singer’s ability to emote and evoke emotion—to make the listener feel—becomes the seat of a bourgeois selfhood to which certain truth-spaces of media remain committed.

Auto-tunes’s use is widely known and opinions about its use are widely circulated. Thus, I probe how the press, which I treat as a mediating technology itself, teaches listeners to make sense of the Auto-Tuned voice. I ask 1) how the voice’s parameters are finessed and interpreted to maintain the category of human artistry, and 2) how Auto-Tune’s particular kind of anxiety-inducing mediation becomes enlisted in creating racialized conceptions of voices. As it becomes sonically and discursively tied to racialized bodies and the racialized politics of a white, liberal, humanist subject, the disciplined voice and the meaning of its tuned raw material open onto a nuanced consideration of the materials, skilled labor, technologies, and discourses that constitute or define the voice, and the bodies these voices come to represent.

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