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avatar for Zach Schonfeld

Zach Schonfeld

Zach Schonfeld is a reporter for Newsweek Magazine and a contributor to The A.V. Club and Paste. Previously, he was an editor for PopMatters and an editorial fellow for The Atlantic Wire. He's a graduate of Wesleyan University, where he was editor of the campus blog Wesleying and a recipient of an Olin Fellowship to study historic preservation. His writing has also appeared online at Rolling Stone, The Nation, TIME, The Atlantic, The Rumpus, Noisey, and other publications. Schonfeld lives in Brooklyn, NY.

“Transformer Man: Neil Young’s Trans and the Dawn of the Inhuman Vocal”
In late 1982, Neil Young released the fascinating, if much-maligned, LP Trans and became an unlikely pioneer of the inhuman element in pop vocals. Gone were the comforting aural hallmarks of beloved folk-rock staples “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold.” Gone, too, was that familiar, searching whine, obliterated by a veritable arsenal of heady vocal effects. The primary instrument on Trans is not guitar or harmonica but the Sennheiser vocoder VSM201, which served to mangle Young’s voice into an incomprehensible alien murmur. The project was so baffling that Trans—together with 1983’s rockabilly jaunt Everybody’s Rockin’—spawned a lawsuit filed by David Geffen against Young himself for producing “uncommercial” music.

Unbeknownst to fans at the time, Trans’s eerie ambience was inspired by Young’s attempts to communicate with his son Ben, who suffers from severe cerebral palsy. That’s the paradox of Trans; it’s a poignant statement about the particularly human desire for connection expressed via inhuman vocal textures. “You know I'm saying something,” Young said of the project, “but you can't understand what it is. Well, that's exactly the same feeling I was getting from my son.”

Trans emerged the same year as Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” and just a year after Kraftwerk’s Computer World. In this presentation, I’ll argue that Trans, as well as these key early eighties works, signaled the dawn of pop music’s obsession with the inhuman voice. I’ll explore Young’s seminal early use of the vocoder, then recognizable from Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” as his voice-manipulation tool of choice. And I’ll show how Trans helped give rise to subsequent pop explorations of the inhuman element, from Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak to just about any Daft Punk single. More than 30 years later, the robot voice has become a surprisingly effective (and commercially tenable!) means of probing the gap between human and inhuman longing.


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