Let’s Talk about Britney (and Autotune, While We’re at It)

Okay, now we know that the alleged “untouched” version of Britney‘s song “Alien” has been spreading through the internet and every mother of 90s children is crying, “I knew it! I knew she couldn’t sing!” But let’s pause for a second.

You could probably guess I’m not the greatest fan of autotune — unless Kanye and/or T-Pain are involved — but let’s all calm down for a second and remember that Britney Spears actually can sing. No, she doesn’t have a wonderful voice and yes, my mother used to put a clothespin on her nose and sing and sound exactly like Britney, but she can at the least hit a note that’s right in front of her face. Here’s her iconic “…Baby One More Time” (1999):

So not the greatest voice, no, but for the poster child of pop she can at least hit the notes.

Before we go much further into this discussion, here’s a brief description of autotune:

Autotune first became a “thing” with, you guessed it, Cher. “Believe” was the first-ever autotuned single, but its popularity didn’t come until T-Pain’s faithful use of the tool.

Autotune is basically like spellcheck for singers. If a singer hits an A above middle C (usually defined at 440 Hz) at 445 Hz, autotune can change that frequency to the desired frequency and the botched note is saved. This can distort the resulting sound, but with a bit of audio-technical magic, the tone doesn’t sound quite so chipmunky. When autotune is done quickly, without much processing (ie, during a live show) the sound comes out robotic and distorted. À la T-Pain.

Here’s the final version of “Alien” from 2013’s Britney Jean:

And here’s the unedited version:

Obviously the final version is autotuned. But it seems like Britney would care enough to at least try to hit the notes if this were the final recording before production. This “non-autotuned” version of “Alien” feels like a test run for the audio techs in the studio. A quick check of levels. But it could be what Britney actually sounds like these days. We know she can sing since she started her career when autotune wasn’t the tool of choice in the music industry. Even seven years ago Blackout came out, just when autotune was reaching popularity and Blackout seems fairly light on the autotuning on the singing-heavy songs. Compare “Break the Ice” with “Piece of Me” and there’s a clear difference in the sound of her singing voice. “Break the Ice” at least feels like her real voice while “Piece of Me” isn’t shy about the autotuning. The truth is, most artists on the radio use autotune for fine-tuning the sound. Even if this is the rough cut that became the final version, the whole purpose of song production is to add polish and tighten things up. No rough cut of a song sounds like the final cut.

I’ve gotta say, I’m on Britney’s side here. Though she’s the lip-sync queen and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is what’s happened to her voice and her career, she’s Britney.

What do you guys think? A test run? Or the real deal?

7 Comments

  1. Wakana Narisako

    July 16, 2014 at 12:10 pm

    I don’t think there’s a Britney fan out there unaware of her use of autotune. It’s what makes her iconic voice and if they like it, why not use it.

  2. Darlene Steelman

    July 16, 2014 at 2:58 pm

    I’m not a big fan of Britney, and although Cher used auto-tune on ‘I Believe,’ Cher could sing long before that.

    I’m sure auto-tune is cool for recording albums, but how would that work for playing out live?

  3. Lauren Silvestri

    July 16, 2014 at 3:28 pm

    If you see her performance on Star Search when she was really young, it’s impressive. It seems like as she ages, her vocal range and ability weakens. But I do agree that a rough cut of anything is not a fair portrayal of how someone can sing.

  4. Ruby Mora

    July 17, 2014 at 12:57 am

    I’ve been a fan of Britney since the beginning, and I understand the use of autotune on an album, but if I were listening to a singer live and they used a lot of autotune, I would probably feel cheated for the money I spent on the ticket. :/

  5. Jennifer Logue

    July 17, 2014 at 7:42 am

    Hmmmm. When I listened to Alien, I feel like the worst part was 1 note she kept missing. Perhaps she just didn’t understand that part of the song. The rest didn’t sound soooooooo bad.I was expecting worse- lol.

  6. Katie Antonsson

    July 17, 2014 at 9:00 am

    I feel the same, Jen. The untouched version isn’t just terrible. The first thirty seconds are pretty shaky, but the rest isn’t too far off from the final version.

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