Searching for the Grain in an Autotuned Voice

I am a great believer in Roland Barthes’ well-rehearsed theory of the ‘grain of the voice’ providing
the appreciation of in musical performance. Briefly recounted, Barthes looks to
(listens to?) the ‘imperfections’ in the individual voice – “the tongue, the
glottis, the teeth, the mucous membrane, the nose”  – to find that intangible thrill that
occasionally grasps us when listening to music.

It’s a characteristic that very much feeds into the rock discourse around
authenticity. For example, one can scarcely mistake Bruce Springsteen when he
begins to sing, so distinctive is his particular ‘grain’. But it also speaks of
a certain type of ‘unpolished’ performance; something ‘natural’ (the ‘wood’
analogy is not at all accidental), something not requiring ‘polish’ or
supplementation; it grows and reaches our ears unmediated and ‘raw’.

Of course such rock discourses are fraught with mythology. Nothing recorded ever reaches our
ears without mediation, without the hand of technology. The grain of the voice
is always polished to a certain extent through the process of recording.

But recently I have become a little obsessed with a band (and a constituent member who has
embarked upon a solo career) for whom I can find no traditional or obvious ‘grain’
at all, yet I still feel that same spark of musical joy when listening to the
songs. The band are a Kpop girl group called “4Minute” and the singer Hyuna.

[This song is called ‘Why’]

[This one is called ‘I Me My Mine’……….. see; you missed one out, George]

[And This is the unbelievably good ‘Bubble Pop’ by Hyuna]

What is so striking about 4Minute is precisely how unremarkable their ‘voice’ is. As with
so much pop music, the voice is not only produced and ‘polished’ to a
hyper-real gloss, it is also deliberately masked by the vogue for unashamed
autotune. Autotune has many detractors, and it is perhaps the latest in a long
line of technological devices that irk rock purists for widening the gap
between singer and listener. This is an old lament. But what is more
interesting about autotune is the way it so entirely dehumanises the voice;
making it variously hyper-tuned, capable of impossible melisma or strangely
robotic and metallic. But also it renders the singer ‘beneath’ the effect

Sufficed to say, 4Minute are a band who have bought into the autotune aesthetic wholesale. The
result is that their voices sound… well ‘un-grained’ for want of a better
term. Alongside the meticulous production, it creates a soundworld, let alone a voice, that is barely

human at all, much less indicative of glottis and teeth. I challenge
anyone to hear mucous membrane in any of these examples! But this is a
deliberate aesthetic; it is almost a ‘grainless grain’; an aesthetic that
revels in its roboticism and minute perfection.

Yet I still get a thrill from the music somehow, despite its lack of grain. What is causing
this? I don’t think it is too strong a statement to say that I love the song ‘Bubble
Pop’! I do.

Perhaps there is something in the appreciation of something entirely perfect; in delighting in
the quasi-robotic precision of art; pop taken to its logical zenith. I refute
the claim that such music always dehumanizes.
I mean, I think I am always conscious of the fact that ‘Bubble Pop’ has
humanity in it; it’s just the type of human that is a master of technology; I
appreciate the skill of technological production. I think a song like this
perhaps reveals that arguments (still prevalent in rock discourse – as the case
of autotune demonstrates) about technology and humanity being two separate,
disparate and contradictory spheres is anachronistic.

There’s something else about the voice that is interesting here. I don’t understand the
lyrics. For a native English speaker living in England, it is a rare indeed to
be confronted by pop music that sounds so
familiar, yet is lyrically incomprehensible. But I love the experience of it.
To have so many musical markers intelligible, yet almost no lyrical markers (apart
from the hook line ‘bubble bubble bubble pop’, which in itself means very
little and the occasional ‘hey boy’… actually and the bizarre comic book captions
in the middle of the video!) produces a disquieting effect, which is not unpleasant,
but actually quite enjoyable. For the same reason I love Brazilian pagode music (particularly ‘Grupo Revelacao’). I am of course
talking from my own perspective. Of course for a South Korean there would be an
entirely different relationship to this song, not only lyrically, but semiotically,
musically, culturally etc. Maybe that is where the grain is for me? In the
confusion of the familiar pop language. Maybe the Korean language is the grain –
that which differentiates and intrigues –  in my appreciation of these tunes?

There is something of an ethnomusicological concern about cultural globalisation here – ‘McDonaldization’
as I have seen it called – which is clearly of even more pertinence in South Korea.
But this music, however much it is influenced by the musical language of U.S.
pop music (clearly a lot) it has difference – in essence a grain – that sets it
apart, makes it distinguishable and, potentially, lends it the quality of being
thrilling. A discussion about the ‘enforcement’ of American culture on the rest
of the world will wait for another day. Sufficed to say it is an
oversimplification, one that denies the appropriation of pop music templates
for varying purposes and to varying ends throughout the world.

For now, I am happy to have found something of an autotuned grain in a South Korean voice!

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