An Evening With the Brain Trust Behind 'Auto-Tune the News'
It was the late '00s. The economy sucked, the American government plunged headlong into socialism and terrorist appeasement, and reactionary, agenda-driven talking heads dominated the airwaves and incited hysteria. Musically, human voices were made robotic by a disorienting, pitch-altering software that rap's own Jesus, Jay-Z, desperately sought to destroy, lest it destroy, in his view anyway, hip-hop itself. Though individually, these media fads were mere testaments to our soulless age, the young people who successfully combined them inspired hope, millions of Internet views, and the adoration of the Obama Girl.
The Gregory Brothers are unlikely salvagers of our modern digital wasteland. A Brooklyn-transplanted trio from Radford, Virginia (a bucolic town of 16,000 in the "real" part of the state), they recently released their debut EP, Meet the Gregory Brothers!, a lounge-y, refreshingly sincere slice of blue-eyed soul, featuring the music school–trained jams of the three brothers: 24-year-old Michael on drums, 27-year-old Andrew on guitar, and 30-year-old Evan on keys. The group is rounded out by Evan's wife, Sarah Gregory, who shares vocal duties and serves as their "official babe." Indeed.
Andrew also makes folk music, but, unfortunately, many of the Brothers' new fans have no patience for anything that's not "Auto-Tune the News," the YouTube series Michael was inspired to create after finding straight cable news' election coverage was funnier than Jon Stewart's. The videos feature original tunes performed by the Gregory Brothers, who green-screen themselves into round-table debates and split-screens between various politicians and journalists, all of whom have been twerked to sound like T-Pain.
Simultaneously thoughtful and hilarious skewerings of our punditry/industrial complex, the songs are catchy enough to be radio hits. (I jog to them.) The April-released second installment, which features a twinkling, Dre-like synth beat and manipulated CNN and Fox News clips, has been seen close to two million times: The Brothers joust with folks like Sean Hannity, Katie Couric, and the Washington Post's Ruth Marcus. Here's a sample line, sung by Michael to Marcus, following her dry analysis of gay-marriage developments:
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Shorty, now you sounding so fine
Give me your number, we can bump and grind
Talkin' about politics all night
Leaving the club in the morning light
If we get carried away
We might get gay-married today.
Inspiring a "chopped-and-screwed" remix and an invitation onto Rachel Maddow's show, the video was also the basis of a giddy conversation between Katie Couric and Jay Leno on The Tonight Show. The third installment, which came out in May, is nearly as riotous, making unlikely warblers out of Ron Paul and Elizabeth Hasselbeck ("Joe the Plumber is not invited anywhere around me," she croons). The fourth was a bit long and self-indulgent, but along the way, the Brothers made separate, widely viewed videos of MLK and JFK delivering iconic speeches in song. They also joined forces with CollegeHumor.com and BarelyPolitical.com, the latter a raunchy government-minded site most famous for its song-and-dance/T&A numbers starring the Obama Girl, with whom Michael collaborated on numbers like "Obama Girl Stimulus Bill Song." He vehemently denies being smitten with her.
On a recent Wednesday, beneath Michael's lofted bed in the South Williamsburg apartment he shares with Andrew, the group is preparing their fifth video, a contagious three-minute banger featuring Representative Steve Buyer discoursing on the hazards of smoking lettuce—the Indiana Republican was protesting anti-smoking legislation—and Joe Biden blessing the country from outer space (the inspiration is murky). The Gregorys wear assorted wigs, mustaches, and headbands, pumping their fists and letting loose with an occasional Southern hip-hop chant of "Ayyy!"
Michael and Evan have already scoured the cable news websites for clips, laid down the beat, and recorded their parts, so now they're filming Sarah's Zelig-like cameos before a large piece of green polyester fabric. (Andrew is absent, teaching a UVA songwriting course over the summer.) Evan runs out to McDonald's for a Big Mac and large Coke, which Sarah will show off to underscore MSNBC commentator Matt Lewis's discourse on "American exceptionalism." ("Exceptional fast food and exceptional dance moves!" she sings.)
As always, Michael's parts are the most compellingly absurd: His shock of red hair, stick-thin figure, enormous Adam's apple, and mad-decent rap skills are enough to inspire daydreams. What if he, not Asher Roth, had
MySpaced Scooter Braun?
But their role of satirical beltway remixers nevertheless suits the Brothers well. "We make the videos to point out some of the absurdities of the politics-to-media food chain," Evan says. "The manufactured emotions and self-seriousness, the silly news-show formats, the whole cable news circus is ripe for some jokes. And we like to do that by singing about it."
Recently, their competition has grown stiffer, what with a spate of knock-offs of Kanye's "Amazing" and sports press conferences being re-contextualized into song. (YouTube "Press Hop." Right now.) Evan says they've done their best to step their game up. "The main improvement we've made is learning who is and who is not a good unintentional singer," he notes. "Speakers like Biden, Couric, and Gingrich, who turn out to have sweet r&b voices, get called back for more appearances. If you're a growly Dick Cheney, you're probably not going to get featured too often."
Despite all of the surrealist pop art being created, the Gregory Brothers consume nothing more intoxicating than Tecate or Ghirardelli chocolate chips tonight. Though the "Auto-Tune the News" segments come off as goofy and low-tech, they actually require many hours of disciplined editing and proficiency in Final Cut, Logic, and, of course, voice-modulation programming. By far, their most frequent YouTube comment is, "How do you do your Auto-Tune settings? I can't get the same effect!"
Though there are thoughts of a compilation DVD at some point, modern-day Warholianism isn't all fun and games. The crew maintain day jobs, presumably at least partly because those bastards at YouTube haven't agreed to partner with them to share ad revenue. (Apparently, they didn't have enough subscribers when they applied. What a racket.) Meanwhile, Jay-Z has declared their whole thing over. "It's interesting to see the impact his song has had," Michael says of Hova's recent single/hissy fit, "D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)." "Some people have said to [Jay-Z], 'You're trying to stop our hustle.' It's funny to have a feud about a vocal effect."
"Jay might be ahead of the curve," he concludes of this approach to Auto-Tune's popularity. "It can't last forever. It will be interesting to see if there's a disco-like backlash."
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