Please Let the Auto-Tune Jokes End: A Brief History of the Pitch-Correcting Software’s Legacy


If Auto-Tune hit its peak as a joke delivery device last week amidst the spectacle of a weirdly robotic Katie Couric involuntarily singing an “O Superman”-reminiscent lament for melting polar ice caps, it also hit its nadir at about the same time, when a tape surfaced of an Auto-Tuned Martin Luther King “singing” his epochal “I Have a Dream” speech. If there is a god, the internet’s random desecration of one of the all-time great oratorical moments of the 20th century should finally put Auto-Tune-as-a-joke in the internet meme grave, hopefully never to rise again. As far as the larfs went, the technology had a good run.

The phenomenon started simply: Former Exxon seismic data explorer Andy Hildebrand manipulated a technology that had previously been used to detect oil under the Earth and applied it to music, debuting his Auto-Tune software in 1997. The program was immediately popular, used to detect pitch, correct vocals and resurrect the careers of Oscar-winning future Christopher Guest parody subjects. Humor ensued. And thus we begin.

October, 1998

The director of the video for “Believe,” the first hit to employ the effect and Cher’s biggest- song ever, realizes that Auto-Tune is going to blow everyone’s mind. So he gives the video a sci-fi feel and, in it, Cher the abilities to violate the time/space continuum and to blur her face unrecognizably. As if she couldn’t already do those things on her own.

June, 2005

T-PAIN v. His Vocoder from T-Pain

“I’m going to make up a bunch of shit about how I used to run a high-profile chop shop and rotted in prison for years, but how are you gonna do it?” Akon asks his protege T-Pain, as the two of them contemplate how they’re going to appear on every single hip hop song for the next four years.

November, 2008

Nursing a broken heart after the death of his mother and the break-up with his fiancee, Kanye West constructs what becomes known as the Auto-Tune era’s first masterpiece, 808s & Heartbreak. The album is a critical and commercial success, and track “Heartless” is initially hailed as its emotional centerpiece. Later, though, the song becomes known mainly for inspiring this tribute to an underrated HBO series.

November, 2008

T-Pain and Tim McGraw — who, like Faith Hill and Reba McEntire has been using Auto-Tune for years to correct his singing — meet on the set of Saturday Night Live, and head out to Jimmy’s Corner for a couple of “dranks” and a discussion of Nelly’s pectoral muscles after the show. Compliments of the other’s hat and a vow to collaborate on the first Auto-Tuned rap/ country collaboration ensue.

January, 2009

Lovelorn singer/ songwriter/ former Wisconsin-recluse Justin Vernon–aka Bon Iver– uses Auto-Tune on the song “Woods,” off of his EP Blood Bank. Tens of bloggers are outraged that a member of the previously incorruptible indie-folk genre would exploit the technology, and vow to find other, more principled artists to weep to.

March and April, 2009

At South By Southwest, Philadelphia DJ Diplo opens a Major Lazer set at the Fader Fort by Auto-Tuning the sound of baby screams, which is later played during the Coachella set of his ex-girlfriend M.I.A., a recent mother of baby boy. Procreation in Southern California immediately ceases.

April, 2009

Use of the technology reaches its zenith when Brooklyn-based singer songwriter Michael Gregory, with some help from his brother Andrew, parodies southern rappers, Sean Hannity, pirate-victim-exploiters, the 24-hour news cycle and global warming hysterics all in one in one fell swoop, simultaneously constructing a moving tribute to the creativity and optimism of humanity. Andrew does it while wearing a gorilla suit and a tie.

April 27, 2009

Auto-Tune jokes, RIP.

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