If Britney can’t sing without auto-tune, what kind of music is pop?

If Britney can’t sing without auto-tune, what kind of music is pop?


norman lebrecht

July 08, 2014

It’s no secret that most pop singing is fake. The producers fiddle around to keep the stuff generally in tune.

Evidence of their ma nipulation has landed in the form of a leaked video of Britney Spears singing without the benefit of computerised voice correction. You don’t need to listen to much. It’s horrible.

britney spears

 The producer William Orbit, who worked with Spears, has published an excuse on Facebook: ‘I have heard that Britney vocal link that everybody’s been discussing. It has been impossible not to… I’d like to affirm that ANY singer when first at the mic at the start of a long session can make a multitude of vocalisations in order to get warmed up.’

Oh, yeah?

This ought to be the moment for the world to acknowledge the extreme thrill and high risk that opera singers deliver every night.

Will it? Probably not. The world is deaf and is constantly being dumbed down.

Here’s the full text of Orbit’s statement:

Dearest Music Lovers, I have heard that Britney vocal link that everybody’s been discussing. It has been impossible not to as there have been many comments directing my attention to it. [I won’t re-posting it here]. I’d like to affirm that ANY singer when first at the mic at the start of a long session can make a multitude of vocalisations in order to get warmed up.

Warming up is essential if you’re a pro, as it is with a runner doing stretches, and it takes a while to do properly. I’ve heard all manner of sounds emitted during warmups. The point is that it is not supposed to be shared with millions of listeners.

A generous singer will put something down the mic to help the engineer get their systems warmed up and at the right level, maybe whilst having a cup of herb tea and checking through lyrics before the session really kicks off. It’s not expected to be a ‘take’.

I think that 99% of you reading this will totally understand.

Whomever put this on the internet must have done so in a spirit of unkindness, but it can in no way detract from the fact that Britney is and always will be beyond Stellar! She is magnificent! And that’s that.

Sincerely, William


  • Doug says:

    Honestly, this comes as a surprise to anyone?

  • And what range most of these singers have!

    The flip side of Mr. Lebrecht’s commentary might be — who are the pop/modern ballad singers who have good voices? There are some, and I enjoy them very much.

  • Will Roseliep says:

    Without knowing the exact circumstances of the recording it’s hard to say definivitely, 100%, that Brit is a terrible singer. Certainly, no one’s accused her of being a great talent in the vocal department. Safe to assume most pop stars would whither away under the lights and the pressure of an operatic role. Pop stars have very specific skillsets, and being in tune (sadly) isn’t a prerequisite for topping the charts. It is, however, essential for opera singers.

    But, in defense of autotune: it’s more than just a handy tool for correcting pitch. It’s now a full-fledged performance device that disguises, shades & transforms voices. It makes the analog digital, and allows an artist’s voice to blend with an increasing amount of electronics in song mixes. It alters timbre and gives brittleness (and sometimes poignancy) to a once-familiar artist’s voice. It can be abused, yes, but it’s now an irrevocable part of music, whether you love it or hate it. (And it’s okay to hate it.)

  • Tommy says:

    I’ve been to many many classical recording sessions when the soloists have had to do take after take after take to get it right.

    For a recording, all that matters is the finished product. And, especially in the not too distant past, classical recordings had hundreds of edits in them. So what’s the difference?

    And who cares?

    • Anne says:

      It would take a hell of a lot of edits to put this right. I seriously doubt whether the edits in opera recordings are hiding deficiencies as bad as this; the singer would not survive a live performance.

      We’ll decide for ourselves whether we care or not. Thanks all the same.

  • Michael Endres says:

    Call me naive but I didn’t expect that. My cat ( 21years old, bless him ) sings better.

  • Martin Haub says:

    Too bad certain violinists of the past didn’t have autotune available.

  • Benjamin Bevan says:

    Pop is part of the fashion industry and that’s about it. However these days it is held aloft as the music of our time by generations who have been starved of any real music education. Musical and artistic relativism is well established now. Very few people would support the idea that Beethoven is better in any way than McCartney. The net result of this is that people’s musical tastes are ossified in their teenage years. You only have to listen to Desert Island Disks to find highly intelligent and worthy people who may read extraordinary literature, hang old masters on the walls of their rectories but when it comes to music, their tastes and appreciation juddered to a halt at the point when they had erotic posters on their bedroom walls and were hiding copies of Razzle under the mattress.

    This leads nicely on to the other subject du jour: accessibility and elitism in opera. Everywhere you see opera companies bending over backwards to welcome new audience. If ticket prices get any lower you’ll end up being paid to attend the opera.
    I believe the real problem lies in the subject of my previous paragraph. Opera demands something of its audience. However, if that audience is so foreign to the language of classical music, it is much harder. I live next door to a “Performing Arts Academy”. As far as I can tell, classical music is not on the syllabus and nobody took GCSE music last year. Will this be another generation lost to classical music?

    I’m sure I will be castigated as a music snob, I would like to think that I’m not. What I certainly am not is a musical relativist. I think children should be exposed to Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Palestrina, Tallis and all the rest, yes at the expense of Disney, Lloyd Webber, McCartney, Zappa and Spears. Perhaps then they can enjoy pop music for what it is, good and bad, but not the beginning and the end of music .

  • Anon says:

    It’s not really any worse than editing in a classical recording scenario, depending on how you view a purity of recording. One is built horizontally, the other vertically. We’re all fairly happy about that in the classical domain, so why not this? I’m sure we can think of classical singers whose tuning is pretty terrible; and I know I have heard some awful things come from singers with otherwise excellent reputations early on in recording sessions. It’s not accurate to imply that all classical singers are by definition superb and wonderful, and that Britney isn’t.
    (It might also be fair to observe that Britney is a performer who sings, rather than a singer first and foremost; it’s all about the whole act, not just the singing. I’m sure readers can think of classical singers who are all about the voice alone and fail to deliver on the other aspects, which if what you want is the voice alone is all well and good. In such a comparison, Britney’s star performance qualities shine through, whether you like her, her act, her music, or not).

  • Andy Lim says:

    only past?

  • Gary Carpenter says:

    I’ve heard worse. I was involved with one quite distinguished opera singer’s album and I know from the engineer that the singer’s last note alone had 60 edits in it.

  • leslie dawn knowles says:

    LOL- I have often heard the Auto-tune function referred to as the “Brittney Spears” function

  • Stravinsky says:

    A viola is more in tune than Brittney.

  • Anna Norris says:

    Sure, everybody needs to warm up. Apparently in the pop world “warming up” is when you go through all of your repertoire, only not caring if it sucks. Damn, why have I been wasting my time with all these scales and shit?!

    • Anon says:

      Sounds remarkably like a fair number (happily a minority) of professional orchestral players, who take their seat only to play a few whizzy bars from their favourite concerto, loudly, to ‘prove they can do it’, which apparently counts as warming up.

  • missing the good stuff says:

    Norman, who cares about Britney anymore — Did you miss that on July 4 (American Independence Day) Yuja Wang’s twitter account quoted an Ayn Rand definition of “freedom” and then had to delete the tweet?? Now that is the sort of hilarity you should be informing us about. 😉

  • Rob says:

    I think everyone’s missing the point, who ever released the edit needs sacking, it’s obviously not the finished product, no matter what you think of the artist or what you think of the the recording tools used.

    Unless of course there really is no such thing as bad publicity 😉

  • Ellingtonia says:

    Having endured Wagners Tristan and Isolde at the Vienna Opera several years ago then watched Elbow perform The Seldom Seen Kid backed by the BBC Concert Orchestra I would certainly choose the latter in terms of musical enjoyment………and wasnt it Tommy Beecham who said something along the lines of “Ah Wagner, some good bits of music interrupted by awful singing”
    For those who think that so called “pop singers” can’t sing try listening to anything by Roy Orbison or Rufus Wainwright or go back even further and listen to Elvis Presley sing “Its now or never”
    As Duke Ellington used to say “there are only two types of music, good and bad”

    • Anne says:

      “there are only two types of music, good and bad”

      That again.

      Good and bad, as proclaimed by the person making the quote for the nth time.

  • Steve Metcalf says:

    One of the reasons many ordinary people are put off by classical music is that its defenders are so often pompous and intellectually lazy. I know many gifted and devoted young classical performers who admire Britney and other pop artists for the sheer originality and musical vitality of their finished recordings. The idea that some mannered diva singing an aria from “Daughter of the Regiment” is intrinsically “better” is not a notion that any thoughtful classical musician under the age of 40 would accept. And if this Britney bootleg is indeed an unauthorized working/rehearsal track, then the posting of it is irrelevant, not to mention unethical.

  • False. says:

    Stop generalizing up there, Steve. I know plenty of young musicians (self included) who don’t “appreciate” Britney Spears. To imply that someone who can’t even match pitch is on the same artistic level as a trained opera singer is insulting to the legions of young musicians who have devoted themselves to the study of music.

  • Leon Waksberg says:

    I suspect the only people who would object to this are those who wouldn’t listen to her music anyway, and I therefore can’t think of any reason why anyone should listen to their complaints.

    It is also ridiculous to dismiss an entire genre of music based on one bad recording of one singer – imagine an unflattering YouTube video on a pop music blog, and the headline “If Rolando Villazon can’t sing high notes without cracking what kind of music is opera?”

  • Ellingtonia says:

    Tom Waits can’t sing, Bod Dylan can’t sing, Leonard Cohen can’t sing but please do not tell me that they don’t make music of the highest quality………it is not just about pitch and purity of voice (after all there are very many note perfect but very dull opera singers) but how you deliver a song, the warmth, intensity and sometimes anger.
    Whether it be Jessie Norman singing Strauss Four Last Songs or Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops belting out “I cant help myself” the impact on me is the same, shear elation at such musicality.
    A couple of years ago Elbow did a gig with the Halle Orchetra in Manchester and they interviewed members of the orchestra about what they thought of the band as they rehearsed with them (for a TV programme). One member simply said “Guy Garvey has better pich than virtually any opera singer we have had sing with the orchestra”
    But as I said earlier it is not just about pich and voice purity…………….