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Taylor Swift and the rise of robot music

WE HAD TO share this article with you, beautifully written by Damon Linker for theweek.com

Perfection is a tricky thing. We need ideals, standards, visions to aspire to. But what happens when the real becomes the ideal? Is anything lost when a work of art doesn’t merely strive for perfection but actually embodies it?

In some ways the question is misleading. It’s impossible to pin down the melody, harmony, rhythm, and lyrics of the perfect pop song. But a performance is different, since it can be judged on technical criteria alone. A vocal performance, for example, can be perfect in the sense of flawless. Nothing flat, nothing sharp. Perfect phrasing, perfect tone.

But is any musical performance ever truly flawless? For all of human history, the answer was very, very rarely, and with a whole lot of uncertainty surrounding it. The absence of recording technology meant that performances had to be judged in the moment, which also meant that they were subject to the imperfect perception of an audience during a single, unreproducible event. And this meant, in turn, that no performance could ever truly be deemed perfect with any certainty.

Technology has changed this. For one thing, recording allows a performance to be preserved and studied in minute detail by an audience potentially as massive as the entire population of the planet, now and on into the future. For another, studio overdubbing permits the “performance” of a piece of music to be synthesized and stacked up from multiple takes on multiple instruments. Finally, pitch-adjusting processors like Auto-Tune allow even these “performances” to be fixed, corrected, perfected after the fact, yielding a final product that can sound utterly flawless.

It’s robot music — music that sounds like it’s been performed by a machine. Not only is the vocal line totally free of wavering pitch, but no instrument is off by even a microtone, no beat off by even a microsecond. Any imperfection in the studio performance of the songs has been aurally buffed, air-brushed, and photoshopped away.

If you want to study what’s distinctive about robot music, all you need to do is turn on the radio, since just about all pop songs these days have been touched by the trend. But if you want to hear it in its most refined form, the best, most concentrated example is probably Taylor Swift’s blockbuster hit album 1989. All 13 of its songs — very much including the album’s five ubiquitous hit singles — are masterpieces of mechanical music.

To read the rest of this piece (of course you HAVE TO now) go to: http://theweek.com/articles/584633/taylor-swift-rise-robot-music