Fine, So Fine

by Belle Waring on March 18, 2014

Today something wonderful happened to me. I was thinking yesterday, “Bruno Mars has got an incredible voice. There are so many pop stars that can’t sing for shit, and their voice isn’t just using Auto-Tune as a crutch, nnn hnnn no it is not, their voice isn’t even the sort of thing that has legs at all, most likely, and their manager probably just set it in an Auto-Tune wheelchair and got panicked and pushed throw pillows up all around. And then? Then it sings “Roar,” and may the Good Lord keep us [do not click on that link. I was morally obligated to provide it in the interests of completeness]. Bruno Mars can legit sing. And he’s a talented guitarist. And he’s pretty as hell–where are all the so, so many Bruno Mars songs that I love?” Now, “Locked Out of Heaven” is a really good song. It references the early 80s turn towards well-Policed reggae in a way I really like. Many pop bands did a reggae thing during that period that [here Belle draws shape of ‘square’ in air with forefinger of each hand] was often too rightthere on all ‘eff oh you are’ beats, ironically lacked any freedom to move, and was one of many musical equations asymptotically approaching the x-axis of the Sisters of Mercy. The drum machine in the Sisters of Mercy was named Doktor Avalanche, and he was an actually important person in the band.

Then I thought, I bet Bruno Mars could cover a Michael Jackson song like anything. Yes! Yes he can. An SNL skit involved this awesome, undeniable fact. But he can’t cover MJ songs, because he’s too good! No one becomes a rock star to be in a covers band, and no one can derive all that much joy from seeing someone sing Billie Jean exactly like Michael Jackson–it’s mimicry. It would be great at a show. (On the other hand, everybody could derive joy from seeing somebody dance just like Michael Jackson. Really, two great things happened to me today, since I showed my kids videos of MJ in his prime dancing for the first time, including an insane moonwalk. Verdict: “I didn’t think human bodies worked like that.” Heh, indeed.) To combat this, Bruno Mars covers a mashup of “Billy Jean” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” [Live in radio station, great vocals but not enough guitar; in a club, brings the rock, crap recording]. Covering a mashup is a fun, interesting thing to do–I have seen some other artists doing this but now I can’t think who. So I was poking around listening to different songs. This past year’s hit “When I Was Your Man” is sappy. Beautifully sung, but sappy. The video is cool in that it replicates a very specific thing: a live televised musical performance from the 70s or 80s, with multiple cameras, and live editing of the feed so that you get different cutaways, pans, and even kaleidoscope-like effects. But it also includes a small amount of ‘behind the scenes,’ that is, we see the lights, and the cameras and dollies, briefly, and the reel-to-reel running.

As Bruno Mars has gotten (one imagines) more control over his visual output he has consistently preferred a certain analog look, even going so far as to preserve the TV aspect ratio, and very specifically, even in the HD Official Music Video having it look as if you are viewing the video on a TV screen of a certain sort. The video for “Locked Out of Heaven” is like this, while earlier efforts such as the video for “Grenade” are more generic. AND THEN THIS HAPPENED! BREAKING MUST CREDIT BELLE THIS SONG WAS PERSONALLY WRITTEN FOR ME!

I…just…am so happy! I love this song! The video is genius! Its every detail, from the hair-style the girl is rocking, to the backing band pretending to play horns as they dance even when there aren’t any trombones or saxophones in the song, to the truly killer bass line, to the unified outfits, to the lighted stage, to the ludicrous “trails” video effects…I love it. YAY! Also Maria’s coming to my house. I could make her listen to pre-Prince Minneapolis funk but the receiver is b0rken. TT_TT [on preview: our avec-serifs font makes that emocon look weird. I shall choose to interpret them as eyelashes. For those who do not use the upright, Japanese-style emocons, those are two eyes, from each of which descends a wide river of tears. Manga characters cry like that. Well, in shojo manga. In shojen manga if they are crying that hard they also have snot coming out of at least one nostril. Manga for boys has some advantages in greater realism.]



zbs 03.18.14 at 4:09 pm

Yeah, “Treasure”—I thought that one actually was Shalimar or The Whispers when I first heard it on the radio.


Katherine 03.18.14 at 4:33 pm

For a considerable amount of time my daughter’s favourite song was, Maude help me, Roar. I’ve managed to redirect her towards Goldfrapp and Pink.


Brett 03.18.14 at 6:37 pm

“Treasure” is a fantastic song to listen to. I love that cheesy 1970s/1980s vibe to it, the synchronized dancing, Bruno Mars’ singing – it’s got it all. It and Pharrell’s “Get Lucky” and the Retro-Winner Songs of 2013.

I want to see Bruno remake songs in all the old genres. Even his opening bit for the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the Superbowl was great.

You know what I really want to see Bruno Mars cover? Somebody’s Watching Me. Tell me Bruno Mars couldn’t absolutely kill it with that song, probably even more so than Rockwell.


Peter Hovde 03.18.14 at 8:04 pm

Doktor Avalanche is one of the few doktors I trust.


NickS 03.18.14 at 8:26 pm

The video is well done and quite entertaining but, I have to admit, by the end the costumes and the overall style started to make me think of the Red Dwarf music video.

(For the heck of it, I’ll see if I can embed that



Jason 03.18.14 at 8:34 pm

From pretentious academese to someone badly imitating Lester Bangs. You’ve got it all at crookedtimber.


oldster 03.18.14 at 10:32 pm

The “trails” are from EWF’s “Let’s Groove.”

Which, I gotta say, is still a far better song.

I mean–I’m glad that Mars and Pharrell and all are showing their appreciation for old school 70’s/80’s disco-funk. But it was better the first time.


Ben 03.19.14 at 1:36 am

Belle I love you. But your writing on music will only be interesting after you offer an opinion on Aphex Twin’s turn towards drum and bass. This will allow a calibration.


Alan White 03.19.14 at 2:25 am

I became a Martian at Superbowl halftime, and much less a Dr. Pepper putter-upper (lip-synced and half-flabby naked? Let’s see–how could we look by comparison as lame as War of the Worlds quasi-Martians crawling and dying naked out of their clueless stupidly contaminated vessels?). Great pipes indeed for Bruno.

Pink is my current download champ. “True Love” captures ambiguity of it quite as it is, and with good voice.


Belle Waring 03.19.14 at 2:36 am

Jason: fuck you.


Western Dave 03.19.14 at 2:53 am

No love for the Keytar?


Belle Waring 03.19.14 at 2:56 am

Katherine: I’m so, so sorry. It’s like the Caillou stage. It will end.

Brett: I agree he could do a lot of genres. I would like to hear him cover Sam Cooke’s “Cupid,” although that’s kind of like “I’d like you to get into this footrace with Hermes! Piece of cake, kid.” It’s just because I think he could do the thing where during the stretched-out part of “cry” in “please hear my cry” his voice turns from shimmery smooth to rough for a second and then back. A lifetime of singing along to Sam Cooke has given me the ability to…not do this at all.

This and “Get Lucky” truly are the sleazy early 80s dance-track winners Belle Waring 2013 was waiting for. Get Lucky is distinctively a song from 2013, though, while this one is almost a fake old song or something (This does not in any way detract from my mad love, it’s just a curious fact.) The only thing they’ve done at all in this song to even remotely concede anything to the passage of time is, ironically, the use of Auto-Tune in the “oh oh oh oh oh” section before “I know that you don’t know it but you’re fine so fine” and the next. And that’s really quite muted. Funny because it’s totally, utterly unneeded, but maybe modern listeners can’t handle the transition from one note to an octave above without Auto-Tune, like, it’ll sound unnatural or something? Who can do that unaided, after all? Oh, wait no, people who can sing, I remember those people…


Belle Waring 03.19.14 at 3:08 am



hix 03.19.14 at 3:56 am

Im gona go with Katy Perry. I agree she cant sing, at least not in the pitch her songs are. Dont care, dont have to go to a live concerts of her. Treasure is also a pretty clean radio pop song, just like Katy Perrys music, not the kind of music where it matteres if the performer has any talent.


Belle Waring 03.19.14 at 4:56 am

Sorry hix, Katy Perry is literally worse than Hitler an incomprehensible phenomenon. She a) can’t sing; b) can’t dance; c) isn’t that hot. I admit she does have a kind of wide-eyed, somewhat crazed charisma, she rolled like a 17 there. Fine, she’s got a great rack. But there have to be, at this very instant, at least 1000 young women wandering around who have the exact same face shape/complexion/eyes/hair coloring, but can sing, and dance, and also have a great rack, and are smoking hot. They are Bettie Page up in this bitch, these hypothetical smoking hot girls who live in LA. And are non-hypothetical. What the fuck is going on? Katy Perry doesn’t write or produce the songs, so it’s not as though she’s needed there. She doesn’t shred sweet metal solos on the custom repro Randy Rhoads flying-V guitar she doesn’t have, with its signature bow-tie frets. That it doesn’t have, on account of not existing. If we want someone who can sing and be so hot she only has to twerk in shallow pools of liquid in a desultory way in her videos, we’ve already fucking got Rhianna! And if we want someone who can do all these things (minus the solo for “Goodbye to Romance”), including dancing like no one can, and having tits that could make a straight girl re-consider her options, there’s preëxisting Beyoncé! How is Katy Perry bringing all the girls to the yard? (I think her fan base is girls, actually)? I see no milkshake. I don’t even see milkshakes.


JakeB 03.19.14 at 5:52 am

No doubt it’s my weak mind, but I just can’t see how you could play a guitar with bow-tie frets without having it be exceedingly sharp on the top and bottom strings. Although I suppose sufficient mastery of the whammy bar might allow you to bring the note back close to pitch.

Belle, I want you to know that since your clown posting I’ve become totally addicted to Postmodern Jukebox. I am quite pleased to see the hideous “We Can’t Stop” and the less hideous but still deeply inane “Timber” turned into songs suitable for the American Graffiti soundtrack.


Sebastian H 03.19.14 at 5:56 am

I admit that I don’t get Katy Perry, but I suspect it has something to do with this constellation of facts:

1. She started out in the Christian genre.

2. She seems like a pretty girl next door, not super hot but kinda attractive so either more approachable (for straight boys) or more relate-able (for girls).

3. Her first big song was “I kissed a girl” which was actually a kinda good song and had interesting interactions with 1 and 2.

So that was her initial breakout, and she has capitalized on the in between good girl/bad girl space really well.

Which still doesn’t explain it but is as close as I can get.

I’m still rooting for Janelle Monae to really break out, but I rarely get wishes like that.


Chris Armstrong 03.19.14 at 9:05 am

The drum machine for The Sisters of Mercy *still* plays drums, and is still called Doctor Avalanche, although the machine itself has by now been reincarnated many times. Heck, Doctor Avalanche played bass for many years too. He’s very talented. And The Nurse handled the keyboards, plus pharmaceutics as required. Sadly Andrew has not yet invented a machine to do the singing for him.


oldster 03.19.14 at 10:31 am

Did somebody mention Janelle Monae? Because now we’re talking about some real talent.

Not just slavish samplings of Chic. I mean, I heard “Get Lucky,” and first I thought, “great, someone has released an unreleased B-side from 1979, though I can see why they didn’t release it.” Then I heard it was brand new, and I wondered how the lawyers were going to square this with the estate of Nile Rodgers, his heirs and assigns. Then I saw the damned thing and there was Zombie Nile Rodgers still chink-a-chinking away, preventing his heirs and assigns from filing their rightful suit.

Whereas…Janelle Monae is doing some original shit.


Belle Waring 03.19.14 at 10:34 am

Ben: I only like early Aphex Twin. Nah, for real I’d have to listen to later Aphex Twin to have an informed opinion, because I haven’t done so. I love drum and bass, and Aphex Twin, but I have to say I don’t really see how…um.
Katy Perry is the girl next door…kinda…sorta…? Ish? “I Kissed a Girl” was a bullshit song that was exactly like two drunk-ass chicks making out at a frat house kegger, while all the dudes whip their iPhones out. Her crazy-person charisma is evident in the “and I liked it” sections in the video, in which she turns to the camera with a maniacal, whites of your eyes showing all around, “PAY ATTENTION TO ME” look that is genuinely riveting. But that’s all she’s got; that thing, that’s it. I don’t understand how she’s parlayed this into world domination, usurping the throne of the rightful empress Janelle Monáe.


Belle Waring 03.19.14 at 10:36 am

Ha, cross-posted with oldster. Janelle Monáe is what it’s all about. She is making some seriously crazy, awesome art.


oldster 03.19.14 at 10:45 am

See, now? That’s cause you and me always agree on music, and the other important stuff. Always! ‘Cept now and then when you’re wrong, but can I help that?


Anon 03.19.14 at 12:03 pm

Chris Armstrong 03.19.14 at 9:05 am

“The drum machine for The Sisters of Mercy *still* plays drums, and is still called Doctor Avalanche, although the machine itself has by now been reincarnated many times.”

This raises so many deep philosophical problems of identity. Will the real Doctor Avalanche please stand up? But I’m sure there’s A Philosophy and the Sisters of Mercy volume coming out that will solve them.

Meanwhile, who the hell is Dr. Jeep?


Belle Waring 03.19.14 at 12:18 pm

We’re actually hosting a CT book event on the recently published Eldritch Keening: Philosophy and the Problematics of the Sisters of Mercy. I’m going to be writing on “Fire in the Reptile House” from a Heideggerian perspective.


Peter Hovde 03.19.14 at 2:23 pm

“Lucretia Whose Reflection?: Goth, Alterity, Gender.”


Belle Waring 03.19.14 at 2:24 pm

JakeB: cool! My girls and I are also way into the Postmodern Jukebox now too. They (and I) think that the Puddles version of “Team” is better than the Lorde version. And then many of the “I decided Avril Lavigne recorded this song in 1928” versions are better than the originals. Like the Nickleback thing! They made that a great song?! (This is how you remind me…) Does that mean it was secretly a great song all along? (The bow-ties on Randy Rhoads’ flying-V guitar were inlaid mother-of-pearl designs on the wood between the frets, they did not constitute the frets themselves, BTW).


Chris Armstrong 03.19.14 at 2:44 pm

Right. One of the great unreleased songs Sisters of Mercy of the last decade – of which there are many, go listen live if you don’t believe me – is called ‘I’ve Slept with all the Girls in Berlin.’ But is this a) an amusing critique of contemporary (especially German) sexual mores, or b) a boast that Eldritch once went to bed with the singer from Berlin? We may never know, but sign me up for a chapter in the edited collection pondering the question.


Katherine 03.19.14 at 4:20 pm

Katy Perry also had the whirlwind romance with Russell Brand going for her, publicity-wise. I haven’t the faintest idea whether it was real or not, although I was exactly 0% surprised when they broke up, but for a while there she was in the teen and women’s magazines A LOT. And a known name sells more than an unknown name.

And piling on the Janelle Monae love. She is amazing.

Also, like Belle, I love drum and bass and quite liked Aphex Twin back in the early 2000’s, but can’t quite aurally picture the two together. Hie me to You Tube!


Katherine 03.19.14 at 4:22 pm

And in all honesty, her recent songs – Firework and Roar – aren’t the worst, lyrically speaking, for youngish girls/kids to be listening to. I’ll take that over One Direction’s pile of shite any day.


zbs 03.19.14 at 4:52 pm

Fwiw (not much), but to add a grain of sand to all this, I find myself utterly unmoved by Janelle Monáe, whose image seems perfectly seductive to me, if perhaps hyper-engineered, but in whose music I find it difficult to find any coherence, alas.


Brett 03.19.14 at 4:54 pm

I hate “Roar”. It’s got that “CLUNK-CLUNK-CLUNK-CLUNK” background beat that’s been in most of her recent songs.

My favorite Katy Perry song is “Waking Up in Vegas”. Catchy music, cool music video with the Guy Who Played Norm On “Avatar”, and so forth, even if the whole “Las Vegas Hive of Scum and Villainy” trope has been totally played out from over-use.


zbs 03.19.14 at 4:54 pm

I have sometimes wondered what Belle does @15 in regard to Katy Perry, with the shuddering thought of who might be the more annoying singer, Katy or her lookalike (but not signify-alike) Zooey D.


Bloix 03.19.14 at 5:16 pm

I kind of get Janelle Monae. My boys think she’s great. Katy Perry, no. I am old so I know it’s not for me but I don’t really get it.

Talking about who gets to be a star, Belle, if it interests you I’d like to know what you thought of 20 Feet from Stardom.


bob mcmanus 03.19.14 at 5:41 pm

Nope. Tried three songs. Is it sexist to say Monae is almost unbearably beautiful?

While getting some tires a while back listened to pop for a while. All sounded like most everything else since mid eighties. Very very good, but nothing new. Except maybe the lyrics are smarter now.

All power pop.


Stephenson quoter-kun 03.19.14 at 8:01 pm

The drum machine in the Sisters of Mercy was named Doktor Avalanche, and he was an actually important person in the band.

Which makes Doktor Avalanche my second-favourite personified drum machine, after Roland of Big Black.

I agree with the appreciation of Janelle Monae above, although I haven’t listened to her recent album yet. Is it as good as The ArchAndroid?

I don’t really have an opinion on Katy Perry, but she seems to work hard at being famous and, well, if someone has to be famous for being Katy Perry then it might as well be her. I do think it’s odd that “she’s not as hot as Beyonce/Rihanna” is suggested as something that should work against her though; I would have thought that she has deliberately cultivated the goofy side of her image to appeal to people who might think that Beyonce is too perfect/smug and Rihanna just too focused on her sexuality to the exclusion of all else.


The Temporary Name 03.19.14 at 8:10 pm

after Roland of Big Black

Does that count as personification? Picture of Roland here.


Stephenson quoter-kun 03.19.14 at 9:03 pm

“Personification” wasn’t my ideal word, but I couldn’t think of a better one for “named as if a person despite being an inanimate object”.


js. 03.19.14 at 9:26 pm

Rihanna just too focused on her sexuality to the exclusion of all else.

Hm. I thought “Umbrella” was pretty great before I had any idea what Rihanna looked like.

But back to Bruno Mars: that “Treasure” video is great, but I mostly tend to agree with oldster @7: it was better the first time, if only because it was the first time. (See also: Gang of Four/Franz Ferdinand.)


The Temporary Name 03.19.14 at 9:41 pm

Obviously the link wasn’t my ideal link either.


Belle Waring 03.20.14 at 3:32 am

Stephenson quoter-kun! my man! It’s not as good as The ArchAndroid because, really, unfortunately, how could it be? However, it’s excellent. This is my second-favorite, and QUEEN is awesome, and you must watch the concept video (it opens with “it’s hard to stop rebels that time travel…” and that’s so true, right?). I see what you mean about the Katy Perry “I’m not flawless! I’m a giant dork, like you are, sort of, and yet a superstar!” thing. Because Beyoncé doesn’t inspire women and girls everywhere to wake up and think better of themselves because we’re flawless just the way we are; she inspires us to wake up and think, “dag, Beyoncé is fucking awesome.” Though I’m happy with her new, feminist-promoting ways.
confidential to mcmanus-sensei: it’s not sexist to say Janelle Monáe is almost unbearably beautiful. This is just a factual observation.


js. 03.20.14 at 5:59 am

In partial mitigation of my 38, it’s as good as the first time when Snoop does it:

The PG version, with video

The original version, no video


js. 03.20.14 at 6:44 am

Also, just a random shout out to whoever it was on one of Belle’s music threads (the mash-ups one?) that turned me on to Greg Wilson’s ‘original british mixes’. This shit is the fucking awesome!

(Sorry, Belle. I’ll stop threadjacking just about now.)


Katherine 03.20.14 at 10:12 am

Played Tightrope for my daughter in the car this morning. She was gentle with my feelings and did that wiggly hand thing. Goldfrapp continues to be her favourite. At least I’ve managed to get rid of Nelly Furtado.


oldster 03.20.14 at 11:03 am

Katherine, I might have reacted the same way if I had heard Tightrope as audio-only the first time. Clearly a lot of my reaction is to the video, the dance, the ambiance, and the muthos. The camaraderie between the inmates. The confidence and dignity of every participant. The vision of a better society, kept down by a worse one.

Can’t say I share McManus’ reaction to JM–I don’t find her beautiful. Just riveting.


Wade McReynolds 03.20.14 at 2:24 pm

I don’t get all the Katy Perry hate. Or the qualifying remarks about her hottness. As for Bruno Mars’ stuff, I’m surprised that so many people here like it so much. Most of what I’ve heard of it either bores or irritates me. For instance, what is that cuica sample doing on “Locked Out of Heaven,” and why the hell is it playing on the down beat? It’s like he heard a samba tune and decided, I’ve got to have that ooga-ooga gorilla sound on my next record. His strong chops only make his music slicker, hence more boring.


Katherine 03.20.14 at 2:34 pm

Yeah, I did wonder that myself oldster. I think the video is definitely a large part of the experience.


Belle Waring 03.20.14 at 2:45 pm

OMG you guys I am excited for the personal thing I get to share with you about the Tightrope video. Laters. Otherwise, js. feel free to threadjack. It’s. like, consensual and shit. Maybe then we can start the punk/sonata mashup group I’ve always dreamed of, Circle Jerk of Fifths.


NickS 03.20.14 at 3:30 pm

It’s not as good as The ArchAndroid because, really, unfortunately, how could it be?

… I might have reacted the same way if I had heard Tightrope as audio-only the first time. Clearly a lot of my reaction is to the video, the dance, the ambiance, and the muthos.

Interesting. I was going to say that I think The Electric Lady is a distinctly stronger album than The ArchAndroid, but that I was never as excited about The ArchAndroid as most of the people here. I wonder if oldster explains it, and that my reaction is based on approaching it as an audio production, rather than following the videos and other additional material.

My reaction to The ArchAndroid was that I could understand why people were excited about it — she was clearly talented, smart, thoughtful, and ambitious, but I felt like her ambition exceeded here talent to some degree. The Electric Lady felt much more fully realized musically, and I thought that as it switched between different genres, it was better at doing each genre well, whereas The ArchAndroid felt like it alluded to a variety of genres, but never succeeded at any of them.

De gustibus . . .


Brautigan 03.20.14 at 7:36 pm

Ummm . . . I hate to break it to you, but they’ve Autotuned the hell out of that video. Maybe he does have pipes, but you can’t tell from that recording.


oldster 03.20.14 at 11:52 pm

And did they have to autotune Maurice White? Did they have to autotune Philip Bailey?

res ipsa loquitur, baby.

Autotune should be so lucky. Autotune gets calibrated by being reset to Maurice White’s voice.


Belle Waring 03.21.14 at 2:31 am

Brautigan: listen to the other songs. Like the live radio studio mashup link. Or maybe better the sappy last year’s hit “When I Was Your Man.” It’s sappy, but it’s only vocals and piano IIRC and not much chance/reason to auto tune. Like I say, there is one section in this song that’s very obviously auto-tuned, and, granted, relatively long, the lead-up to the chorus, and whenever all the singers are supposed to be in harmony (full backup) then they auto-tune it like hell, like “you’re everything I see in my dreams.” But there has to be something in this song that makes it sound like a song from 2013, right? It would be some kind of novelty song otherwise. All modern pop songs have auto-tune, so if all the instrumentation, tune, words, and singing are going to be straight from 1978 they have to put something in there that’s distinctively modern. That thing is, “auto-tune if there’s full backing vocals, and on certain transitions.” Low to high needing/having auto-tune is its distinctive feature–auto-tune’s first appearance as an intentional effect is in Cher’s 90s hit “Do You Believe.” In the chorus there, in the middle of the word believe in “do you believe in life after love” there’s a weird, proto-auto-tune created warble. It was accidental, but they decided to leave it in and it was a big hit. You remember how, in the 70s, everyone was into the 30s? And they thought they made period accurate movies like the Great Gatsby but now they don’t look remotely 30s, they look 30s-in-the-70s? This song has to have something to sound 2013: auto-tune is it. For real Bruno Mars can sing though, go check around.


Kevin Erickson 03.21.14 at 3:00 am

Belle, did you get the Purple Snow comp?


Alan White 03.21.14 at 4:21 am

As I said: Mars sang at the gathering of the truly faithful Superbowlers, and he did not disappoint. Proved mettle.

Belle: what do you think of Lorde? Voice-overs abound, but really with simple sounds as making up the composite. Royals is a wonder which I loved at first heard. Ribs too. Is there auto-tune in there beyond old-fashioned mixing? I can’t tell.

Do you sing? I bet you do. I have (had) a philosophy songs parody site.


Belle Waring 03.21.14 at 9:55 am

Kevin: yes, I did, but I haven’t been able to listen to it except once’t on account of my receiver breaking. But it was AWESOME. Alan: yes I love Lorde. I can sing, but only kinda. My family is super-musical: my dad plays guitar (regular and 12-string bottleneck slide) and my brother plays both guitar and bass. Our daughter Violet plays the drums. John actually plays the guitar now too, he started about 4 years ago. Since my parents were basically hippies, when I was a kid my dad would play guitar and my mom would play the autoharp and then we would all sing folksongs and other stuff. And the songs from the Rocky Horror Picture Show.


zbs 03.21.14 at 2:58 pm

There are different degrees of autotuning, obviously, between Bruno’s verse voice (also corrected, I believe) and Katy Perry and T-Pain. At the Superbowl, Bruno sounded both thin and a little wobbly but who knows with such things. Gimme the backstage video á la Beyonce. Anyway, pitch perfection aside he’s not particularly powerful, but I’m not keeping score on that count.


Kiwanda 03.21.14 at 3:32 pm

I don’t see why it matters if someone is auto-tuned, unless it sounds bad. I don’t care if someone is lip-syncing to someone else’s singing, if I can’t tell. Just as many other things, musical presentations are a collaboration, and I don’t think the division of labor particularly matters. Sincerity is particularly important to the emotional impact of music, especially if it’s faked well.


Kiwanda 03.21.14 at 3:33 pm

“Just as many” –> “Just as with many”. Sigh.


NickS 03.21.14 at 5:04 pm

I don’t see why it matters if someone is auto-tuned, unless it sounds bad.

The concern is that there’s a slippery slope of sorts (and, I admit, this is almost as much of a cliche as, “the youth of today are vulgar and have no respect for culture.”). If you get something that sounds weird and artificial to 20% of the listeners and cool and new to 80% of people then eventually the 20% of people will gradually stop listening to newer pop music and occasionally grumble about wanting the kids to get off their lawn.

Eventually that sound, whatever it is, no longer sounds new to anybody and the process can repeat with something else that sounds weird to another 20% of people and so on . . . I doubt that story is actually true, but there are moments when I believe it.

Listening to a couple live Bruno Mars performances on youtube my impression is that he has a very pleasant voice, and actually knows how to sing, but doesn’t have a lot of vocal power (which is hardly a requirement for a pop star). And, let’s not forget, he was an incredibly cute 4-year-old Elvis impersonator.

Going back to the OP, I have to admit, however, that his music doesn’t do much for me. I wanted to like it, because I do think he’s charismatic and like Mars’ persona as a performer. But, for me, I just don’t have any reason to listen to his music — it isn’t something that I’m looking for. But it is good to know that somebody is excited about contemporary, “sleazy early 80s dance-track winners.”


NickS 03.21.14 at 5:18 pm

I’ve just listened to that 2010 Bruno Mars video that I linked above a couple of times in a row, and it reminds me of what I like about him. His voice is very good, and he’s so charming. At his best he has an unusual mixture of star power and humility (or, at least, lack of pretension). He knows the song is good pop music, and he isn’t trying to claim that it’s art.

I’m really jealous of whoever was in that room — that seems like a great show.


NickS 03.21.14 at 6:46 pm

So darn charming (and also). Talk about a million-dollar smile.

I remain sort of fascinated by “Lazy Song.” It’s a good song which hints at a completely different emotional reality. As far as I can tell the set-up of the song is, “you just left me, and I’m so depressed that I can barely get out of bed.” But perhaps I’m just reading too much into the lines about “Tomorrow I’ll . . . meet a really nice girl” and “I bet my old man will be so proud of me / but sorry paps, you’ll just have to wait.” Both of which suggest somebody who’s a little bit stuck in their life, rather than just lazing around with everything going well.

But maybe that’s just because I want to hear a darker story behind the sunny pop song. Either way, it’s interesting that in the fragment above (the “also” link) he doesn’t sing that verse.


wolfgang 03.21.14 at 7:43 pm

So Bruno Mars rips off Police and this shows us how great he is why exactly?


wolfgang 03.21.14 at 7:48 pm

btw the mashup is here


fmackay 03.21.14 at 11:47 pm

I don’t think aphex has ever put out a D&B record, certainly there is influence, eg (nb must be heard in headphones for full effect):

but more recently (for not especially recent values of recently) he’s all about the acid:


Katherine 03.22.14 at 10:14 am

Autotune is a bit like the aural version or airbrushing and photo shopping. Theoretically, it can just be used to correct a small something, take a bit of an edge off something else. And that’s how it starts.

Except now it’s used to “perfect” things to such an extent that “perfection” is an utterly unobtainable, literally unreal version of reality, that makes actual reality look dull and lumpen.

I can certainly see the same thing happening with autotune, if it hasn’t already. The lumps and bumps that make sounds individual and interesting are smoothed out to create a plastic perfection.

Sure, sometimes there are disasters where everyone’s points and laughs (see Photoshop Disasters for the visual version), but for the most part we stop noticing. Until we notice that everything’s so “perfect” that imperfect reality is just not good enough any more.


oldster 03.22.14 at 3:49 pm

Interesting thoughts, Katherine.

I agree that the market is ruthlessly regularizing about appearance. Esp. female; “craggy” is okay for guys.

But when it comes to voices, I think the market may have more tolerance for/appreciation of individual variety and expressions of character. Even in female voices! (Though to a lesser extent–I’m not sure that a female Dylan would have made it. Melissa Etheridge is probably the closest to that model? But Tracy Chapman did fine; Macy Gray had a hit, etc., while still having voices that are highly craggy.)


oldster 03.22.14 at 4:23 pm

A related thought not about the market but about technology. Autotune corrects imperfect pitch. But having vocal character and being off-key are very different things. Louis Armstrong was never off-key, but he had plenty of vocal character. Sam Cooke was never off-key. Both of them bent plenty of notes, but they bent them with total precision.

Singing the wrong note, or a bad approximation of the right note, is not a good-making feature in a voice, even for those of us who like voices full of character. It’s more like a face with an extra nose, or the eyes on the chin, than a face that shows age.

So what autotune does is somewhat different from what photoshop does, or at least not exactly parallel.


The Temporary Name 03.22.14 at 4:31 pm

It’d be interesting to play with autotune and George Jones.


NickS 03.22.14 at 4:58 pm

Except now it’s used to “perfect” things to such an extent that “perfection” is an utterly unobtainable, literally unreal version of reality, that makes actual reality look dull and lumpen.

I think that’s a reasonable theory but, like oldster, I’m not sure that’s what’s actually happening. The best evidence I would offer is that if you go back and listen to pop music from 30 years ago, it sounds dated, but not because the voices sound “imperfect.” I’d guess that the biggest difference you would hear is that the older recordings will, on average, have a lot less bass (and less tightly defined bass). I do think that there are recognizably contemporary vocal production effects, but I think of that as being different from auto-tune.

It’s entirely possible that some successor of auto-tune will accomplish that feeling of “invisible perfection” in the future, but I don’t think it’s here yet.

FWIW, my experience of badly produced pop music isn’t that it sounds “perfect”, but that it has all the subtlety and nuance engineered out of it. For example, I found the Adele album unlistenable because it was so blatantly obvious that the piano and voice weren’t occupying the same space, and weren’t interacting, it was just big block of piano, and big block of voice side by side. It was engineered to sound good on radio, where you you aren’t going to be listening for details like that. When you listen to it on a decent system it’s like looking at a Roy Lichtenstein print — it doesn’t pretend to be representation, and you can see that the shading is just different colored dots.

Also, on a separate note, Katherine, I remember you mentioning in a previous thread that you had appreciated having some recommendations for good country music. I’d been meaning to pass along the link to a mix that I did a while ago of country singer-songwriters, that I was quite happy with.

I’m not sure that a female Dylan would have made it.

Interesting question. The first person who comes to mind is Patti Smith who obviously has a great voice, but one that is not traditionally feminine.


Lawrence Stuart 03.22.14 at 5:02 pm

That vid is a treasure. Ok, the front door is just another pop song: it’s a got big flashing lights and hucksters out front dragging you in. But the show inside is actually fun, and fun is good. Fun blows open a back door, and you can, if you dare, leave by a rabbit hole that is totally not the music-as-commodity-flashing-gateway that suckered you in.

It’s got depth, man. Depths of fun.

My pop vid of the week is Chloe Howl “Rumour:”

In this one, the front door is pop diva lyrical angst. It could all be so serious, you know. But it’s saved by plain old sassiness. Sassy rocks!


Doctor Slack 03.22.14 at 5:30 pm

Belle. Oh, Belle:

“She a) can’t sing; b) can’t dance; c) isn’t that hot.”

This isn’t you. You are neither a consumer nor a purveyor of Hatorade. And yet here we’ve got you setting up a whole Hatorade stand on poor Katy. A whole chain of Hatorade stands, even, serving up extra-large tumblers of that noxious beverage spiked with Tabasco sauce and extra gall.

The contention “Katy Perry cannot sing” is objectively just totally wrong. One may not particularly like her voice, that’s a matter of taste, but she can clearly sing and has authentic musical talent. That, combined with the charisma — and obviously the rack doesn’t hurt either — is why she is a star; the Christian girl-next-door thing and the oh-so-naughtiness of “I Kissed a Girl” may have been the hook for her “break-out,” but she only sustains it because she has actual talent. It boggles the mind that a person can recognize this about Bruno Mars and not be able to admit it about Katy Perry.

I mean, she’s no Janelle Monae, obviously. But an “incomprehensible phenomenon”? Madam, I challenge you to tear this Hatorade stand down!


Doctor Slack 03.22.14 at 5:34 pm

(I also dare say that, aside from just “having actual talent,” Katy Perry has perhaps the more signal virtue of having a distinctive voice. She’s not an interchangeable pop starlet; her voice is sufficiently recognizable that it’s rarely possible to mistake her for anyone else. Which surely adds value.)


Kiwanda 03.22.14 at 10:36 pm

Doctor Slack:

She’s not an interchangeable pop starlet; her voice is sufficiently recognizable that it’s rarely possible to mistake her for anyone else.

But is it so distinctive? Compare with others in Christina Bianco’s repertoire:


Doctor Slack 03.23.14 at 5:25 am

Well… she’s distinguishable from all the other impressions Bianco does there, which are all of similarly famous and identifiable people. When I say “interchangeable pop starlets” I have more in mind the undistinguished voices that emerge, serve up a slice of one-hit wonder and then vanish without a trace, like… Brooke Hogan for example. The kind of singer Belle seems to think Katy Perry is.

Also, Bianco is very, very funny.


The Temporary Name 03.23.14 at 5:46 am

Okay, someone should assemble the constituent videos that made up the Mars thing.


The Temporary Name 03.23.14 at 5:51 am


NickS 03.23.14 at 5:37 pm

The contention “Katy Perry cannot sing” is objectively just totally wrong.

I was hoping that somebody would show up to defend Katy Perry because I’d heard that she was somebody who could actually sing, but didn’t know any good examples to demonstrate that. I do think she sings quite well in that video.

However . . . I’m not convinced that the video is actually live. There are a couple of dissolves between different performances. Note that at 0:55 she’s wearing yellow, and then at 1:11 she’s wearing read which dissolves back to the yellow outfit at 1:19, and then at 1:48 she’s in red again . . . And I think it’s possible that the audio track is edited separately from the video. I’m not positive about that. One of the things that I look for is whether you can hear changes in the sound as she moves relative to the microphone. For example at 2:30-2:36 she’s moving backwards, it doesn’t sound like she’s getting farther away. But that depends on the mic, so I don’t have a strong opinion about that. But it’s clearly an edited performance, so it’s interesting that whoever posted it called it “LIVE”.


The Temporary Name 03.23.14 at 5:58 pm

At the Superbowl, Bruno sounded both thin and a little wobbly but who knows with such things.

Did not see it, but I assume that every knows autotuning can be done live…get a guy on keys playing the vocal line and that’s that.


Lawrence Stuart 03.23.14 at 6:28 pm

I’d give you guys that Katie Perry has a fine voice for pop. Nothing wrong with it. But the tunes, and the whole simper and pout schtick that sells them … ugh!

What makes a good pop tune, for me, anyway, is not the voice, or the schtick, or the groove, or the hook , etc. etc. It’s not about technique or attitude — though those things can matter (and I’d say attitude can go a long way in making up for lack of technique).

The tune, and sometimes the artist, has to somehow transcend the basic commodity function of pop music. So yes, you will metaphorically enter through the metaphorical gift shop. But a good pop tune gives you some room to do more than consume. A good tune has a back room, where you can really dance, or really laugh, or really cry, or just be really tragically hip, and so on and so forth etc.

I’ve yet to hear a KP song that is, for me anyway, anything other than the gift shop (and please feel free to change my mind!). And that’s why I think she sucks.


oldster 03.23.14 at 6:30 pm

Yikes: Nick S, clothing detective. Yeah, the red thing is an overcoat, which she was wearing over a yellow blouse. So I agree that it is not a continuous take. I also suspect that it was recorded onto some sort of electronic recording medium, and that she was not singing it at the time I was listening to it on Youtube. Why does all of that mean it was not a live recording?

I guess I have two reactions to this whole question of her ability to sing:
1) no non-singer could have given that performance, or even got close enough for it to be enhanced into listenability. Even if they cleaned it up a bit here and there (which would have been very hard to do on the breathy parts), there is still some credible musicianship there, and a voice that is at least decent. (Consider, e.g. her timing and phrasing, which autotune does not change, and which you can see is hers, by the movement of her lips and body.)

2) at the same time, singing is not such a rare and incomprehensible talent that we have to assume it’s faked. She’s not pretending to bend spoons. She’s just singing. You can hear voices that good all over town on Sunday, in church choirs, and on Saturday night in high school musical shows. All over towns, and all over the countryside–pick a small burg in Texas, and there’s a bubbly high-school girl who is singing Marian the Librarian or Eliza Doolittle or Elle Wood this spring who has a beautiful, pitch-perfect, expressive voice. Aretha Franklin may be rare, but nearly every gospel church in America has a couple of women whose voices are 90% as good and would stun you in person.

Singing, even really good singing, is a fairly widely distributed trait among humans. There are a ten thousand good singers for every pop star. A thousand of them are also plausibly cute. 100 of them have useful connections or a lucky break. 25 of them are willing to sacrifice everything for it. One of them gets a whole lot of breaks, in addition.

Given how much vocal talent there is in the world, there is really no a priori reason to be suspicious of Katy Perry’s possessing a decent share of it.

Here’s an example of how the gospel churches develop vocal talent. I stumbled on this video of a guy singing to his iPhone in his car. You can be among the miniscule 23k people who have ever listened to him:


oldster 03.23.14 at 6:51 pm

Also, tying together EWF, Aretha Franklin, and the ubiquity of the pretty damned good, it’s worth remember that Maurice White and Louis Satterfield of EWF were the rhythm section behind the best James Jamerson bass line that James Jamerson never wrote, and the best Aretha Franklin song that Aretha never sang. I mean “Rescue Me,” by Fontella Bass, which is of course an awesome, awesome song. Fontella was another graduate of the gospel school of singing, and she was cute to boot in her houndstooth suit:

How come more people know about KP than about FB? Luck, breaks, race, many things other than basic vocal ability.


The Temporary Name 03.23.14 at 7:03 pm

All over towns, and all over the countryside–pick a small burg in Texas, and there’s a bubbly high-school girl who is singing Marian the Librarian

Like this cutie pie!


NickS 03.23.14 at 7:11 pm

oldster: I agree, the video that Doctor Slack linked is a good demonstration of the fact that Katy Perry can sing. My second paragraph wasn’t intended as debunking, it’s just that I find it interesting when you can’t tell how edited something is.


oldster 03.23.14 at 7:13 pm

NickS–ah but will it be good enough for Belle?


oldster 03.23.14 at 7:22 pm

The Temporary Name–

you could have given us a scene where she actually sings, you know, instead of one in which she remains silent in the face of egregious sexual harassment?

That said, Robert Preston’s performance is amazing. And Shirley Jones has excellent pipes, too, despite her lung capacity being reduced during the filming by pregnancy. And right now, in thousands of dinner-theaters and high schools all over the country, people are doing decent versions of those roles. Without the assistance of autotune!


The Temporary Name 03.23.14 at 7:29 pm

The joke is that “Marian the Librarian” is the song title. Also I think Robert Preston is kind of lumpy and not really so cute.


oldster 03.23.14 at 7:37 pm

Ah, I see. I meant “singing M the L” in the sense of singing that role, rather than that song.

Is Preston cute? Beats me. If there’s one thing I find less comprehensible than why certain talented singers become famous talented singers, it is the vagaries of male attractiveness. I’m no judge of male beauty, but I can at least sort of see why Cary Grant or Robert Redford were considered attractive. But Bruce Willis? Nicholas Cage? Kevin Costner?

Clearly I’m just color-blind to whatever frequencies are the relevant ones. And that’s fine–I’m not the target audience. But given that I have no ability to discriminate in this region, I would also not be surprised to be told that Robert Preston was a matinee idol and a heart throb. All I know is he can sell a song.


NickS 03.23.14 at 7:51 pm

NickS–ah but will it be good enough for Belle?

I don’t know.

However, given the discussion with Katherine, above, about auto-tune and “perfect” voices I think there’s an interesting comparison to be made between that Katy Perry video, and the Bruno Mars video that I linked in 58 (“very pleasant”). It’s interesting which is more convincing to people (I’m easy, I find both convincing).

The Bruno Mars video doesn’t even have a microphone, it’s just an iPhone video of him sitting on a stool, playing guitar and singing, and it doesn’t sound like a studio recording. I ended up getting somewhat hooked, and listening to it five or six times in a row (it’s short), but it took me a moment to shift my expectations to that level of sound quality. But it does seem like a transparent recording of a live event.


The Temporary Name 03.23.14 at 7:58 pm

Yes. The Music Man is much more fun than everything we’ve been talking about (though not so danceable) and I think Hot’n’Cold is great.

There’s no question at all that there’s some autotuning on Katy Perry – there’s some weird obvious vibrato on Hot’n’Cold for instance – but the use of autotune is not necessarily because the singer can’t get the job done, but you get guys in a studio messing around with vocal tracks and they do what they like to do.

This mix/production guy is charitable to Katy but it’s clear he loves playing with the vocals… because!


Bloix 03.23.14 at 9:07 pm

#47- okay, now that is revolting. I mean I did laugh but it’s gross.

The second half of #79 – this is what 20 Feet from Stardom is all about.


js. 03.24.14 at 5:52 am


The think you link at 79 is ridiculously awesome — thanks! (I mean, I don’t really know anything about this “singing” thing people are on about—no seriously, my go-to genres are like 60’s pop/garage, punk and hip-hop, singing is unheard of! But that’s wonderful.)


oldster 03.24.14 at 10:00 am

js.–so glad you liked it.

That guy’s performance is breathtaking, and yet he will never become famous, or even close. It’s just a guy singing to himself, or praying if you like, from the very depths of his soul. That, and a vibrato of uncommon richness, a falsetto break that never fails him, rock-solid pitch and a sense of phrasing that began in the churches, got recorded by Al Green, Otis, Marvin, Aretha, and the rest, and went back to enrich the church literature.

But doubtless I’m wrong, and the recording’s virtues are all due to the work of Stargate in post-production.


Katherine 03.24.14 at 12:10 pm

Re auto tune, they are all good points. I don’t think that it is currently obliterating all distinctiveness. Only that Photoshop started out as as way to just even out the rough edges, and look what it does now. Images that most people would find perfectly acceptable, beautiful even, are subtley and skillfully manipulated to do a lot more than correct errors – of lighting, of position, whatever – and have changed our mental expectations of what already beautiful people look like.

If you jumped from the origins of Photoshop to now, then sure everyone would notice the difference, but things rarely go so suddenly. There is a gradual drip drip of change and manipulation that it takes a professional to spot.

I’m aware I’m making a slippery slope argument, but we’ve already slipped down a similar slope, so I think I’m justified in worrying.

Also, NickS, thank you very much for that link. Much appreciated.

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