Perhaps you’ve seen one of those selfies where the person has used software to impose makeup on themselves. They can make their skin glisten and nose narrow and zits invisible. The app in question is probably Facetune, and I’ve always found it a fascinating name. The point of comparison is obviously “autotune,” which is a procedure of popular music production that has so pervasively entered public consciousness that it makes sense as a foil for a marketing gimmick. There is a dual cynicism on display here: the very fact that “Facetune” works as a word demonstrates that (a) we know that our popular musicians are not as perfect in their singing as we hear them after production and (b) we know that our celebrities and models are not as perfect in their photos as we see them after production. And (c) we would rather have that false perfection for ourselves, through apps like Facetune, than reject it as false in our celebrities and musicians.
Guy Debord, when he first noticed the rise of a “society of the spectacle” in 1967, predicted that the modern conception of time would be increasingly marked by “self-changing reality, lived in illusion.” Virgil Moorefield, a historian of popular music production, has mapped this onto the movement of pop music in The Producer as Composer. Popular music production has gone from “the illusion of reality” to “the reality of illusion.” For instance, in the music of Elvis and the Beatles, sound production focused on creating an impression of being at a concert, despite the deadness of the recording studio: with the use of multitrack production and precise splicing, the musicians wouldn’t all have to be in the room at once; production would add extra “reverb” to make the acoustic sound vast. This was the “illusion of reality.” (This notion has itself been helpfully critiqued by Jonathan Sterne’s The Audible Past, but that is for another time.)
But in the 1980s and 1990s, music production began focusing more on technologies that allowed the perfection of studio to spill out into live performance; “ducking” the volume of vocal tracks to artificially outpace all other tracks so that, however loud the backing tracks were, the vocalist always seemed louder. And, of course, autotune. This is the “reality of illusion.”
The twin figures of Kylie Jenner and Ariana Grande illustrate this point well. In the case of the former (for those of you who are blessed and don’t know), Kylie Jenner is the youngest of the five half-sisters in the Kardashian-Jenner clan. She’s made her spectacular wealth (she apparently replaced Mark Zuckerberg as the youngest self-made billionaire) largely through lip kits. She’s also widely regarded to have normalized plastic facial surgery and removed its stigma (and many of my Gen Z friends inform me that plastic surgery is becoming a more common, middle-class mainstay). Curiously, Kylie Jenner looks a lot like her older sister Kim Kardashian now, but when she was younger she looked completely different. Unlike the plebes who use apps like Facetune, she has the money to, well, literally tune her face.
As for Ariana Grande, this video (which serves as my music recommendation for this post, because you should know) is revelatory. She has trained her voice to sound as if it were autotuned even when it is acoustic. It used to be that we autotuned artists because we wanted them to sound more like a really good singer; now our singers are really good if they sound like an autotuned artist. Of course the point is not whether Ariana Grande is talented or not—please, that really, really is not the point and such concerns are always distractions. The point is that our aesthetic standard has shifted: live performance was once the conceit for studio production, but this has now been inverted. It is as if we can hear the sound of Kylie Jenner’s makeup in Ariana’s vocal technique: Kylie, ostensibly less attractive than some of her other sisters, has made herself look like her older sister Kim through plastic lips and makeup.
Or, put much more eloquently in one of Grande’s recent songs, ““You like my hair? \ Gee, thanks, just bought it. I see it, I like it, I want it, I got it.” Apps like Facetune are simply the same notion on a brilliantly affordable scale.
Another time, I would like to delve into Sterne’s argument that, in fact, the idea of a “reality” from which Grande-style production has departed is itself illusory. I don’t like all of Sterne’s conclusions, but they are important for understanding the current moment.