It taints most current pop songs. It has spread like a venereal disease through the modern music industry, staining and rendering sterile the works of everyone from Madonna to Kanye West to Glen Campbell. It is a scourge, a plague infecting pop music so thoroughly that music may never recover.
It is Auto-Tune.
And you could argue it's ultimately all the fault of an 18th century mathematician who, at one point in his life, faced death by guillotine. Had that man's head rolled in 1794, science would have suffered, but modern-day music lovers would have been spared a world of T-Pain.
His name was Joseph Fourier, and it's one of the mathematical transforms which bears his name that is responsible for the magic behind Auto-Tune. Without getting into the gobbledygook behind the so-called "short-term Fourier transform" (and believe me - unless you're a trigonometry expert, the mumbo gets jumbo real fast), suffice to say this particular mathematical operator is what allows a piece of software or hardware to manipulate specific parts of an audio waveform. Without it, Cher might never have sounded like a robot on "Believe" in 1998, and Kid Rock might never have sounded like a putz on "Only God Knows Why" a year later.
The short-term Fourier transform is also used in other fields... like, say, geology. In fact, it was as a geologist that Dr. Harold Hildebrand (or "Dr. Andy," as he likes to be known) started using Fourier's transform while working for Exxon starting in the 1970s. Dr. Andy also had an interest in music, and after retiring from the oil industry at the age of 39, he turned his attention toward using the science he developed to find oil to instead find perfect pitch.
In 1997, Hildebrand's company, Antares, Inc., released the first version of Auto-Tune, and the plug-in was immediately seized upon by producers everywhere to subtly massage the pitch of the singers with whom they worked.
At first, Auto-Tune was used subtly, but when the producers of the forementioned "Believe" cranked the software's speed setting down to zero, they discovered the unique sound that too many of us now know all too well.
Nowadays, you can't throw a "Glee" cast member without hitting Auto-Tune in action. The software (and its hardware cousin, used in live performance venues) is ubiquitous, sitting like Professor Moriarty, motionless, like a spider in the center of its web... but that web has a thousand radiations, and Auto-Tune has buffed away every quiver of each of them.
So the next time a cold chill is sent shivering down your spine thanks to the icy, heartless sound of a voice which has had its humanity ruthlessly Auto-Tuned away, give a thought to old Joseph Fourier, whose name is one of the 72 inscribed on the Eiffel Tower, and who died in in France in 1830 -- 180 years too early to have ever sung along to the refrain of "Hide your wife, hide your kids" in 2010's "The Bed Intruder Song" by the Gregory Brothers.
Craven Lovelace produces Notes, a daily cultural history of popular music, for KAFM 88.1 Community Radio, kafmradio.org. You can visit cravenlovelace.com for more of his musings on the world of popular culture.
Notes is supported by the Gay and Lesbian Fund, promoting spiritual and religious expression throughout Colorado.