Are we losing touch with what ‘human’ sounds like?
I’m a singer, songwriter and teacher. I’ve been so proud in recent years to watch someone I taught throughout his boyhood and teens become a superstar. His name is Sam Smith. Although luck always plays a tremendous part in success, I have no doubt why his voice has touched people on a global scale. Its human warmth, richness of tone and virtuosity are all undeniable. He sounds like a real person with a heart, a mind, a soul. He sounds true.
As we mourn Professor Stephen Hawking, we may ponder his recent remarks about the dangers of Artificial Intelligence. They may seem like something very far off but the increasing digitalisation of our world won’t necessarily be perceptible to us as it’s happening. We may not be aware of our humanity becoming eroded by the desire to use machines to make us superhuman. I’m concerned that we may lose touch, forget what ‘human’ sounds and looks like in its true form, and that true human voices like Sam’s may become a part of our audio history.
Last month I watched the movie The Greatest Showman and found it almost physically unbearable because the voices of the singers (who I can almost guarantee were all highly skilled) had clearly been digitally manipulated to a huge degree. It was like drinking over-sweetened, saccharine tea. It was not a human sound. It was cold, brittle, thin and mechanical. Worst of all, these digital ‘improvements’ were completely unnecessary. It was as if someone, somewhere had decided that the frailties, the uniqueness, the humanity in the human voice were no longer desirable; that they were something to hide, to obliterate with digital noise.
Human weaknesses and our efforts to overcome them make us courageous and fascinating. Ironically, that was the main message of the movie. But its creators had no faith that we the audience could bear to listen to fear, strife, pain, triumph, grace in the unfiltered human voice. Time and time again, in the highly digitalised music we consume, we are denied this humanity. Songs and stories of human endeavour sung by humans, are filtered and made bland by machines. We are misrepresenting ourselves.
Are we really that insecure, that we can’t even hear ourselves any more? We Photoshop-fix our beautiful models and Melodyne-fix our beautiful voices. Our young girls and boys are being exposed to the aural equivalent of body dysmorphia.
I recorded my new album Truth Tree live. I am a singer-pianist and perform at my best when I do both together; piano and voice are recorded at the same time and cannot be separated. This has the welcome effect of making it impossible for me to digitally ‘tamper’ with the tuning or the timing of my vocal performance. And I love my album. I even love my ‘pitchy’ moments because I feel my pain in those moments; my humanity; my struggle. Is our desire to cover up that struggle a denial that we are imperfect?
Virtuosity is a beautiful thing. We love to witness our fellow humans at the peak of human endeavour in our pop music. Soul and R&B songs are perfect vehicles for virtuosity. There are no limits. We want to hear you hitting the high notes; opening up that voice to full volume; moving through the notes at pace with great dexterity and precision; dropping the beats and accents right in the pocket; choosing the most ornate riff — with just the right amount of blues — and nailing it.
But why is that so moving? Because we know how hard it is! It’s like watching a climber reaching the peak of the most unscalable and awesome mountain. But would that be so incredible to behold if we knew the climber was suspended from invisible ropes? I don’t think so. In The Greatest Showman we see lots of faces in the ecstasy of singing at their peak but what we heard was plastic and synthesised. It sounded easy.
True singing moves us mentally, emotionally and physically. It is transformative. Song can bind us with others. Let’s not lose the virtuosity and humanity to digitalism. The world will be poorer without it!
Joanna Eden is a jazz singer-songwriter based near Cambridge in the UK. She has shared stages with Jamie Cullum, the Buena Vista Social Club, the Blockheads and Ronan Keating. She mentored a young Sam Smith for nine years and releases her fourth album Truth Tree this Autumn.