Is there anyone who isn’t sick of Autotune yet? As annoying as the Autotune fad continues to be, vocal effects are nothing new in music. People have made whole careers out of their use of vocal effects, from the “talk box” of Roger from funk band Zapp to the aforementioned dread Autotune of singers like T-Pain.
The vocoder is one of my favorite vocal effects, and has been used by a great many artists since the late ’60s. The vocoder was originally developed as a form of encryption device, breaking the sound of the human voice down and reassembling the words if not the sound of the voice at the other end. Dave Tompkins has a good history of the vocoder in his book How To Wreck A Nice Beach: The Vocoder From World War II to Hip-Hop, The Machine Speaks.
As per usual, these types of history largely concentrate on men, but of course there have been many women making use of the technology.
One of the most extraordinary songs to have ever become a hit is Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman.” “O Superman” is an eight and a half minute long vocal-led piece of performance art which unexpectedly became a #2 hit in the UK in 1981. It features a vocoded four-bar loop of “ha ha ha” staccato backing vocals which act as a kind of rhythmic base, while Anderson’s lead vocal half-sings, half-talks over the top, thickened out with vocoder harmonies. There’s some barely soft synth pads in the background and the odd sample of birds comes in and out. It is quite an extraordinary piece.
I can’t claim to understand everything about the richly metaphorical song, but I think that Anderson’s making a distinctive commentary on technologized society and violence. In an interview, she claimed it was written in response to the Iran Contra scandal—”hold me in your electronic arms, your petrochemical arms.”
Because of its uniqueness, I think “O Superman” hasn’t had too many imitators, but Imogen Heap in 2005 recorded a wonderful a capella song called “Hide and Seek” which used the same vocoded technique as Anderson.
So what does it means when women use prominent vocal effects in their music? Is it a form of disguise? We usually think of the voice as a signal of presence, a singer is their voice. But a vocal effect like the vocoder blurs the line between what is singer and machine, they become a cyborg of sorts. It’s for this reason vocal effects both enchant and annoy, sometimes even disgust, because they confuse our ideas of what it means to be a vocalist and they stage the mediating effect of technology in our lives, even our identities. With the extra amount of cultural pressure placed on women to discipline our bodies, it’s unsurprising that some female artists would use the vocal effect to make their art and critically reflect on their relation to technology.
Plus, and I can’t stress this enough: Vocoders sound cool.