A voice comes from a body.
It indexes an interior space: the movement of air through our lungs, the compression of our diaphragm, the spaciousness of our vocal tract, the buzzing of our larynx, the position of our tongue, our lips. The voice is distinctly embodied, distinctly biological, despite the fact that it is, wholly, immaterial.
Mickey Vallee names the voice an ‘imaginary organ,’ an ‘object that structures our conception of human volition.’1 As it escapes the mouth, the voice moves between our first-order physical body and second-order representational body.2
The algorithms that analyse seismic data, identifying potential oil fields, are the same ones used in auto-tune software. Auto-correlation, the algorithm used both for auto-tune and for creating subsurface geological maps, treats the vocal tract as a landscape that is mapped and affectively transformed.
Measuring the time taken for echoes to be returned (from the ocean-floor, from one side of our throat to the other), auto-correlation develops maps of the volume of a space. In mining applications, this data is used to locate drilling sites; in vocal applications, this data puts the voice in key.
The auto-tuned voice still announces bodily presence but in an unfixed way—affected pitches, keys, resonances, and timbres all imply a body transubstantiated through technology. Biological limits of the body are superseded by auto-tune; embodiment is extended through a kind of technological prosthesis.
It’s either on the nose or it’s THE crucial reference point,
but at 0:37 in the music video for Cher’s Believe (1999), when her use of auto-tune is first made obvious, a glitchy video filter displaces Cher’s body. The estrangement she undergoes is a simple, but fitting, nod to the technological intervention of auto-tune on her (social) embodiment. Arthur Kroker describes the techno-body as one undergoing Body Drift—a series of ‘complex intermediations of code, flesh, and desire.’3
Believe is a catalyst for auto-tune’s rapid circulation in contemporary music because it makes its use of the technology obvious. Initially intended to analyse the voice and subtly keep it in tune, when auto-tune’s settings are turned all the way up, it applies its corrections so fast that the outputted voice no longer sounds natural.
Instead, the voice becomes robotic and metallic. Buzzing and trembling between pitch perfect notes, multiple times a second, the voice is transformed; as it leaves the body, it can no longer be tethered to it.
To use auto-tune, particularly in an ‘unnatural’ way, is to expand our embodiment and subjectivity. N. Katherine Hayles writes that ‘we are essentially information; we can do away with the body.’4 When we use auto-tune we give over our voice to a speculative, technological potential for new identifications.
The auto-tune plug-in that I use to make music, MeldaProduction’s MAutoPitch, has a built-in ‘Cher’ preset. When I sing, I like to pretend my body is becoming hers, at least, affectively.
The auto-tuned voice produces fluid forms of embodiment; we disidentify with the physical in a liberative way.5 Auto-tune produces an affective subjectivity for the user, amplifying the presence of their body, while also ‘[opening] embodied as well as estranged voices towards a wide variety of bodily reconfigurations.’6 As an oil field, and exterior landscape, the auto-tuned voice is a site of becoming—the performance of identity moving out into the world. Anja Kanngieser notes that ‘speakers act as possible worlds’: ‘sound becomes a method to engage in, and elaborate upon, contemporary globalized political landscapes.’7
In reading the throat as a landscape, auto-tune suggests that subjectivity and broader political contexts are co-created. As the vocal tract is mapped like an oil field, embodiment becomes a subjective locality, always-already situated within the environment around us.
Using processes originally written for the mining industry, auto-tune’s algorithm was first developed by Dr. Andy Hildebrand, who had previously worked for ExxonMobil. With major gas and oil drilling sites around Australia, ExxonMobil is in a position of significant power in our political landscape. In December and January, while Gippsland and Mallacoota burned, ExxonMobil had supply ships moored just 90km away. While there were funding cuts to fire services, ExxonMobil continued to pay zero tax. They delivered small amounts of supplies to fire-affected communities, and helped with evacuations at Mallacoota, but the company did not acknowledge their contribution to the cause of the crisis. Despite fires burning around the country, and three deaths within 24 hours, on new years’ day ExxonMobil tweeted: ‘stay safe and have fun this new year, from all of us at ExxonMobil Australia.’
A tract, poetically, is defined as ‘an area of land,’ ‘a major passage in the body,’ ‘an indefinitely large extent of something.’
Tract indicates continuity between our bodies, our subjectivities and the environment. It comes from the Latin tractus, meaning to draw. To use auto-tune could be to perform a tract, a mode of self-interpellation through the throat / oil field. When we tract ourselves into the world, we draw, we actively engage in becoming, yet consciously acknowledge our complicit place in a world of political injustice.
In the context of climate change, the voice, as an oil field, is always political.
Autocorrelation is likely used at ExxonMobil’s offshore drilling site in the Bass Strait, which is serviced by the same ships they sent to support fire evacuations at Mallacoota. As Irit Rogoff acknowledges, ‘in becoming, one piece of the assemblage is drawn into the territory of the other.’8 In the context of ExxonMobil, the tract that auto-tune establishes is a direct passage and dialogue between identity, oil drilling, and Australia’s flagrant inaction during times of climate crisis.
Despite auto-tune’s conceptual potential, the loudest voices using its algorithms are those of corporations like ExxonMobil. It would be a false dichotomy to try and imagine auto-tune, or a proposed conceptual derivative of performing a tract, without this complicit involvement in the climate crisis.
To tract is thus necessarily hybridised—potentially radical on one hand, but still implicitly associated with violent ecocidal and colonial systems of power.9 I’m envisioning auto-tune as a speculative model for the production of subjectivities that acknowledge yet resist the power systems they work within. To tract would be ‘hybridized insofar as it is cultivated from the dominant culture but meant to expose and critique its conventions.’10
To tract is cultivated from ExxonMobil’s position within dominant capitalist culture, yet with the potential to speculate alternate forms of desire, identity and political production. As a model for political action, auto-tune contains a utopian impulse. It’s a politics of listening and speaking that attempts to resist the colonial, carceral and ecocidal tactics that ExxonMobil, and more importantly, Australia as a settler colony, operate within. Beyond a singular oil company, power is systematic. The same structures that allow ExxonMobil to tweet about safety, also reproduce dangerous logics of policing, silence, inaction and refusal.11 To tract, then, is to advocate for those whose needs are excluded, endangered and silenced by systems of power. Disproportionately those who are perennially silenced sit at the intersections of Indigenous, working class, incarcerated, and rural experiences.
ExxonMobil’s dismissive actions during December felt consistent with broader forms of authority: those who articulate their power through silence. ExxonMobil’s tactics of unaccountability and denial around the bushfires set the tone for much of the political violence in Australia this last summer:
communities were told to ‘stay indoors’ to avoid smoke, police funding was increased, fire fighters were defunded, prisoners in Lithgow were put in solitary confinement while fires burnt 50m away from their cells, flood plain harvesting remained unregulated, water privatisation continued to effect rural indigenous communities, RFS volunteer fire trucks did not come equipped with roll-cages…
To tract is a politics of speaking up.
When first applied to the throat, auto-tune, normatively, was intended to help the user be able to sing in tune.12 When the rigidity of pitch correction is instead envisioned as speculative and disidentificatory, could speaking out of tune become productive?
Andrew Brooks suggests that to bring the non-essentialist politics of queer theory, into an understanding of sound studies, is to create a politics of listening that ‘uses the ear as a way of thinking through relations of power; it is a mode of listening attuned to the production, transmission and mutation of the affective tonalities of dominant neoliberal late-capitalist cultures.’13 To tract is a queer theorisation of auto-tune, locating its potentiality as a site of personal transformation. Queer doesn’t denote sexuality here, but speaks to a refusal to reproduce normative structures. To tract, to queer political relations (inclusive of class and race lines), is to enact care.
Christina Sharpe writes about forms of care that don’t endanger the lives of vulnerable communities:
‘I continue to want to think, theorize, and perform care counter to what is ordered and enforced by the state (many states, any state), which imagines and enacts care for the poor, the black, the trans, the queer, the migrant, the vulnerable as prison cell, grave, mental institution, prison-school, poisoned air and water, abandonment, extraction, “tender-age shelters,” and “baby jails.”14
Borrowing a phrase from Saidiya Hartman, to speak out of tune with these systems of exclusion begins a ‘revolution in a minor key.’15 To tract is to be consciously out of tune.
Beyond personal becomings, could a tract become a politics of collectivisation? A project that hears voices, immaterial and subjective, as a core of political change.
Vallee writes: ‘The voice is faced with the necessity for reconceptualization, for thinking through the voice as a locus for the polis, as an active production for new modes of social assembly, experiments and prototypes for the socius, that we still designate as ‘giving voice’, but voice without recourse to a static image of identity that is forced upon the social.’16 Like Cher’s dispersed affective body, could a politics of collectivization, of shared and articulated desires, affirm that there are ‘all manner of voices in a voice?’17 That identity, and ways of being in the world, are never singular?
A politics of auto-tune should reinvest political attention into our silenced margins, into our murky oil fields, just out of earshot.
Listening to (caring for) the ‘sensual locations of political marginality might provide an unpredicted energy for reconfiguring power, identity, and collective knowledge.’18
In a climate crisis, the tender act of singing necessarily turns the chaos of geopolitics onto the body. The algorithms that produce subjectivity, also co-produce the exhaustive mining of land, fires, then floods, then mudslides, political hierarchies of capital, the violent silencing of minoritarian bodies, dismissive un-accountability, silence. Ongoing systems of colonisation and voice-loss receive our every word,
‘This essay is written in favor … of refusing to relinquish utopian practice.’19 The auto-tuned body is a political assemblage, and despite its hang-ups, our desire is always future-oriented.
Speaking into the oil fields around us, I hope to think about conscious new ways of talking towards care, collectivity and hope. I want to hear about new ways of listening towards togetherness, action and change.
When auto-tune is turned all the way up, and a singer leans into it’s unnatural, robotic sound, often they also have to sing differently. If they sing in-tune, the algorithm detects no flaws in their voice, and makes no change to the final sound. Singers who use auto-tune have been know to behaviourally sing out-of-key, hoping to make the effect more pronounced.
If auto-tune is a subjective intervention on our bodies, then, to make its effects known in the world, we too have to sing differently. Change won’t be registered if we do nothing, if we continue as we are. We must act out of tune, to elicit the transformative potential of this algorithm. Tract is a verb. A verb is a doing word.