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The persistence of memory and T-Pain

on the run from mediocrity

If T-Pain has such a good voice, why does he use auto-tune? I won’t pretend to know enough about vocal music to give a discerning critique of his vocal range. But you don’t need to know that much about music to know that T-Pain’s voice in the NPR Desk Concert version of “Buy U a Drank” is good. It’s raw, it’s ironically wholesome given the subject matter, and it makes you want to consider stopping by a jazz concert with your lover on your way home from the club. If you’re my mom reading this, or for some other reason have never heard his song “Buy U a Drank,” here is the regular song, and here is the acoustic version that has over 12 million views on YouTube. 

I’ve always assumed that mainstream pop and hip hop artists use auto-tune because they don’t have amazing singing voices naturally. Often, the people who don’t like mainstream pop music argue that the artists rarely sing about anything besides partying and sex, and that they need auto-tune to make their only slightly-above-average singing voices sound good enough sell albums and make billboard top hits. 

But even though T-Pain does sing about partying and sex, his voice is good. Naturally. He doesn’t need auto-tune to improve the quality. Rather, he uses electronically-generated sounds to achieve an effect that wouldn’t be possible just with raw human voice. Take, for example, the echoes and vocal overlays in “Best Love Song.” 

The way a certain song sounds determines what emotions it evokes when people listen to it. One of my favorite questions to ask friends is what songs they associate with certain memories, and what those memories are. Whenever I hear the song “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” I think of the group of friends that I traveled to Costa Rica with a few summers ago. We sang the lyrics at the top of our lungs as we rode in a tour bus for hours through the mountains, and whenever it plays, it takes me to the back of that bus again, where people who were absolute strangers at the beginning of the trip became my best friends. 

Conversely, I still can’t stand the song “Like I'm Gonna Lose You” by Meghan Trainor. That was the slow song they played at my high school’s prom junior year, where I had to see the guy I’d liked for the entire previous school year dance with someone else. It still triggers irritation and disappointment. 

It’s not just the words in these songs that take me back to these places. It’s the background music, how the words are sung, the pauses, and the final note before the song ends. Some of our strongest memories are formed when we are engaging multiple senses at once, because the information we are taking in is stored at more than one sensory node. The more sensory cues we use, the stronger the memory. 

The different tempos in the two versions of T-Pain’s song achieve different purposes. He can make the same lyrics sound completely different, and therefore they work in different settings and evoke different emotions when you listen to them. I can easily envision myself dancing at a party to the regular album version of “Buy U a Drank” and singing all of the lyrics exactly how T-Pain sings them. But the acoustic version would be something I’d listen to, like I did yesterday, on an unseasonably warm afternoon sitting with friends on the ledge outside of Perkins. 

Besides just showcasing the versatility of the artist’s voice, different versions of songs allow listeners to take the same song with them to different life experiences. We associate different memories with different remixes, all the while increasing the associated importance of the artist to us. 

I can’t count how many times I’ve been with one of my parents in the car when a song comes on, and they’ve immediately started dancing and singing along to it. Then they look at me, incredulous that the song we’re both listening to didn’t evoke the same reaction in me. That song transports them back to a happy moment in their life that I wasn’t there to witness. It’s surprising and a little baffling to realize that a song that means so much to us can have no effect on the other person sitting next to us who is listening to the same song.

It’s random and a bit unfair in a way, because a song that just happens to be playing when something bad happens to you can tarnish the song for the rest of your life. One of the adults I work with said that she still remembers the song that was playing when she found out about a shooting near her hometown over 20 years ago, and she still can’t listen to the song without being transported back to that moment. 

Songs linked to memories can hold powerful places in our minds, whether we want them to or not. Sometimes, it’s not the quality of the song, the subject matter or whether the artist uses auto-tune or not that makes a song meaningful to us. We value music because of its ability to convey and validate our emotions. While mainstream pop doesn’t often appeal to our deepest thoughts and feelings when we listen to it, this doesn’t inhibit our ability to associate valued memories with these songs—regardless of whether or not T-Pain uses auto-tune when he asks “baby girl” what her name is.

Victoria Priester is a Trinity first-year. Her column, "on the run from mediocrity," runs on alternate Fridays. 

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