Death of Autotune, or massive repudiation of perceived effeminacy?
Ok, so, Jay-Z has released a new track titled “DOA (Death of Autotune)”, produced by Mr. Autotune extraordinare Kanye West.
There’s a ton of media buzz about the track (which seems to be the purpose of a track which attacks a massively popular fad). Some people are noting how the position he takes in this track makes Jay seem like the curmudgeonly “rockist” old man of hip-hop. However, no one has addressed the way that Jay’s repudiation of Autotune is couched as a repudiation of femininity.
Here’s the track (not the best quality, sorry):
There is gendered language and imagery all over this track. Feminized terms (Autotune, melody, tight pants) are contrasted with masculinized terms (violence, male anatomy, “hardness” as bodily comportment and “hardness” as in un-melodic difficult listening). Autotune is consistently feminized throughout the track, and is set in contrast to Jay’s macho sound and stylings. We’ll start with the obvious instances of gendering, and then go on to the more interesting and subtle ways that Jay deploys gender in the track.
Jay characterizes users of Autotune as both dressing and sounding like women. They do so because they lack balls (thus, no need to tuck, and no deep voice). In a not-too-thinly veiled dig at Kanye (who wears tight jeans and neon colors), Jay states: “You boys jeans too tight, your colors too bright, your voice too light”. This line calls on Jay’s opening line in “Swagger Like Us,” where he also contrasts himself to a feminized (indeed, gonad-less), tight-jeans wearing Kanye. Unlike Kanye, Jay “can’t wear skinny jeans ’cause my knots don’t fit”. The use of Autotune is evidence of, as Jay argues, “your lack of aggression/Pull your backskirt down/ grow a set, man”. It’s pretty clear that Jay is equating Autotune with the lack of “balls” in both the literal and metaphorical sense. To use Autotune is to be soft, easy, light, and trendy; it is the opposite of masculine aggression, toughness, difficulty, virtuosity, and expertise.
Thus, sounding something like an uncanny latter-day Adorno or Babbitt, Jay feminizes commercially successful pop music by opposing it to “hard” masculine/macho corporeal styles. His new track “ain’t a #1 record/It’s practically assault with a deadly weapon”. So we can infer from this claim that chart-topping popular music is “easy” in a number of senses: easy to digest, easy to listen to, easy to make, etc. As such, these #1 records aren’t properly masculine – they need to “grow a set” and become a little more cantankerous and more difficult to make and digest.
This valuing of difficulty informs Jay’s stated rejection of melody. Jay claims that “My raps don’t have melodies”…but the clarinet in the background sure is melodic, and then there’s that guitar riff, and the hook from Steam/Bananarama’s “Na Na Hey Hey”… In his interview with Hot97, Jay equates the use of melody with the use of Autotune. Interview here:
So, having catchy hooks (i.e., melodies) is feminized (b/c it’s popular, easy to listen to, not tough or violent) in the same way that the users of Autotune are feminized — they lack literal and metaphoric “balls”.
In the end, then, this song is just as much – if not more – about the repudiation of Autotune’s perceived femininity than it is about the repudiation of Autotune’s aesthetic.
Y’all can probably guess where I come down on this issue…