Question: "What is the difference between the old blues and the new?"
—Albert Goldman interview with Jimi Hendrix, 1968
Faheem Rasheed Najm, the Grammy-winning producer, entrepreneur, and "rapper ternt sanga" known around the world as T-Pain, was flying to the BET Awards a couple of years ago when a flight attendant approached him to say that another passenger wanted to talk. The person was waiting in the galley, she informed him. T-Pain unfastened his seat belt and got up to investigate.
Standing at the rear of the plane was Usher.
“He said, 'Yo, man, I need to talk to you. I need to express something that's on my mind,” T-Pain recalls. “And it was like, 'Yo, you kind of fucked up music. Like, completely.'”
Yo, you kind of f****d up music. Like, completely.
Usher may not have much room to talk—after all, his own vocals were drenched with Auto-Tune on the 2010 #1 single "O.M.G"—but the world's most famous (and infamous) Pro Tools plug-in has earned its fair share of criticism since it was developed by Antares Audio Technologies in 1997. High-profile Auto-Tune skeptics include legendary rock producer Steve Albini, Daft Punk, and Jay Z, whose 2009 song “D.O.A. (Death of Autotune)” included barbs like “My raps don't have melodies/This should make niggas wanna go and commit felonies.” That same year, indie rock band Death Cab for Cutie wore baby blue ribbons on their lapels to the Grammys in protest of Auto-Tune.
"Otherwise, musicians of tomorrow will never practice," bassist Nick Harmer told MTV News at the time. "They will never try to be good, because yeah, you can do it just on the computer."
When Auto-Tune is defended, it's usually in a backhanded way, with the assumption that digital pitch correction is inherently shitty. Headlines like “10 Auto-Tune Songs That Don't Suck” are not uncommon, or questions like “What happens when an entire industry decides it’s safer to bet on the robot?” With an impossible-to-deny reputation for enabling bad singing, Auto-Tune has come to stand for many related evils: the lack of talent in pop music, the lack of quality in pop music, the homogenization of pop music, hip-hop's rejection of authenticity in favor of pop, and the general decline of American culture.
Not only do these reductive takes on the technology ignore the different ways pitch correction software can be used, they also ignore all the innovation it has enabled. By giving hip-hop artists who aren't traditional singing talents a tool for making their music more melodic, Since T-Pain's 2005 debut album Auto-Tune has brought a mulititude of new voices into the realm of popular music and pushed hip-hop's most daring artists to try exciting new things—both intrinsic principles of the genre. It hasn't made hip-hop less authentic, but it has reshaped what authenticity in the genre means.
This is not the first time hip-hop artists have played with weird vocal effects. From early innovators like Afrika Bambataa, Rammellzee, and the Beastie Boys, who embraced the idea of “bugging out” to massive hits like 2Pac, Dr. Dre, and Roger Troutman's “California Love,” the Vocoder—a machine that turns the human voice into digital signals—has been a constant presence in a genre obsessed with putting new spins on the human voice. Developed by Robert Moog and used by artists as diverse as Kraftwerk, Giorgio Moroder, and Michael Jackson on "P.Y.T.," Vocoder technology became a staple among funk acts like Zapp, whose lead singer Roger Troutman was a master of the Talk Box, another variant on vocal manipulation that used a mouth tube to shape the sound. Hip-hop producers like Erick Sermon and DJ Quik brought the funk forward, and—hate it or love it—robotic vocals became part and parcel of the hip-hop soundscape.
In the same way that innovations like scratching records, making beats from samples, rhyming words, and 808 drum machines defined the sound of hip-hop in past generations, Auto-Tune has redefined it in the past decade, becoming the most important technological innovation in music along the way.
“I think it's the electric guitar of our age,” says Javier Valverde, who has served as T-Pain's longtime in-house engineer. Like the electric guitar in its early days, Auto-Tune has been repeatedly dismissed as unnatural, inauthentic, and a gimmick. Just like Bob Dylan's legendary decision to go electric at Newport Folk Festival in 1965 enraged folk purists, Kanye West's 808s and Heartbreak polarized hip-hop audiences four decades later. Just as the electric guitar soon found its virtuosos in artists like Jimi Hendrix, Auto-Tune found its own virtuosos in artists like Future, who has often referred to himself as “Future Hendrix.”
Also like the electric guitar, Auto-Tune was never intended to cause a musical revolution. It was originally created as little more than a simple improvement on existing technology. When Les Paul introduced his solid-body electric guitar, he may not have foreseen what Pete Townsend or Kurt Cobain would do with it. Just as generations of innovators twisted the electric guitar's sound in new ways with all manner of effect pedals, bottle necks, and whammy bars, Auto-Tune's greatest breakthroughs haven't stemmed from a lack of talent, as most people assume, but from tireless trial-and-error innovation and deep engagement with how the technology works.
Auto-Tune was invented by an engineer named Andy Hildebrand in 1996. Hildebrand grew up playing the flute and became a professional studio musician, specializing in symphonic music, by the age of 16. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in digital signal processing, a branch of electrical engineering, and worked as a geophysicist for Exxon Mobil for a number of years, using sound waves to search for fossil fuels. Eventually he returned to his passion and began working in signal processing for music.
A few years into his new career, he was having lunch with a singer who asked if he could make a box that would make her voice in tune. Nobody else at his table seemed drawn to the idea—they were embarrassed for the singer because they assumed it couldn't be done—so he let it go. But Hildebrand knew the math wasn't any different from any other application of signal processing. The trick was to adjust a sound’s pitch without changing its playback speed After mulling over the idea while he worked on a different project, he returned to it a year later and spent a month building a prototype that he could present at a trade show. The response was instantaneous.
“People were ripping it out of my hands,” he recalled. “Producers wanted it badly.”
The software plug-in for the popular digital production suite Pro Tools hit the market in 1997, and was an immediate success. For engineers, it was revolutionary, a massive time-saver. Using studio tricks to adjust pitch and get vocals in tune wasn't a new concept, but Pro-Tools transformed the once-laborious process of manually adjusting notes or splicing together various vocal takes to make sure every note was right. Suddenly, it was possible to smooth out the mistakes in a recording in minutes instead of hours, "It completely changed how studios work,” says Hildebrand.
People were ripping it out of my hands, Producers wanted it badly.
Auto-Tune has since become a standard studio necessity, used in the majority of records made in nearly every genre of music for years. It has two modes: a graphical mode that lets engineers adjust pitch note-by-note and an automatic mode that pegs each sharp or flat to the nearest correct note. Newer versions have a Live mode that was introduced so singers could record with Auto-Tune already turned on, which is what artists like Future and T-Pain do.
Pitch correction was designed to be so subtle as to be unnoticeable, an effect achieved by gradual changes to the "adjustment time." Any setting below 15 or so begins to sound unnatural and robotic, according to Seth Firkins, an audio engineer whose primary client is Future. What people generally mistake as the singer being particularly off-key—the robotic, pronounced style of Auto-Tune made famous by T-Pain—is actually made by setting the adjustment time to zero, making the shift so abrupt that it's obvious. To some, that sound has become a sort of audio punchline, signifying mediocre artistry at work, or gags like Auto-Tuning the news. The technology may make it easy for anybody to hit a note, but using it properly and creatively is another matter.
The most common mistake made by Auto-Tune rookies comes when the tool isn't set to the same key as the instrumental track. “It's not as much of a crutch as people think it is,” T-Pain says. “It's more of a corrective tool, just like reverb or delay or any kind of equalizer or compression.” Contrary to popular belief, Auto-Tune won't automatically make a song fit any desired melody; it will only peg what you sing to the closest in-key note. “If you want two or three notes up," T-Pain advises, "you're going to have to sing that.”
Hildebrand is unwilling to take responsibility for all that his technology has wrought. He compares his invention to building a car that other people then chose to drive down the wrong side of the highway, and argues that a vocalist using Auto-Tune properly is no different than a musician investing in a well-made instrument that's easier to tune. Firkins explains that even the most talented singers need it some of the time and would be arbitrarily holding themselves back to abstain from using it.
“It's gotten such a bad name for so long because it's like 'Oh, you use Auto-Tune?' Yeah, of course you use Auto-Tune,” he says. “You're singing into six-, seven-thousand-dollar microphones, they didn't have those in the '60s… If technology comes along that improves a sound, that improves workflow or performance or overall feel, then you use it. It doesn't mean you're not talented. It means you're talented and somebody has the foresight to apply some great technology to your project. That's not a bad thing; that's a good thing.”
Auto-Tune has not only changed the way music is made, it's also shaped the way music is heard. Hildebrand pointed out that we're all pretty much used to hearing our pop music vocals perfectly in tune now, which can make older music—even classic oldies by The Beatles or the Beach Boys—sound somewhat grating. By changing what we listen for, Auto-Tune really may have ruined music in a certain sense. Some critics have argued that Auto-Tune threatens to homogenize the vocal idiosyncrasies that define many of our most beloved singers. Bob Dylan and Billie Holiday were interesting precisely because they weren't conventionally "good" singers. So by making all singers sound the same, Auto-Tune risks achieving the opposite reaction.
We're all pretty much used to hearing our pop music vocals perfectly in tune now, which can make older music—even classic oldies by The Beatles or the Beach Boys—sound somewhat grating.
Which is where Future comes in. Or, to take things back, where Cher comes in. The British producer Mark Taylor was working with Cher on her 1998 album Believe. During a studio session Cher mentioned hearing a telephone vocal effect on TV that she really liked. Taylor had just bought the Auto-Tune plug-in, shortly after it first came out, and that night he began playing around with it and discovered the zero setting. He applied the effect to Cher's vocals, and nailed the ethereal tone they were searching for. “I think I've got something that's amazing but I'm not sure I can play it to you,” he remembered telling Cher the next morning. Then he put it on.
“She just went: 'that's fucking awesome,'” Taylor recalls. They put the effect on a few words, including part of the hook, and the song “Believe” became a smash hit. Producers and engineers immediately wanted to know how Taylor had done it, but he was evasive. In an interview with the producer trade publication Sound on Sound, he claimed the effect was a trick he had pulled off with a Vocoder, even though he knew there was only one way to get that specific sound.
Cher - Believe from HD VIDEOS on Vimeo.
“At the time it seemed like such a radical thing I thought, 'You need to find it,'” he said. While today it seems entirely normal, the “Cher effect” was once considered revolutionary and strange. “I remember thinking at the time 'This really is such a groundbreaking effect that doesn't come along every day,'” he adds with evident amazement.
After the success of “Believe,” Taylor consciously distanced himself from the effect. Today he's slightly skeptical of what he sees as the overuse of Auto-Tune, explaining that he'd like to see some new, innovative tool come along. But where Mark Taylor left off with Auto-Tune, many other have since stepped in.
By the late '90s and early '00s, Auto-Tune had become prevalent in most recording studios, but engineers were mostly using it for its intended purpose of subtly correcting a vocal performance. A few people had figured out how to recreate the “Cher effect.” Rodney Jerkins, the prominent R&B and pop producer behind acts like Brandy, Destiny's Child, and more recently, Justin Bieber, dropped it into a remix of Jennifer Lopez's “If You Had My Love” in 1999. Elsewhere, the sound began to infiltrate Jamaican dancehall around 2001, on songs like Tanto Metro and Devonte's “Give It To Her."
As a teenager and amateur producer living in Tallahassee, Florida, T-Pain heard the effect on the Darkchild remix of “If You Had My Love” and instantly felt compelled to recreate it. Growing up exposed to funk acts like Zapp & Roger, Pain had always had an appreciation for the distorted vocals those artists created with talk boxes and vocoders. He identified with that sound more than he did with “gangster rap,” and, as he began creating his own music, he wanted something that would stand out from hip-hop's harder-edged sounds. The J. Lo effect was just what he needed, although he had no idea what it was.
“I actually went to a bunch of hackers and a shitload of computer things like 'Guys, please tell me that this thing exists and Jennifer Lopez is not the only person with it,'” remembers T-Pain. He says he spent around two years combing through CDs loaded with bootleg software and trying different plug-ins searching for the right effect. Ones labeled “vocoder”seemed promising but led him nowhere, while Auto-Tune didn't seem like it could do what he wanted either. “I literally went through every plug-in and every preset on the plug-in,” he recalls with a laugh.
When he finally did figure out the zero setting, T-Pain was ecstatic, running through the house in excitement. Like Taylor, he also kept his technique a secret. For the next few years, as he shared his music around town, he pretended to have his own spin on talk-box technology that didn't require singing with a tube in his mouth. “I wouldn't tell anybody what it was,” he admits. "I tried to keep it to myself." But once his records started blowing up, his secret became harder to hide.
After landing a record deal with Akon's Konvict Muzik label in 2004, he released his debut single, “I'm Sprung,” in 2005. “I'm 'n Luv (Wit a Stripper)” came shortly after. Both landed in Billboard's Top 10, the latter in particular becoming a viral success that marked T-Pain as a stylistic innovator. Nonetheless, the narrative surrounding T-Pain at the time seemed to focus mostly on his attempts to disguise himself as a "real" vocalist—the title of his debut album, Rappa Ternt Sanga, played into the notion. While people enjoyed his vocal effects, they didn't necessarily know what to make of them, assuming it was some sort of vocoder trickery and wondering when he'd get bored of the gimmick.
I wouldn't tell anybody what it was,” T-Pain admits. "I tried to keep it to myself." But once his records started blowing up, his secret became harder to hide.
Listeners' stances were more clear-cut by 2007 when T-Pain released his sophomore effort, Epiphany, which arrived just as concerns about “ringtone rap” were peaking. With his omnipresent No. 1 single “Buy U A Drank (Shawty Snappin')” and his tinny, robotic vocals, T-Pain was the perfect scapegoat for the onset of an audio phenomenon. His constant reliance on Auto-Tune—although the fact that it was not a vocoder was still essentially a trade secret that critics and others failed to identify correctly—prompted suggestions that he lacked talent or that his music was one-dimensional. A backlash was building, but as T-Pain kept churning out chart-topping singles, the whole music industry started paying attention.
By this point, Auto-Tune had been around for a decade, and it was a familiar tool for most producers and studio engineers. Seth Firkins first used Auto-Tune when he was coming up in Louisville with the late songwriter Static Major, who would occasionally use the plug-in when laying down reference vocals for other singers, adjusting a few notes here and there. Static would appear on Lil Wayne's Auto-Tuned smash hit “Lollipop." Firkins took that approach with him when he began working with Atlanta rapper/producer/songwriter Shawty Redd in 2007. Although Redd wasn't a very strong singer, he was not afraid to write for the different artists he worked with. Firkins would often throw on Auto-Tune turned all the way to one or zero while Redd recorded and “let him go to town.”
At first it was just a “cheat code” to make writing easier, but gradually Redd learned how to manipulate the plug-in and enjoyed using in its own way. He cut a song called “Drifter,” which his label liked but didn't push. However, Atlanta's DJ Funky played it for Snoop Dogg, who loved it and wanted to record it himself. Redd and Firkins instead made “Sexual Eruption” (renamed “Sensual Seduction”) which reached No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 and, sent a message that Auto-Tune wasn't just T-Pain's thing. Firkins called it “a watershed moment for Auto-Tune,” explaining that suddenly everyone finally felt like they could use it without being considered a biter “because Uncle Snoop did it.” (Ironically, “Drifter” would be released months later to criticisms that it was a copy of “Sexual Eruption.”)
T-Pain remembered thinking Snoop's song was “fucking awesome” and feeling validated by its success. But he also realized that Snoop's endorsement would become a double-edged sword. Previously there had been a sort of understanding that artists who wanted the T-Pain effect would come to T-Pain to appear on their song. Now people were asking producers and engineers for the effect on their own vocals.
Among the most enthusiastic adopters was Lil Wayne. He released a string of warbling Auto-Tune experiments like “Prostitute Flange” that pushed the effect toward weirder, more alien extremes. Instead of borrowing T-Pain's commercial gloss, Wayne took an uglier approach to Auto-Tune, which lent itself to a certain type of emotional vulnerability. Used this way, the plug-in almost became a new instrument (in part, Firkins noted, because he often mangled the sound of Auto-Tune by not setting the plug-in the same key as the beat.) Professor Mark Anthony Neal compared the unique effect of Wayne's vocals to John Coltrane's avant-garde saxophone solos and called Wayne's music the “first edge of the Post-Katrina Blues.”
Not that everything Lil Wayne did with Auto-Tune was totally weird: He scored his biggest-ever hit with “Lollipop,” which used Auto-Tune, and a collaboration album with T-Pain was promised. But as Wayne's mixtapes were increasingly littered with Auto-Tune experiments, the tool became an invitation to try weird stuff that had once been outside his comfort zone.
Since Auto-Tune, I think musicians have gotten more creative.
The growing sense that Auto-Tune could unlock a new kind of emotional expression was definitely helped by Kanye West, who emerged after grieving his mother's untimely death with a heavily Auto-Tuned verse on Young Jeezy's single “Put On.” It was another breakthrough moment for Auto-Tune as a tool that connoted chilling, robotic alienation, and it remains one of Kanye's absolute best verses. That fall, Kanye began promoting a new album, n a 2008 interview. "That’s why I made this album. If I gave a fuck, I wouldn’t use Auto-Tune. I’m using Auto-Tune because I don’t give a fuck. I like the way it sounds.”
“Kanye and Wayne, they came with the real emotion,” says Atlanta producer Metro Boomin, explaining that Wayne's experiments especially could be seen in pieces in some of the current generation of artists Metro works with (a group that includes Future and Young Thug). "Since Auto-Tune, I think musicians have gotten more creative.”
Not everyone saw things that way, though. And now that people knew what the T-Pain effect was called, the backlash was even worse. Even though Auto-Tune had been in music for years, bringing it to the foreground raised new concerns about talent, while the decision of two of rap's biggest stars to start sounding melodic and emotionally vulnerable worried hip-hop audiences. Jay Z came out with “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)” and followed up with another Auto-Tune jab on “On to the Next One" ("And fuck that Auto-Tune 'cause we on"). That same year Death Cab pulled their Grammy stunt. Just about every artist in rap seemed to be putting out an ill-advised Auto-Tune experiment.
As Auto-Tune effects moved further into the mainstream, becoming the defining effect for a crop of major chart hits, especially those from producer J.R. Rotem, like Jay Sean's “Down” and Jason Derulo's “Watcha Say.” Despite the songs' merits, they only reinforced the image of Auto-Tune as a mark of commercialism. The technology was becoming the signature of ultra-slick mainstream R&B, a critically reviled genre. “For a little bit, it became that cheesy effect,” recalls Valverde, T-Pain's engineer. There was an over-saturation problem—and a growing sense that Auto-Tune enabled bad creative decisions.
Over the next couple years, the Auto-Tune craze entered a lull of sorts. Established rap artists toed Hov's line and decided it wasn't their thing. Meanwhile pop music began exploring other directions, using computers to create dubstep drops instead. Around the same time, T-Pain and Antares had a legal dispute. T-Pain began touting his own pitch-correction and production software, a product called The T-Pain Effect that's made by a company called Izotope, and he took a multi-year hiatus from making music. Auto-Tune became a gimmick for viral videos: The biggest Auto-Tune song of 2010 was a YouTube clip known as “The Bed Intruder Song,” a viral video made from re-purposed and pitch-corrected news footage. Pitch-correction also jumped the shark from being a studio toy to a literal toy with the introduction of T-Pain's I Am T-Pain iPhone app and an I Am T-Pain microphone.
The fact that Auto-Tune is something that's so easy to play with, a tool Kanye famously called “the funnest thing to use,” is probably a major reason why it's allowed for the kind of innovation it has. Citing similar Kanye comments he heard during a Yeezus Tour date, Atlanta producer Sonny Digital— he produced “Racks,” Future's breakout song from 2011 that became a minor national hit on the power of its Auto-Tuned vocals—explained that Auto-Tune can reliably make a ridiculous line sound better. And in the studio, that playful edge can encourage artists to try stuff they might not try otherwise. “We just experiment to see what stuff sounds like with and without it,” he told me. “It's a really experimental environment.”
Despite T-Pain's claim that Kanye West wrote a diss song aimed at him while they were working on 808s, Yeezy continued experimenting with Auto-Tune even as it drifted out of fashion. Future began carving out a sound based around the plug-in with the release of his first mixtape, 1000, in 2010 and continued to refine his approach over the next few years. Along with “Racks,” 2011 also saw Soulja Boy's cartoonish, heavily Auto-Tuned Juice mixtape, while, in Chicago, a rapper named Lil Durk started putting out raw street songs like “Right Here” and “L's Anthem” that incorporated Auto-Tune effects. In 2012, Future released his official debut, Pluto, a breakout moment that found him twisting Auto-Tune into love songs and pained pop, while artists like Chief Keef, Young Thug, French Montana, and Durk all experimented with the sound as they became more popular.
Over the past two years, Auto-Tune has once again become ubiquitous in hip-hop, but this time, perhaps informed by those Kanye and Wayne years, its sound is less pop and more of a druggy emotional haze. Even as some people in the hip-hop world tout a return to traditional values and "lyrical substance," many of the most interesting music in the genre is taking full advantage of Auto-Tune's creative possibilities. A handful of artists are using it to break out of the very thing that Auto-Tune was once so hated for—making all music sound the same.
Auto-Tune has once again become ubiquitous in hip-hop, but this time, perhaps informed by those Kanye and Wayne years, its sound is less pop and more of a druggy emotional haze.
“The way Future uses it is a feeling,” Firkins says. “When he gets in there and he does the little screams and the painful stuff, sometimes he'll have to do a take five times—not because he didn't get it right but because his voice is still too good. He needs to kind of hurt it a little to get that pain in it.”
“You listen to someone using Auto-Tune, you can feel it, like 'Damn, he's talking about that real shit, that real life shit,'” Lil Durk expains. He added, “It makes you feel a type of way for real.”
By democratizing the sound of perfect singing, Auto-Tune has given more control to a wider variety of performers and let more of them share their stories. One look through the online community for the I Am T-Pain app or a 2009 collection of Jim Jones loosies might suggest a possible downside to that trend. But for every Rebecca Black "Friday" there's a record like "This Ain't What You Want," on which Lil Durk shrieks "they say I terrify my city," the Auto-Tune lending his words a certain wounded remove. The track has become one of the most powerful contributions to the fraught dialog about violence and race that's been unfolding in Chicago over the past few years. Meanwhile Future's songs like “Turn on the Lights” have completely redefined the template of what a popular rapper can sound like.
Summing up the debate succinctly, Metro Boomin says, “All the criticism [is that] people are mostly just afraid of change.”
With the recent release of Future's album, Honest, which should cement the artist's place on hip-hop's A-list, the genre finally has a new template for what Auto-Tune can do. And with T-Pain prepping a new album as he promotes the single, “Up Down,” he's back in the conversation as well. Opinions differ as to the “right” way of using Auto-Tune: T-Pain has publicly lashed out against Future (although he has since been more positive), and Firkins criticized Lil Wayne for his "atonal" approach. But if anything, those differences are a suggestion that the technology is finally coming into its own and splintering into divergent forms of creative expression. Just as there is no one correct way to play the electric guitar, there is more than one way to use Auto-Tune. To suggest that it's ruining music is like suggesting that its role can never evolve.
Yet the sonic inspiration continues to outpace the stereotypes surrounding Auto-Tune. Indie rockers like Cat Power, Sufjan Stevens, and Bon Iver are embracing the technology's weirdness and allowing their experiments to cross-pollinate—the Bon Iver song “Woods” became the template for Kanye's “Lost In The World.” In Chicago's nascent bop dance movement, artists with few resources are creating their own versions of chart-topping pop: Sicko Mobb, a pair of Chicago teenagers with almost no musical experience but some great musical ideas, landed a publishing deal with Swedish pop producers Stargate, who have no other hip-hop artists on their roster. In Nigeria, Auto-Tune is all over the country's burgeoning pop industry, while in Egypt it's launched an entire genre of revolutionary protest music called Mahraganat.
This may be a different sound for hip-hop, but it's also a welcome change that strengthens longstanding tradition. Hip-hop has always re-imagined the possibilities of whatever technology was available, and it's always been about bringing more voices into the conversation. Like so many other technologies that have emerged in recent years—YouTube, laptop computers, cheap handheld video cameras—Auto-Tune has extended those creative impulses even further. For a genre that's forever battling to both honor and break from its past, such changes are essential to maintaining forward progress.
When Antares first released Auto-Tune, they debated even including the zero setting, assuming it wouldn't be practical. Yes, Auto-Tune may enable people who supposedly can't sing to sing, but that's its exact value. “It gives access to a lot of people who shouldn't be singing and it enables them to do it,” said Valverde. “But then there's also the fact that it's awesome because it's letting people be creative. And that's great for the sake of art and for the sake of music. Music has to evolve no matter what. Otherwise we'd be making records that sound like what they used to play back in the day with mandolins and little flutes and fucking court jesters.”