There was once a time—a time that may still be running its course—that Auto-Tune was, to keep things honest, a joke. It's radio's safety net, squeaky clean and heartless. It is the pitch-corrector that took over Top 40 pop like piranhas spotting a juicy Richard Dreyfuss.
Auto-Tune was created to mask human error. A singer could cover up their off-key notes by digitally bending the pitch to the closest true semitone, shaving off the wobbly periphery of the human voice. You know, that part where the soul is. But when Cher made all that money with the Auto-Tuned "Believe" in 1998, the software exploded for good (for now), and became a mainstay of the mainstream producer's utility belt.
For the first stage of its existence, Auto-Tune was just makeup, a sheen pasted over recording artists to give their plastic identities a little more gloss. Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Bieber—it's simply become a part of that culture. But when T-Pain got famous, it was by being unabashedly honest about using Auto-Tune, turning it into one more knob on the DJ's mixer. Kanye West's 808's and Heartbreaks was like an essay on the software, and though he moved on to other things afterwards, that album started the discussion: is it possible to make this robot feel?
What follows are songs that have helped Auto-Tune grow beyond a tool to make bad singers sound good. In most cases, musicians have simply torn off the mask and put the effect in full view. It's kind of moving towards the vocoder in that sense—musicians have used vocoders since the '70s, but it's much more of an independent instrument, never claiming to be a human voice. Now that we've had some time to ruminate on what Auto-Tune is and what it can be, artists like James Blake and Bon Iver are dipping their toes in waters that may give this corporate monstrosity a bit of a fresh start.