What It Means for Music – Billboard

Right now, our artificial intelligence future sure seems to look a lot like… Wes Anderson movies! Over the past week, various AI programs have used the director’s quirky style to frame TikTok posts, rethink the looks of movies and even, more recently, make a trailer for a fictitious reboot of Star Wars. The future may be creepy, but at least it looks color-saturated and carefully composed.

The fake, fan-made Star Wars trailer, appropriately subtitled “The Galactic Menagerie,” is great fun, and its viral success shows both the strengths and current limitations of AI technology. Anderson’s distinctive visual style is an important part of his art, and the ostensible mission to “steal the Emperor’s artifact” sounds straight out of Star Wars. But the original Star Wars captured the imaginations of so many fans because it suggested a future that had some sand in its gears – the interstellar battle station had a trash compactor, and the spaceport cantina had a live band (and, one assumes, a public performance license).

Right now, at least, AI can’t seem to get past the surface.

“Heart on My Sleeve,” the so-called “Fake Drake” track apparently made with an artificial intelligence-generated version of Drake’s vocals, also sounds perfectly polished precisely in-tune and on-tempo. So do most modern pop songs, which tend to be pitch-corrected and sonically tweaked. (Most modern pop isn’t recorded live in a studio so much as assembled on a computer, so why shouldn’t it sound that way?) It’s hard to tell exactly why this style became so popular – the ease of smoothing over mistakes, the temptation of technical perfection, the sheer availability of samples and beats – but it’s what the mass streaming audience seems to want.

It’s also the kind of music that AI can most easily imitate. AI can already create pitch-perfect vocals, right-on-the-beat drumming, the kind of airless perfection of the Wes Anderson Star Wars trailer. It’s harder to learn a particular creator’s style – the phrasing and delivery that set singers apart as much as their voices do. So far, many of the songs online that have AI-generated voices seem to have put it on top of the old singer’s words, although most pop music is less about technical excellence than style of delivery. And quirks of timing and emphasis are even harder to imitate.

Most big new pop stars are short on quirks, but they might do well to develop them. Whatever laws and agreements eventually regulate AI – and it pains me to point out that the key word there is eventually – artists will still end up competing with algorithms. And since algorithms don’t need to eat or sleep, creators are going to have to do something that they can’t. One of those things, at least for now, is embracing a certain amount of imperfection. Computers will catch up, of course – if they can avoid mistakes, they can certainly learn to make a few – but that could take some time.

Until relatively recently, most great artists had quirks: Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham played a bit behind the beat, Snoop Dogg started drawling out verses at a time when most rappers fired them off, and Willie Nelson has a sense of phrasing that owes more to jazz than rock. (Nelson’s timing is going to be hard for algorithms to imitate until they start smoking weed.) In most cases, these quirks are strengths – Bonham’s drumming made Zeppelin swing. But many producers came to see these kinds of imperfections as relics of an age when correcting them was difficult and the sound of pop changed so much that they now stick out like sore thumbs.

I don’t mean to romanticize the past. And newer artists have quirks, too – they just tend to smooth them over with studio software. But this kind of artificial perfection is easier to imitate. So, I wonder if the rise of AI – not the parodies we’re seeing so far, but the flood of computer-created pop that’s coming – will push musicians to embrace a rougher, messier aesthetic.

Most artists wouldn’t admit to this, of course – acknowledging commercial pressure is usually considered uncool. But big-picture shifts in the market have always shaped the sound of pop music. Consider how many artists created 35-to-45-minute albums in the ’60s and ’70s, and then 60-to-75-minute albums in the ’90s. Were they almost twice as inspired, or did the amount of music that fit on a CD – and the additional mechanical royalties they could make if they had songwriting credit – drive them to create more? These days, presumably also for economic reasons, songs are getting shorter and albums are getting longer.

It will be interesting to see if they also get a bit rougher, too. In Star Wars, at least, the future isn’t all about a sparkling surface.

For the Record is a regular column from deputy editorial director Robert Levine analyzing news and trends in the music industry. Find more here.

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