20 Years Of Cher's 'Believe' And Its Auto-Tune Legacy

Oct 22, 2018
Originally published on October 23, 2018 12:58 pm

Believe it or not, Cher's dance anthem "Believe" has just turned 20 years old. The song, released on Oct. 22, 1998, kicked off a Cher renaissance, cemented her role as a pop icon and popularized a controversial fixture of pop music today — Auto-Tune.

It could've easily been simply a gimmick; instead, Auto-Tune became a very prominent tool in a lot of pop, R&B and hip-hop production. There's a long history of artists using different vocal modifications, but in the past, producers aimed to keep those alterations disguised. Instead of using effects in hopes that the audience wouldn't notice — just to make a vocal a little cleaner, clearer and more on pitch — "Believe" brings the Auto-Tune front and center.

Auto-Tune sounds like digital stretching or flexing, as you hear a singer kind of slide up and down the register in a way that doesn't sound natural. And though the tactic is used seemingly arbitrarily in today's pop soundscape, the impetus for music's infatuation with Auto-Tune can be traced back to Cher's dance pop song from 20 years ago. The deliberate distortion of her vocals could have been perceived as a gimmick, but, decades later, the success behind "Believe" lives on.

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(SOUNDBITE OF CHER'S "BELIEVE")

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Those are the opening notes of Cher's hit song "Believe." Believe it or not, the dance anthem has just turned 20 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BELIEVE")

CHER: (Singing) Do you believe in life after love?

STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: I can just say the words Cher, "Believe," and then the vibrations of this song that already existed on the wind will reverberate in your head, and you'll immediately hear that (singing) lee-la-la (ph).

CORNISH: That's NPR Music's Stephen Thompson. He says "Believe" did so many things. It kicked off a Cher renaissance, one of many. It cemented her role as a pop icon. And it popularized a controversial fixture of pop music today - Auto-Tune. Here's Stephen.

THOMPSON: There's a long history of artists using different vocal modifications, but it had always been disguised. You used it in ways that you would hope the audience wouldn't notice, just to make a vocal a little cleaner and clearer and more on pitch. This song brings the Auto-Tune front and center so you hear those modifications.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BELIEVE")

CHER: (Singing) Oh, do you believe in life after love?

THOMPSON: And it could easily have just been a gimmick. Instead, Auto-Tune became a very prominent tool in a lot of pop, R&B and hip-hop production.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUY U A DRANK (SHAWTY SNAPPIN')")

T-PAIN: (Singing) I'm going to buy a drink. Then I'm going to take you home with me. I got money in the bank. Shawty, what you think about that?

THOMPSON: To me, Auto-Tune sounds sort of like digital stretching or flexing. You're hearing a singer kind of slide up and down the register in a way that doesn't sound natural. But Auto-Tune can amplify an expression of passion in - or emotion in a singer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIDE AND SEEK")

IMOGEN HEAP: (Singing) Where are we?

THOMPSON: I think of a song like "Hide And Seek" by the singer Imogen Heap, who became really, really well-known for using this effect.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIDE AND SEEK")

HEAP: (Singing) The dust...

THOMPSON: And you hear "Hide And Seek," and the way they're using Auto-Tune to manipulate her voice, you really feel the emotions that that song is expressing. And I don't know too many people who would hear that song and say, like, ugh, Auto-Tune.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIDE AND SEEK")

HEAP: (Singing) They were here first. Mm, what'd you say?

THOMPSON: So what you've seen in the years since is Auto-Tune being used in kind of exciting and innovative ways. And it can be misused in ways that can bleach the emotion and love out of a performance. Like, The Black Eyed Peas had a lot of these, like, very overdriven party-hearty sounds. And I would describe their sound as, like, the music robots make when they're trying to sell products to other robots.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOOM BOOM POW")

THE BLACK EYED PEAS: (Singing) Got to get that boom, boom, boom. Got to get that boom, boom, boom. Got to get that boom, boom, boom. Get that boom, boom, boom.

THOMPSON: So it's sort of amazing that all of this Auto-Tune stuff really began in the pop music (laughter) landscape with this one dance pop song from almost exactly 20 years ago. When that song originally came out, all the people involved with that song actually tried to hide from the public the method they used to create that song because they didn't necessarily want people to imitate it. It was like, this is our gimmick. And now, it's just so funny to see all the different permutations of what seemed at the time like this total throwaway song.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, we incorrectly say that Imogen Heap used Auto-Tune in her song "Hide and Seek." She actually used a Vocoder.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.