Current Events in the Key of C: Michael Gregory and his Auto-Tuner (With Video)
Is there a formula for a successful viral video? What does Charlie Bit My Finger have in common with Daft Hands? At what mysterious coordinates do the Harry Potter Puppet Pals intersect with David After Dentist?
That's a tough one. The question of what makes a successful viral music video, however, may be easier to pinpoint. If the Lonely Island boys–those princes of the status-update link–have taught us anything, it's that people love goofy white dudes, catchy beats, and auto-tuning. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, meanwhile, have demonstrated for years the comic power of transforming talking-head gravitas into absurdity via clever editing.
The alchemy of Michael Gregory, a Virginia native who now resides in Brooklyn, combines these elements, leaving one to wonder why none of his satirical A.V. compositions went viral until yesterday. Mr. Gregory, who began making newsmakers sing during last year's election season, has loitered on the fringes of notability for some time. He plays in an up-and-coming folk-'n'-soul band with his brothers, Andrew and Evan, and occasionally subs in on drums for another band, Sarah & the Stanleys. He was even on American Idol once.
The first time I spoke to him, it was when he crashed on my couch two years ago after a show in Maine. The second time was last night, after his latest installment of "Auto-tune the News" got picked up by Boing Boing, Reddit, Fark, Gizmoto, BuzzFeed, Digg, The Daily Swarm, and CP City Lights editor Mike Riggs's Gchat status.
Portions of our conversation, below, have been edited for length.
City Paper: So your latest video got picked up on a lot of high-traffic blogs. I know you've been making these auto-tune current-events videos for a while now. What's so freaking special about this one?
Michael Gregory: I think it's largely the constantly changing nature of the video. It doesn't focus on one thought like "the presidential debate" or "Obama's speech." Those, even if well put together, are not quite as appealing to the young, A.D.D. viewer. Just a theory. Also, I made a few contacts throughout the election season with bloggers and video makers who linked to me almost immediately. That would've taken a lot more effort early on, not to mention guilt at soliciting people I don't know.
CP: Can you tell me, in terms a developmentally disabled orangutan could understand, how your auto-tuning works?
MG: Virtually all artists in popular music use auto-tune or melodyne (which is auto-tune but better). The T-Pains and Kanyes of the world use an inordinate amount to get that effect that’s currently in vogue, killing any vocal modulation. Others are merely correcting their pitch. I used that same software to auto-tune speech. I have a lot of experience auto-tuning actual singers (mostly good singers who wanted the effect) and so I wasn’t starting from scratch—it was just an extra step. Late nights tuning in the studio would transport me to a magical operaland in which I began to hear speech in perfect semi-tones. And I promise I wasn't on drugs.
CP: Why political satire?
MG: This election cycle, particularly last summer, I somehow became emotionally invested. Weird, right? A song just popped into my head (the first debate song) and I thought I'd greenscreen myself in as Obama. And say that I look just like him, but with glasses. I probably wouldn't have gone on, but put it up quickly enough that it was posted by Jed Lewison on Huffington Post. And Evan urged me to do a follow-up.
CP: Do you own a greenscreen?
MG: I bought a green sheet at a fabric store. Nothing special, no lighting...which is why my greenscreening is so terrible right now. Somehow on YouTube, shoddy quality is often an endearing quality, which worked in my favor, as long as the central idea/song was strong.
CP: What happens in the future, when candidates actually have debates in song?
MG: I’ll auto-tune the vocals until they sound like normal speech. That may not happen until 2024, though.
CP: How did you choose which talking heads to use?
MG: First I just browse the news and politics section of YouTube. Then blogs on all sides (from the Huffington Post to The Drudge Report). I want to start weeding out pundits based on singing skill. In that respect, the videos can only get better. For example, Katie Couric is now a permanent starter. I would like to cut Hannity based on his lack of singing skill, but his show is the most outrageous, so he may appear every once in a while with angry zoo animals.
CP: The “viral video” genre is not something that existed a decade ago. Do you have any particular thoughts about writing for that medium?
MG: Something in this format with current events has to happen fast. And like I said, it's hard to strike a balance between creativity/speed/technicality, especially since I'm usually doing everything alone. There’s laying down the track, tuning the vocals, deciding on the pacing, tracking my vocals, and shooting on a crappy greenscreen underneath my bed. My beat-writing has gotten to be quite McDonald's-esque. I spent about an hour and a half on the last one and didn't have time to mix.
CP: Has the democratization of recording and publishing technology (i.e. YouTube, MySpace) made it easier or harder to be noticed as a musician?
MG: I would say that it democratizes it enormously at first, but after a while even that market becomes saturated. At one point, I was kicking myself for not thinking of doing this earlier, when YouTube was new. But that was silly. I was doing other things.
CP: But you beat the saturated market and got noticed. So what happens now?
MG: I don't know, you tell me. I have too many e-mails to sift through right now. And I’m on a deadline for doing a first 100 days video for BarelyPolitical, so I can’t devote too much time for self-promotion. Again, a hard balance to find, because I want to stay on the horse.