DANIEL VAUGHAN: Cancel culture is auto-tune for political belief

Early in the summer of 2009, rapper, songwriter, and music industry mogul Jay-Z released what MTV called the song of the year: “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune).” The song was Jay-Z’s attempt to “draw [a] line in the sand” on the overuse of auto-tune by musicians.

The late ’00s and early ’10s featured a lot of auto-tune, across all genres of music. What auto-tune does is make every artist’s voice pitch-perfect, so the final version of a song is produced to the point of perfection.

Perfection is another word for utterly homogenized and the same as everyone else. Even though they may have different singing voices, every artist ends up hitting each note “correctly.” Jay-Z starts his message with “This is anti auto-tune, death of the ring-tone / This ain’t for iTunes, this ain’t for sing-alongs / This is Sinatra at the opera…

The song deliberately sounds just a bit off, not perfectly synced or tuned. And that’s the point; greatness requires more than perfect pitch, perfect mixing, or perfect anything. Great art is not restricted by convention or pre-ordained perceptions of perfection.

That’s not to say there aren’t objective standards in art, but there’s always more to genuine creativity. It’s not a science, and there are no rigid rules.

Forcing everyone to sound identical ultimately produces a cacophony of sameness. Artists are then judged not for their uniqueness, but whether or not they can achieve the studio-quality perfection auto-tune produces. It’s a dangerous choice, as Jay-Z says, “This ain’t politically correct (uhh!) / This might offend my political connects (uhh!) / My raps don’t have melodies…

This is something I’ve been thinking about while watching recent arguments over cancel culture and the outrage on the left stemming from a letter published in Harper’s Magazine — a statement supporting free speech and expression.

The ultimate result of cancel culture is the auto-tuning everyone to the same frequency, the same notes, and the same feelings. It removes all forms of social dissonance. It’s not a flowering of newness or a creation of variety; it reduces the field of possibilities down to one acceptable genre.

The woke mind is a closed mind. The most controversial portion of the Harper’s Magazine letter, signed by a group of well-known writers, journalists, and public intellectuals was:

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. … We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.

A “response” letter was produced by a less well-known group of writers who attacked that line and others. They, like New York Times columnist Charles Blow, claim that cancel culture isn’t a real phenomenon. The absurdity of that position can be seen in the response letter itself, which ends unironically with the following sentence:

Many signatories on our list noted their institutional affiliation but not their name, fearful of professional retaliation. It is a sad fact, and in part why we wrote the letter.

Numerous signatories to the letter opted to remain anonymous, perhaps also omitting the name of their workplace. Some who signed on simply refer to themselves as an “anonymous journalist.” But please remember, according to these folks, the modern cancel culture decried in the Harper’s Letter isn’t even real.

It really isn’t difficult to prove that cancel culture exists. In 2016, New York Times best-selling author Jon Ronson devoted an entire book to the subject, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

He interviewed a series of people whose lives have been so thoroughly destroyed by mobs started by people like Blow or the deliberately unnamed journalists. These are people who’ve had to change careers, legal names, and even where they lived, simply because they somehow ran afoul of the ideological left.

While all of this back-and-forth was circulating online, an editor at Quillette detailed how his decision to post a conclusion he made based on a published scientific study caused a potentially career-ending uproar, essentially destroying his ability to obtain a job in academia. Progressive leftists made it their duty to hound every place to which he submitted resumes in order to ensure he couldn’t work in the field of his choosing. They succeeded.

Cancel culture is all about creating the same kinds of people, fostering the same types of mindsets, and celebrating the same ideas. It’s about auto-tuning out anything that diverges from the accepted. 

When Jay-Z delved further into his verses, he said, “This ain’t a number one record (uhh!) / This is practically assault with a deadly weapon (uhh!).” Cancel culture wants an auto-tuned future. It’s like walking into a building and seeing the same beige walls, the same button-down shirts, and seeing the same homogenized culture everywhere.

Jay-Z ended with, “This is death of auto-tune, moment of silence.” We need the same for cancel culture.

Democratic pluralism requires variety to flourish in all corners. But as long as the cultural elites insist on auto-tuning everything to suit their specific preferences, the political and philosophical clashes currently raging in America will only intensify and persist.