What is art about if not breaking free from unremarkable human form? Botticelli envisioned Venus emerging from the sea fully grown. Max Shrek’s face was twisted into a ghostly visage to play the title role in F W Murnau’s Nosferatu. Madonna used auto-tune on her album Madame X to alter the pitch of her vocals into something different. Something superhuman.
The record plays like a straight-up museum piece. The way Madonna digitally manipulates her voice on the edgy high-end pop number Dark Ballet encapsulates the cerebral nature of her approach. Over spotless piano keys and a heavy electronic beat, the singer is a creature transformed. When the vocal effects fray at the edges of lyrics like, “‘Cause your world is such a shame/‘Cause your world’s obsessed with fame’/Cause your world’s in so much pain,” it suggests the erosion of our species’ righteousness, the erasure of our humanity.
Madonna later uses a vocoder to switch into a more discernible retro-futuristic robot voice, programming such lyrics as, “I will not renounce my faith in my sweet Lord”. Then there’s a rendition of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite: Dance of the Reed-Flutes. By uniting sci-fi tech, classical music and ancient scripture, Madonna creates a jarring juxtaposition. Her methodology highlights what using vocal manipulation techniques can achieve in pop performance.