The 2021 Pop Convergence: A Virtual Pop Conference, April 22-25th
Artwork by Alex Nero; Design by The Art Dictator
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Katherine Morayati

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Roboptimism: The Musicians Building On, Meming On, and Clawing Back the AI Revolution

Every new technology is immediately followed by old anxieties – such as, in music, concerns about “fake musicians” (i.e., library music by another name) and AI usurping songwriters. But artists are not easily made obsolete, and what’s happened so far is the opposite: a mushrooming, idiosyncratic, and ever-changing world of musicians clawing the machine-made back into their own visions.

In this presentation I’ll briefly discuss new developments in procedural/AI-generated music, less from a technical standpoint than theoretical: the principles of humans collaborating with machines, whether superhumanly precise, sharp and surprising, even homespun. I’ll discuss historical and contemporary examples: Brian Eno’s generative music, David Bowie adapting cut-up songwriting to his Verbasizer software, Holly Herndon composing her album Proto with the AI Spawn. I’ll also incorporate the group that skews younger and weirder, with significant overlap with the vaporwave, hyperpop, and “SoundClown” scenes. They, too, do a sort of procgen – e.g., remixes of OpenAI Jukebox output, wholly generated music videos, live Twitch streams of AI-produced music – and, even in a young, fast-changing scene, build their own canon and classics.

More ethically blurry are audio deepfakes: near-exact replicas of an artist’s voice. Unsurprisingly they’ve attracted the most legal attention, e.g., Roc Nation’s copyright claims against deepfakes of “Jay-Z” rapping “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and the Navy Seals Copypasta. I’ll discuss the limitations of a composition style characterized by irony, context collapse, and self-reference, that is generally pirated and probably soon obsolete -- and whether they outweigh this seemingly boundless blossoming of music.

Katherine St. Asaph is a pop music critic and sometime coder whose work has appeared in Pitchfork, Spin, NPR, and other publications. She lives in New York and apologies for the time she made Waluigi sing “Rasputin.”