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Do you remember the old TV commercial with singer Ella Fitzgerald hitting a high note that shattered a wine glass? Then someone played back the recorded version from a cassette tape, which yielded another broken glass. The big question: "Is it live, or is it Memorex?" Now when we hear a professional singer with golden pipes and perfect pitch, the question becomes, "Is it real, or is it Auto-Tune?"

If you've never heard of Auto-Tune, well, that's just fine with the music industry. They'd prefer it that way. You see, without altering a vocal performance in any other discernable fashion, Auto-Tune can correct intonation problems, giving a singer perfect pitch. Tired voice? Feeling sick? Mediocre talent? No problem. Now those vocal flaws can be smoothed out in real time with no one being the wiser.

Auto-Tune was invented in 1996 by Andy Hildebrand, a brilliant guy who'd spent years interpreting seismic data for the oil industry. He could locate the best drill spots by transmitting sound waves into the ground, then deconstructing the bounce-back using a mathematical formula. No more punching holes into the earth in hit-and-miss fashion. Little did Hildebrand know at the time that his tinkering with sound waves soon would help studio engineers avoid hit-and-miss sessions with lazy or marginally capable pop stars.

Of course, Auto-Tune has legitimate creative applications as well. Remember those catchy, electro-pop vocal manipulations on Cher's 1998 hit "Believe"? Her pioneering use of Auto-Tune opened the door for every artist eager to recreate the sound they made as kids singing into the back of a box fan. In fact, T-Pain has made a career out of it. Whether or not you like this type of thing, it's an artform in its own right and not at the heart of the current Auto-Tune controversy. Rather, the dustup involves performers secretly creating synthetic, pitch-perfect vocal stylings and passing them off as their own.

"It usually ends up just like plastic surgery," one Grammy-winning recording engineer told Time. "You haul out Auto-Tune to make one thing better, but then it's very hard to resist the temptation to spruce up the whole vocal, give everything a little nip-tuck. … Every singer now presumes that you'll just run their voice through the box."

We're all aware that some tinkering goes on when an artist lays down less-than-perfect vocal tracks for an upcoming CD. In such cases, the producer, engineer, label and singer operate with an understanding befitting the Las Vegas chamber of commerce: What happens in the recording studio stays in the recording studio. And fans have been fairly accepting of that, eager to own the most polished product possible for their 15 bucks. But now that its use has broadened to include live performances, debate over its appropriateness has been heating up.

Following the 2010 Grammy Awards, music critics and bloggers complained that the Black Eyed Peas, Jamie Foxx and Lil Wayne employed Auto-Tune onstage (Foxx apologized for relying on the crutch). A live display, many argued, should be completely natural. But instead, this controversial technology is becoming to the music biz what steroids and HGH have become to major league baseball: a shortcut to excellence.

This practice isn't without its casualties. These days, when someone sings live and is a little flat (like Taylor Swift crooning one of her hits during a Grammy duet with Stevie Nicks), people cringe even more than they might have years ago. So much music is doctored anymore that, subconsciously, audiences' expectations have changed. They're less tolerant of flaws.

Indeed, we've become a perfectionist society, even if the perfection we crave lacks integrity. Beautiful women have to be Photoshopped before gracing a magazine cover. Athletes get their muscles from a lab so they can compete at a certain level or produce the gaudy statistics demanded of them. Now even singers are taking a shortcut that, while not as egregious as Milli Vanilli-style lip-synching, jeopardizes authenticity in the interest of impeccable quality. Where does it all end? And what message is it sending to our kids?

Let's just call it what it really is: cheating. It occurs anytime a modern innovation is covertly used to cut corners and enhance one's performance. Yet our results-oriented culture has gotten squishy about holding anyone accountable. Too many people stand to profit from the compromise. Is it any wonder, then, that students confuse the downloading of a term paper from the Internet with legitimate research? Let's help our children appreciate the value of keeping it real … even if it's not perfect.

Published February 2010