When Emma Watson turned her hand from acting to musical theatre in Disney’s remake of Beauty and the Beast, critics lent a keen ear. Whilst Watson was generally applauded for her vocal abilities, she was also accused of relying on auto-tune.
One of the interesting questions raised by this and other ‘singer scandals’ concerns the stakes of human vs mechanical ability when critics’ accusations are neither confirmed nor denied. Can critics earn the trust of listeners when commentating on highly specific technicalities such as the sonic artefacts of digital tuning software? What are the limits of their knowledge when dealing with highly mediated art forms like recording and film? To what extent can they translate this knowledge into laymen’s terms?
Related questions are thrown up on the audience’s side too. Do audiences mind that what goes on behind the scenes might never be laid bare? Should they mind? For me, the main issue is not whether the audio editors of this particular film fixed notes in postproduction (though for what it's worth I would suggest the uniform sustained notes of Watson and Dan Stevens are a smoking gun). Rather the question is whether these short-lived debates surrounding certain names in media are purely rooted in principles – critics and audiences feeling deceived – or if there is a more practical outcome, either for performing artists or the way we listen to them, that stems beyond clickbait and tabloid outrage.