The week before Christmas, the number 21 spot on the British pop charts was held by a supergroup called Cage Against the Machine, a gang of pop stars who had gathered to record John Cage's 1952 composition "4' 33″." They had hoped to take the track to number one, thus denying the Christmas top spot to any alumnus of The X Factor, an American Idol-style show that the Cage crew despised. They failed at that, but it's still impressive that they made it halfway up the top 40, considering the track they chose to record.
"4′ 33″" sounds like a joke the first time you hear it described: The musicians sit onstage doing nothing for four minutes and 33 seconds. The piece is sometimes described as four minutes and 33 seconds "of silence," but that isn't really right: The music consists of all the ambient noises in the concert hall that we usually filter out. Cage believed that every sound is musical. As he put it, "Music is everywhere, you just have to have the ears to hear it."
In 2010, that sounds less like a philosophical statement and more like a matter-of-fact description of one of the paths popular music has been taking. It's appropriate for Cage to enter the top 40 at the end of a year that saw a hit fashioned from a TV news report.
"The Bed Intruder Song," which crept into the Billboard Hot 100 in August and made it to number 3 on the iTunes R&B chart, was born when an Alabama man chased a would-be rapist out of his sister's room one night. Interviewed afterward by WAFF-TV, Antoine Dodson was still angry. "Well, obviously, we have a rapist in Lincoln Park," he exclaimed. "He's climbing in your windows, he's snatching your people up, trying to rape 'em, so you all need to hide your kids, hide your wife, and hide your husband 'cause they're raping everybody out here." His rant became a hit in that great repository of found footage, YouTube. And then the Gregory Brothers, the comedians behind the Auto-Tune the News series, remixed it into a song, with Dodson's monologue auto-tuned into lyrics. The Gregorys had been doing this to news reports and other footage since April 2009 and had gathered a substantial cult following, but this recording was their breakthrough into the mainstream.
Music is everywhere, you just have to have the ears to hear it. And if you don't have the ears to hear it, don't fret: Let a couple of comics add some auto-tune and an electronic beat, and you'll get there. Hard-core Cageans may call it a crutch, but the results are too fun for me to start complaining.
Not that many years ago, it was a cliché to accuse auto-tune of subverting good music by making everyone sound the same. Every variation from perfect pitch was being sanded away, the complaint went, all in the interest of creating conformist and predictable pop hits. Since then, though, it's become common to use auto-tune the opposite way: to distort voices rather than homogenizing them, to create new effects rather than replicating old ones. And what has happened to Antoine Dodson and the other stars of Auto-Tune the News undermines those old complaints even more thoroughly. Thanks to sampling, it was already possible to turn any sound in the world into a part of a song, from a dripping faucet to an air raid siren. Now, with auto-tune, anything anyone says can be turned into a lyrical performance. Cagean purists can quietly contemplate the music of rustling leaves and car alarms and the teenager across the street screaming at her parents; pop Cageans can feed those sounds into a computer and dance to the results.
And anyone with a laptop and the appropriate plug-ins can do this. That too marks a change. Producers used to be the shadowy illuminati of the music world. With occasional exceptions—Phil Spector, George Martin, Rick Rubin—they were nearly anonymous. Producers avoided the limelight while the musicians they worked with basked in stardom, even when the producer clearly bore more responsibility for a hit song's sound than the artist credited on the sleeve. In the disco era, an anonymous producer might hire anonymous session musicians and then release the results under the name of an entirely fictitious "group." In a culture fixated on "authenticity," that helped disco acquire its plastic reputation, though in retrospect the practice was no more inauthentic—and possibly more honest—than the customs of the rock world.
Now that the producer's tools are as widely distributed as electric guitars and drum kits, the picture looks a little different. The Gregory Brothers have split the profits from "The Bed Intruder Song" with Antoine Dodson, explaining that "He wrote the lyrics, he's the one who put it out there." That's very decent of them, and I in no way want to argue against their decision to do it. But as a simple matter of public perception, it's the Gregory Brothers, not Dodson, who are seen as the artists behind the song. (It helps that they inserted themselves into the recording, as they usually do—though if you ask me, their clips would be better if they left themselves out.) In the mash-up era, anyone on the Internet can be conscripted into a band; if you wanted to turn Dodson, the "Dude, You Have No Koran" guy, and the world leader of your choice into a viral-video supergroup, you could mash them up in your basement in an afternoon or two and then release the results online without the bandmates ever learning that they participated. Even if the song becomes a hit, they might not find out that they were a part of it.
If you listened to "4′ 33″" on Christmas, anyone in earshot was unwittingly a part of a top 40 hit: your aunt banging around in the kitchen, your son playing a game in the living room, your dad washing his hands in the bathroom. The BBC refused to play "4′ 33″" when it charted, on the grounds that "the majority of BBC Radio 1's listeners" would not be interested. But you don't need to rely on any DJ to hear Cage on the BBC, or on any other station in the world. Just turn the volume down as far as it will go, and listen intently for four minutes and 33 seconds.
Managing Editor Jesse Walker is the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press).