New Selena album 'Moonchild Mixes' sparks voice-aging debate
Selena became an international superstar in the 1980s and '90s because of her warm stage presence and emotional singing style. She died in 1995, when she was only 23.
But on a new album, Moonchild Mixes, out Friday, she no longer sounds like her early-20s self. Instead, these remixes employ digital technology to age her voice. Take her 1986 song "Dame tu amor," which was recorded when she was a teenager; in the remixed version, her voice has been pitched down a semitone. It's also fuller, especially at the low end.
"We worked on her vocal track to make her sound more mature," said Selena's father, Abraham Quintanilla, who, along with other members of Selena's family, collaborated with Warner Music Latina on the new release. "It'll make you think that she recorded the songs this morning."
But some Selena devotees aren't on board with this approach. After Warner Music Latina dropped a preview track a few weeks in advance of the album's release, fans took to social media to express their displeasure.
"Her voice is timeless," said Brandon Hunter, a die-hard Selena fan who lives in Tampa, Fla. "Don't touch it."
Hunter said he would have preferred the new album to include rare releases from Selena's back catalog instead of heavily-produced remixes of hits.
Fellow Sacramento, Calif.-based fan Ruben Moody said he worries that her music will now sound overly polished — which would be too bad, because fans love her voice as it was.
"While I welcome new Selena music, it bothers me to know that her brother and others are unnecessarily editing her vocals," Moody said. "There's no need to guess how Selena would sound as an older singer. Just give the fans the unreleased material as a posthumous album or a deluxe version of an existing album."
The use of digital audio processing technologies like Autotune and Melodyne to adjust or add special effects to performers' voices is now ubiquitous in pop music production. And for many people, that's a good thing.
"If these new technologies can expose and create new music fans, then I'm all for them," said Taurin Barrera, executive director of a music technology program at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and a longtime Selena fan himself.
However, Barrera said he doesn't like the use of technology to lower Selena's voice. "Her original recordings are so raw and incredible. But when they pitched the music a little bit lower so that it would sound like a more mature version of Selena, that's not really how us fans of Selena envision her."
But he said because Selena's original recordings pre-date contemporary audio production techniques, it's easy to understand why her family would want to use them to bolster her visibility in a pop landscape packed with noisy, heavily-produced music.
Rupal Patel, a speech scientist at Northeastern University and a vice president at the artificial intelligence company Veritone, said although some fans may be uncomfortable, the producers of Moonchild Mixes haven't created a whole new synthetic voice or voice clone for Selena. They've just tweaked her original tracks. Yet, she said, the singing voice carries so much emotional weight, it can make people acutely sensitive even to tiny changes in the voices of the singers they love.
"Whereas for speech, we're listening for the information content, for music, we're listening for the pleasure, how it moves us," Patel said.
Then there's the fact Selena isn't around today to give consent to her new mature-sounding voice.
"Was she someone who would never want to be seen or heard in a way that sounds older than she is, or unauthentically her than what she was?" Patel said.
The Quintanilla family didn't respond to NPR's questions about the ethics of manipulating Selena's voice or address the fans' criticisms.
"This is just breathing life into older music for the new generation," said Selena's sister Suzette Quintanilla in defense of the new album.
Despite the detractors, many Selena fans — old and new alike — are all for it.
"We have the original recordings, for example, 'Santa La Ranita,' a really funny song about a frog that she did when she was so young," said University of Chicago undergrad Vivian Benishek, who currently lives in Houston, Texas. "And now I'm looking forward to hearing it fast forward, you know, years later with a different sound."
"Personally, I'm excited that it's something new," said another Selena devotee, Kyra Fortenberry from Shefield Lake, Ohio . "You can only go through the existing albums so many times."
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