As an AI recreates a Strokes song, columnist Mark Beaumont forsees a future where the machines take care of all the crap music.
We all have something that wakes us screaming in the night. Perhaps you suffer from Brexit nightmares, you’ve heard the new Mumford & Sons album or you’re married to Piers Morgan. Me, I lose sleep over the singularity. That’s the moment when a self-improving artificial intelligence passes that of humanity at such a phenomenal rate of exponential acceleration that, 10 minutes later, it becomes a super-intelligent God with the ability to make us either immortal (if it decides to be an AI Elon Musk) or a species of enslaved cyber-bitches (if it turns into The Trumpotron). And, 20 minutes after that, it works out the point of James Bay.
Forget climate change, nuclear annihilation and whatever new strain of livestock gonorrhoea has transmitted to humans having mysteriously ‘become airborne’ in Norfolk, the singularity is the biggest threat to the survival of the human race, and it terrifies me. Every time a TV chat show host brings out an adorable new robot that can floss, I see a warbot in waiting, desperate to laser Graham Norton’s face clean off and take power. There’s a robotic floor-cleaner that patrols the reception area above the NME torture bunker; I arrive every day expecting it to have fitted itself with an organ-harvesting vacuum arm.
But maybe I’ve been worrying too much. This week one of the first robot-written songs hit the net, claiming to be an algorithmically recreated Strokes song. Chicago music collective Botnik created the lyrics to a song called ‘I Don’t Want To Be There’ via a predictive text programme that mimics the lyrical style of whatever’s fed into it, then wrote a Strokes-ish song to fit. And, it’s proper shit. It sounds, in fact, exactly like the torrent of awful Strokes copyist demos that flooded the NME office during the great skinny tie shortage of 2002. Their computer-generated Morrissey song ‘Bored With This Desire To Get Ripped’, compiled from Moz lyrics and Amazon reviews of the P90X home workout DVD, is awful too, as is ‘Negatively 4th Street’, an AI mash-up of Bob Dylan lines and bad reviews of restaurants on 4th Street in New York. In fact, everything so far recorded for their Kickstarter album ‘The Songularity’ sounds like your cousin’s shit pub covers band singing Dave Gorman’s found poems.
Botnik’s music is man-written, but the awkwardness of its AI-generated bits merely adds to the growing mountain of evidence that, musically speaking, mimicry can come as an overpriced dongle add-on for our future robot overlords, but inspiration is a uniquely human trait. The first AI written song, 2016’s ‘Daddy’s Car’, was successfully designed with Sony’s FlowComposer software to resemble a sort of iBeatles, but it couldn’t drag a withering Lennon witticism or a charmed McCartney chorus out of its code any more than a cold-calling accident claim bot could reel off a new Kubla Khan before handing you over to its bored supervisor. The second, ‘Mr Shadow’, just sounded like Dean Martin being painfully eviscerated by the first malfunctioning sex robot. Last year’s ‘Break Free’, created by singer Taryn Southern using Amper software – she plugged in the tone, mood, style and tempo and sang over what came out – proved that machines can perfect average, by-numbers chart pop, but we already knew that; just look at the formulaic bullshit that the Spotify algorithm is cramming into the Top 40 like an out-of-control Hobnob bagger.
It all makes me feel more comfortable about the onrushing singularity though; that AI could be a great thing for music simply by being so dreadful at making it. Like telemarketers, receptionists and Susie Dent, the thousands of crap, unsignable indie bands out there will soon be made redundant by Botnik’s AI, forced to give up against the overwhelming competition as Soundcloud fills with billions of amateurish AI demo rip offs of ‘Plug In Baby’ and ‘Naïve’. And in the pop world, the majors will already be rubbing their talons at the idea of ditching these expensive human singers and song-writers they have to rely on now and simply churning out chart-ready android R&B at the touch of a button. Poppy is just a market tester: the day they invent a machine that can carry off an arseless leotard, it’s game over.
They could even invent AI press officers to fire off thousands upon thousands of AI pop songs every day to AI tabloid showbiz reporters, who’ll automatically toss off facile, fatuous puff pieces about them in a matter of seconds and post them in an ever-rolling river of uninspired pop sewage gushing forever down the internet and directly into Spotify, where the ‘consumer’ can mindlessly stream all this identikit commercialist gruel without caring about or engaging with it for longer than it lasts. Like today, basically, but more so.
Meanwhile, as the AIs are taking care of all the pointless and mediocre music, we’ll know that the few remaining human making records will be worth listening to. Because humans aren’t pre-programmed to copy this or emulate that; they’re capable of surprise and innovation, and they’ve got something akin to a soul to lay bare. So I no longer fear the singularity. It might just sort the rock stars from the replicants.