It didn’t take long for AI to hit its hyperspeed moment, which was ushered in when a new song by The Weeknd and Drake took the internet by storm.
It wasn’t because of the pairing of the two superstar artists, who have linked up together in the past. It was the fact that neither of them had a single thing to do with the song, it was entirely AI-generated, and now artists, listeners and the recording industry have been thrown into an existential crisis that up until a few months ago seemed like the plot of a potential “Black Mirror” episode. And things are about to get really crazy, if they haven’t already.
“Heart on My Sleeve” is the name of the song, and it sounds exactly like a collaboration between the two megastars. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg of what is possible and what is already here, and what could reshape the music business as we know it.
In just the last few months alone, artificial intelligence, or AI, has gone from a thing you may have used to tweak your Instagram avatar to something that is ready to take over the world.
ChatGPT was launched in November and can now do the work of a term paper in a few keystrokes, suddenly rendering the entire concept of homework futile. (A long overdue advancement, honestly.) Buzzfeed folded its news operation this week, and will instead enlist quizzes created by ChatGPT for users rather than, you know, pay humans to do actual work. And after a story on AI that aired on last Sunday’s program, “60 Minutes’ ” Scott Pelley signed off with the following: “We’ll end with a note that has never appeared on ’60 Minutes,’ but one in the AI revolution you may be hearing often: the preceding was created with 100% human content.”
Yes, human content. That’s humans — with all their faults, misgivings, personality flaws, grudges, biases and, you know, humanity — over here, and AI, spit-shined to perfection, over here. The choice seems simple. Which side are you on?
Humans, of course. C’mon. But have you listened to “Heart on Your Sleeve,” and were you also struck by the fact that it may be — Drake’s complete non-participation in the song aside — Drake’s best song in two years?
Drake is one of the artists, along with Frank Ocean and Chance the Rapper, to sign exclusive deals for new music with Apple Inc.
Not so easy now, is it? But it begs the question — and we’ll limit the wide-reaching AI debate here strictly to pop-music terms — what do we want from artists? Is it their artistry, their expression, the baring of their soul, which also includes making do with their flaws and imperfections, and the fact that sometimes, because they’re human, they botch Coachella headlining performances? Or do we want to control them, which is what AI allows us to do, in essence: cherry pick their best qualities, use them how we want to use them, and create what we want them to create.
It’s the ultimate idea of fan-service, of wish fulfillment, rendered whole. And it’s not just Drake and The Weeknd to whom it’s happening.
Scroll through TikTok and you’ll hear dozens of examples of fan-generated AI songs, pairing your favorite artists’ likenesses over your other favorite artists’ songs. A young Paul McCartney singing John Lennon’s “Imagine?” It’s out there. Kanye West singing Creed’s “With Arms Wide Open?” Not sure why anyone would want that, but it’s out there. Ariana Grande singing pretty much anything you can think of? Just type it in the search bar, it’s out there.
That’s not all. Earlier this year, superstar DJ David Guetta called on AI to create an Eminem-sounding track, which he went on to sample in his live show. “There’s something that I made as a joke,” he explained in a YouTube clip about the deepfake Eminem sample, “and it worked so good!”
And an entire album of songs in the style of Oasis, dubbed Aisis (see what they did there?), was released this week, a reimagining of what the band might have sounded like had its classic lineup stayed together and kept banging out tracks. And listening to it, that’s precisely what it sounds like, and if you didn’t know any better, you might think the boys buried the hatchet and got the band back together. (Even Liam Gallagher himself weighed in on the experiment, giving his approval and opining of his not-quite vocals, “I sound mega.”)
Now if Oasis really does get back together, maybe Liam won’t sound mega, and maybe the songs will be sluggish, the songwriting uninspired. Maybe it will be a letdown. But it will be real, it will be human, it will actually be them. So, what’s better?
There’s also the question of legality, and likeness, and appropriation of likeness, and a whole bunch of other technical stuff that is absolutely not going to stop someone from making Mariah Carey-soundalike Black Sabbath covers, or whatever else strikes their mood. (That doesn’t exist yet, and probably shouldn’t.) The cat is out of the bag, and as the record companies learned the hard way from the great Napster debacle, it’s not going back in.
That didn’t stop Universal Music Group from pulling “Heart on My Sleeve” down from YouTube and streaming sites, where it had already garnered millions of listens. Making it go away isn’t going to make it go away, or stop the next one from popping up, or the next one after that.
But what if the artists themselves got on board with “Heart on My Sleeve?” What if they re-recorded the song, using their own voices? Could the AI — and the human user behind it, in this case the anonymous Ghostwriter977 — inspire the real artists? It’s not going to be as simple as demonizing AI. Maybe this year’s Song of the Summer will be an AI creation. Would that automatically be bad?
This particular “Black Mirror” episode we’re living inside is unfolding in real time, and is only beginning. While there are many questions yet to be asked and answered, of this much we’re confident: the preceding was created with 100% human content.
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