An intriguing article in the online edition of the British newspaper The Guardian recently came to my attention, and it was accompanied by a sound file that was both creepy and funny — and timely for the holidays. The piece concerned high-tech sonic trickery as illustrated by a musical track completely created by an artificial-intelligence program to simulate the late Frank Sinatra singing a swingin’ Christmas song.
Many of us are already acquainted with the strange magic of dead actors and pop musicians brought to life by computer simulations, from the in-concert reproduction of a holographic Tupac Shakur synced up with a soundtrack of his voice to the computer-generated imagery resurrection of Peter Cushing as his Star Wars character Grand Moff Tarkin for the 2016 movie Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Sometimes it works. At other times, something feels off.
The product of using artificial intelligence to conjure up plausible but computer-generated media featuring the likeness of an actual person by manipulating preexisting digital audio and video is known as a deepfake. Although deepfake video speeches I’ve seen that reproduce the images of various politicians appear frighteningly legitimate (regardless of what they’re saying), the audio evocation of Ol’ Blue Eyes constructed out of music and lyric data scraped from the Internet sounds more like Frankenstein Sinatra.
DISBELIEVING YOUR EYES AND EARS
The lyrics — sung in what seems to be the genuine voice of Sinatra, with the sort of phrasing and verve unique to the Chairman of the Board — are bizarre, to say the least, starting with the declaration that “It’s Christmas time! It’s hot-tub time!” It gets weirder from there, eventually moving into some arcane scat-singing/alien incantation that makes Sinatra’s nonsensical “Doobie-doobie-doo” from his classic 1966 number “Strangers in the Night” sound like Cole Porter at his most eloquent.
This amazing abomination is the work of OpenAI, a research company that has fashioned a series of deepfakes delivering approximations of renowned musical artists from disparate genres: Elvis Presley, Katy Perry, Simon & Garfunkel, that deceased trailblazer Tupac, and others. But as chillingly realistic as these tracks sound, there’s always a sense that you’re hearing an echo from an alternate universe.
The much-ballyhooed idea of movie stars of the past brought back to life via CGI to play in leading roles opposite living actors in modern-day feature films has yet to deliver anything viable. The inevitable and daunting intellectual property issues aside, we haven’t seen Clark Gable and Cate Blanchett teaming up in a Steven Spielberg drama about a U.S. Army officer and a French expat nurse in Saigon during the Vietnam War. And I have a feeling we won’t find any deepfake counterfeit “hits” by famed pop stars on Billboard’s chart s … yet. If A.I. is going to conquer humanity as it does so often in dystopian science fiction, it won’t be via Spotify — although I’d watch out for those sneaky Netflix algorithms.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN’S ‘LETTER TO YOU’
As an antidote to these fabrications, I turned to the latest music from one of most passionate creative forces of the rock era: New Jersey’s gruff but gentle bard Bruce Springsteen. After five decades in the business, this prodigious singer-songwriter-guitarist is still gettin’ it done. In 2019, he issued Western Stars, a solo album paying homage to the ’60s and ’70s SoCal countrypolitan sound of Glen Campbell, Jimmy Webb, and their peers, and it was a beauty. Now, Springsteen has reunited with his brothers-in-rock the E Street Band to record Letter to You, a collection that returns to familiar form with tunes ranging from quiet, rustic honesty to raw rock ’n’roll bombast.
In addition, Letter to You is accompanied by a wonderful documentary, bringing you inside Bruce’s Jersey studio late last year for the four-day session that produced the album. The doc, shot in silvery black-and-white and available on Apple TV Plus, features super-fine performances of most of the material on Letter to You, as well as thoughtful and moving narration by the Boss himself on topics that inspired these particular songs: aging, mortality, and his life’s work. The title song, “Letter to You,” almost brought me to tears, and at least a few of the other songs are equally powerful.
The entire enterprise is gratifying. It’s tender; it rocks; it’s Springsteen heading into his 70s, replete with the wisdom and gravitas time can bring. If he and the band have lost a step, it’s imperceptible. Letter to You is further evidence that he’s the real deal — a supremely powerful musician and storyteller.
Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on Michael Snyder’s Culture Blast, via GABNet.net, Roku, Spotify, and YouTube, and The Mark Thompson Show on KGO radio. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster