Plaques and platinum status are wack if you’re not the baddest. T-Pain had to learn the hard way. On paper, T-Pain is that dude. His CV is longer than a Grateful Dead jam, and reads like a Soundscan fever dream: millions of records sold, dozens of chart-topping singles and enough cash to keep it stormy in all the most ratchet strip joints. It’s the statsheet of a no-brainer, unanimous, first-ballot hiphop legend.
But somehow reality never caught up to perception. Not even close. Forget about ascending to the 2Pac-ian stratosophere of street-level props, for a while Pain couldn’t even find his way out of the doghouse. Somewhere between buying shawty a drank and blaming it on the Goose, shitting on T-Pain became the new black. Usher claimed — right to his face, mind you — that Pain “kind of fucked up music”. Jay-Z penned a diss record. Soon enough, a consensus congealed around the notion that T-Pain wasn’t merely another harmless pretender to the throne, but the avatar of hiphop’s faustian pact with — go ahead, take your pick — pop music or technology or money or, worst of all, cheese.
The trouble, of course, was Auto-tune. The pitch correction software — which was merely the latest in a long line of voice-altering devices, none of which had ever caused much fuss — made its Billboard debut on Cher’s 1998 banger “Believe“, but didn’t truly worm its way into the public’s consciousness until being featured prominently on T-Pain’s string of hits. The inescapability of those songs turned out to be an ever-so-slightly mixed blessing for T-Pain: yes, he banked more money than God, but in doing so inadvertently allowed his personal brand to become synonymous with Auto-tune’s signature distortions. It got to the point that when an iPhone app simulating Auto-tune’s effect came out, the obvious name for it was “I am T-Pain”. In the minds of many, T-Pain’s voice was whatever the software spit out.
This was judged to be insufficiently gangsta. By the time Usher and Hov jumped into the fray, the haters’ proclamations had become conventional wisdom: Auto-tune was nothing but a talent-flattening crutch cravenly sucking the soul out of hiphop. Worse yet, the sudden appearance of scores of T-Pain/autotune joints was taken not as the mark of a luminous young talent, but as proof that the software was an ultra-efficient cheat for fabricating a hit single. The music world was pretty much in total agreement. Even Christina Aguilera got her shots in.
The things is, all of that was basically ludicrous to anyone who’d had the pleasure of hearing Pain throw down sans Auto-tune. The man, unequivocally, has the voice of an angel — soulful, mellifluous and, not for nothing, perfectly tuned. Judge for yourself. At very least, it’s hard to imagine confusing him with some no-talent software charlatan.
And yet his particular set of circumstances made it tough to get anyone to listen. Pain ended up losing the better part of a decade to a spiraling depression triggered by the widespread assumption that he’d ridden Auto-tune to the top and not the other way around. It’s about as sad as stories about fabulously successful millionaires can get. He tried everything. He released a bunch of non-Auto-tune tracks. He flexed his way through a critically-lauded NPR Tiny Desk session. It didn’t work. All those hit records had taught the world that T-Pain was Auto-tune and Auto-tune was T-Pain — and no matter what he did, he couldn’t find a way to unring that bell.
T-Pain had a problem: he’d already convinced the world that he was one thing; now, how could he get them to believe that he was, in fact, something else?
Presidential candidates have their own version of a T-Pain problem. Winning the presidency is, in some sense, a straight-forward process: first, triumph over the other candidates in your own party during the nomination primaries, and then defeat the opposing party’s standard bearer in the general election. Sounds simple enough. Political science even provides a helpful blueprint: an idea called the “median voter theorem”, which says that, all else equal, the victorious candidate will be the one whose policy positions are closest to those of the typical voter. So, to win the White House it makes sense to take stances that are, during primary season, as close possible to the average primary voter, and then, as November approaches, in line with the typical general voter.
Easier said than done. As it happens, the primary and general electorates only sort of resemble one another. Citizens who go out of their way to cast a ballot in the political semi-finals are, as a group, more knowledgeable, more politically engaged, and, critically, more partisan than most everyone else — which means that there’s substantial distance between their views and those of general election voters. It’s that divergence that’s responsible for a now-familiar dynamic: the primary pushes candidates to the partisan margins, and then the general pulls them back towards the middle. The contenders don’t have much choice but to try to play to both audiences — a bit like a band caught between trying to appeal to both the indie and top-40 crowds.
To bridge the gap, candidates regularly adopt strongly partisan positions during the primaries, only to soften those stances when the general rolls around. Political scientists refer to this bit of subterfuge as “post-primary moderation”, while the more nautically-inclined call it “tacking to the middle”. Either way, it’s the median voter theorem reimagined as campaign strategy.
But it’s far from a risk-free maneuver. Existential peril threatens any candidate who dares switch policy horses midstream, if only because it just about begs the opposition to start throwing around accusations of flip-flopping. As a result, even if candidates are, in theory, entitled to change their minds, in practice any about-face will inevitably throw serious shade on their reliability. It’s a matter of trust: why should voters believe that these new more moderate policies are the ones that the candidate truly supports and will fight for after getting elected? After all, that same candidate probably spent months or even years telling anyone who would listen how closely their views mirror the median primary voter’s — but now we’re supposed to believe that oh wait actually the candidate’s position is the same of the median general voter’s? Short of hitting every adult American with a flash from Agent K’s neuralizer, it’s not obvious why Jane and John Q. Public would play along.
So, after successfully battling through a primary, victorious candidates find themselves in a quandary: having already convinced primary voters that they’re one thing, how can they convince the general electorate that, in fact, they are something else? In other words, presidential candidates have a T-Pain problem.
The yawning chasm between primary and general voters looms especially large over the 2020 election cycle. American politics have become decidedly more polarized over the last couple of decades; the ideological overlap between Republicans and Democrats has all but vanished, and activists (read: likely primary voters) in each party are retreating towards their respective poles at breakneck speed. But even against that backdrop, the Democratic presidential primary field is outdoing itself. Four years ago Bernie Sanders’ progressive jeremiads felt revolutionary; now his ideas are the basic scaffolding for the platforms of nearly half the candidates. Socialist has gone from scarlet letter to badge of honor. At least so far, the party seems intent on bottling the charismatic vision of AOC and injecting it directly into its veins.
All of that might just be canny application of the median voter theorem; if Democratic primary voters are becoming more liberal, it’s only reasonable for candidates to follow suit. But there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Every inch that the field moves to the left also pushes the party’s eventual nominee that much further away from the median. Meanwhile, the T-Pain problem lies in wait, growing more menacing with each divergence from the median general voter.
It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that candidates tend to try to talk their way out of trouble. Many shoot for what the political scientist Brice Acree calls “etch-a-sketching“: wiping away the picture they’d spent the primary months constructing, and rebooting the general campaign as a blank slate easily filled with conveniently palatable points of view. But the terminology has always been more aspirational than descriptive. As Acree points out, the typical post-primary etch-a-sketch is not a substantive policy makeover – it’s merely an act of rhetorical moderation. Candidates excise partisan trigger words in favor of more anodyne replacements and spend comparatively more time discussing the pillars of their platform that most everyone can agree on, but almost always refuse to alter their fundamental positions.
Etch-a-sketching’s recommended lipstick on a donkey (or elephant) non-makeover has become standard operating procedure for presidential nominees despite its fairly ambivalent track record. Part of the problem is just math; since nearly every mainstream candidate makes moves towards the middle, you’d expect to end up with about as many winners as losers. Plus, it’s easy to forget that presidential elections are a tiny sample set subject to so many confounding factors that it’d be foolish to proclaim that any single tactical decision did or did not have a hand in the eventual outcome. Still, caveats aside, the etch-a-sketch maneuvers of winning and losing campaigns look so similar that it’s tough to imagine that they have much impact at all.
Take, for example, Barack Obama’s 2008 journey from liberal primary candidate to centrist general candidate — roundly hailed as a classic of the genre. Obama made 41 then-fanciful mentions of “universal health care” during primary speeches, compared to only 4 during the general campaign, while his references to “tax relief” went from zero in the primary to 48 in the general — and was rewarded with a broad center-left coalition that Gore, Kerry and Hillary could only dream of. On the other hand, Obama’s 2012 foe, Mitt Romney, cruised through the primaries while labelling himself a “conservative” (7 primary mentions, 0 in the general) and a defender of “economic liberty” (25 vs 8), but couldn’t sell the center on his newfound support of the “middle class” (8 vs 23), “education reform” (0 vs 14) and the African-American community (0 vs 9). Meanwhile, according to Acree, neither man substantially changed platforms or adopted new policy positions. The candidates might have moved in opposite directions, but they did it in lockstep. Yet when all was said and done, one triumphed, and the other was forced to tuck tail and retreat to the set of Real Billionaire Politicians of Provo. Whoever emerges from the Democrats’ 2020 battle royale could see their fate reduced to a similar coin flip.
Etch-a-sketch tactics are fighting, and mostly losing, a battle against preconceived notions. In truth, it’s just about impossible for the victor of a modern primary to emerge a blank slate; the 2008 Obama-Clinton knockdown-dragout, for instance, could never have produced a nominee unencumbered by the preceding months of internecine unpleasantness. Put another way, the primary campaign binds candidates to a set of associations — a brand, basically — that invariably follows them into the general. Etch-a-sketching is an attempt to sever, or at least overcome, those ties. But it lacks the courage of its own convictions: merely using a different voice, it turns out, isn’t enough to compel an audience to unlearn what it thinks it already knows.
T-Pain knows a little something about that. All the hoopla generated by his viral Tiny Desk concert couldn’t wash away the stigma of Auto-tune for the same reason that etch-a-sketch political moves fall flat: neither manages to effectively separate the subject from their brand. Acoustic T-Pain sets were basically being experienced as a curiosity: the Auto-tune guy singing without Auto-tune. The viewer’s baseline position — which is dictated by T-Pain’s brand, and everything that it’s known to represent — is the same regardless of whether or not there’s a voice distorter involved. Mitt Romney and the rest of the centrifugally-minded candidates are subject to the same inertia; their primary personas give voters an obvious place to begin, and every step towards the center is increasingly strained.
The point is that the audience’s starting position matters. Psychologists have an idea called “disconfirmation bias” that, among other things, says that people are less likely to be persuaded by new information if they already have an opinion on the subject; ordinary people call this “being stubborn”. Either way, the crux is that we tend to react very differently to new data depending on whether or not we’ve already formed an opinion. In the end, nobody – and certainly neither voters nor hiphop fans – is all that receptive to arguments that call into question their own well-established beliefs. To be clear, this isn’t some path-breaking, brilliantly counterintuitive finding. It’s a painfully banal idea that’s almost too obvious to point out. But somehow, neither etch-a-sketching nor T-Pain’s attempts to shed the stigma of Auto-tune heed the lesson: instead, both insist on trying to get through to listeners who’ve already made up their minds. From that start, all paths lead to failure.
It took an intervention by the pop culture gods, but T-Pain managed to turn it all around. Earlier this year, Fox debuted a reality TV program called “The Masked Singer”, based on a South Korean sensation from a few years before. The premise was sublimely ridiculous: twelve “celebrities” – some stretching the term beyond recognition – would wear elaborate, full-body, identity-disguising costumes while karaokeing the shit some out of some crowd-favorite tune, as a breathless nation tried desperately to figure out whose agents allowed them to get involved in such a debacle. Comedy ensued.
The show turned out better than expected, if that’s even possible. Each week delivered on its promise of delightfully uneven performances, charmingly clueless judges and some truly baffling celeb un-maskings — there really was a lot to love. But despite that embarrassment of riches, there was no doubt who the real star was: The Monster, a baby-blue monocular Furry with T-Rex arms and a flawless voice. As the series progressed, Monster delivered superlative renditions of everything from a classic teen TV theme song to a heartstring-tugging Sam Smith standard. By the finale it was unanimous: both the judges and the audience agreed that whoever was inside the costume really could sing.
Reddit had the case cracked weeks earlier, but social media still lit up when the Monster was finally revealed to be none other than T-Pain, that supposed Auto-tune fraud. His subsequent talk show victory lap basked in the mea culpas that poured in from far and wide, all the while tacitly acknowledging that it couldn’t have happened if he’d never become The Monster. The show’s absurd construction forced the world to assess T-Pain’s without its preconceived notions getting in the way – it changed the audience’s starting point. And because of it, T-Pain finally got the world to hear his voice.
Whoever emerges from the Democratic primary will hope to make a similarly transformative pitch to centrist general voters. But, without a mask to hide behind, can they really expect voters to forget what they think they already know?