Johnny Cash’s ‘Blank Space’ Is Why AI Can’t Have Nice Things

When Texas-based editor Dustin Ballard published a cover of Aqua’s 1997 Europop hit “Barbie Girl” this summer using an AI-generated version of Johnny Cash’s voice, he was surprised by its reception. “I actually expected more negative reactions,” he says. Earlier this fall, when he followed AI Johnny Cash singing “Blank Space” by Taylor Swift, the feedback was once again surprisingly positive. “It’s hauntingly beautiful,” the first comment read. The media coverage was biased and complimentary. “It absolutely slaps me in the face,” wrote Futurism.

This wasn’t exactly the desired reaction. Annoying people with weird mashups is Ballard’s thing; he describes the goal of his musical project, “There I Ruined It”, as “ruining as many beloved songs as possible”. Essentially, it’s a song maker that goes viral for tracks like Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” recreated with Super Marios Bros. sound effects. and a rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Bad” as a bluegrass melody. Imagine if Girl Talk made an album inspired by Weird Al Yankovic but didn’t do their best. It’s the atmosphere. Ballard has been doing this since 2020 – it’s a side project against pandemic boredom that has exploded, it’s not his main source of income – and recently some of his biggest hits have used AI.

This in itself is not particularly surprising. Artificial intelligence tools are becoming more and more common in the music industry, and absurdly excited. Just last week, the Beatles released what is billed as their latest new song, “Now and Then,” made possible by AI tools that improved the sound quality of vocals from a decades-old John Lennon demo tape.

When artists use machine learning as part of the production, it doesn’t tend to ruffle feathers. But another type of AI-influenced music does: when people use AI tools to imitate the voices of musical artists, as with “Heart on My Sleeve,” the song released last summer by a anonymous producer called Ghostwriter977. This is the most prominent example of a new mini-genre called Fake Drake, as his voice was generated to sound like the Canadian rapper (it also featured the AI ​​voice of Drake’s compatriot The Weeknd). To be clear: a lot of people liked this song. Yet the industry response has been considerable. This genre irritates above all the record companies, who see it as an attack on their property. Universal Music Group successfully exhorted streamers like Spotify and Apple have launched “Heart on My Sleeve,” calling it a copyright violation. (There is of course conspiracies that UMG and Drake are secretly behind it.) In October, UMG and other major labels for follow-up the heavily funded AI startup Anthropic for the distribution of copyrighted lyrics. Ice Cube encouraged Drake is going to sue, so describe voice cloning artists without their permission as “evil and demonic” on X. Last week, The Hollywood Reporter published an article in which Dolly Parton called the technology “the mark of the beast.”

So far, however, there is no comparable anger for the multitude of Johnny Cash covers. Ballard is one of many people putting AI Cash concoctions online; they’re all over YouTube, where Cash is made to sing Zach Bryan, Coldplay, Simon and Garfunkel, and a version from the hit duet “Shallow” by A star is born in which Lady Gaga sings with Cash instead of Bradley Cooper. (Important note: The uploader took the time to edit the image on YouTube to show Cash’s face nestled against Gaga’s instead of Cooper’s.)

There are also no cash-related AI-related lawsuits. Josh Matas, Cash’s estate manager, says he’s keeping a close eye on the songs being released and the larger rise of AI music. “I watch almost every day,” he says.

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