We live in interesting times. Over the years, The Coachella Valley Music Festival has become one of the premiere music festivals, whose only real competition in the US is Bonnaroo. Perhaps moreso than its Eastern counterpart, Coachella is known for producing magical moments each year. Beyond the consistently stellar lineup of electronic, indie, hip hop and pop acts that Coachella presents annually, the festival has also become known for providing a platform for highly anticipated (though not necessarily expected) reunions. Jane’s Addiction (2001), Siouxsie and the Banshees (2002), The Stooges (2003), The Pixies (2004), The Verve (2008), My Bloody Valentine (2009), Faith No More (2010), and Big Audio Dynamite (2011) all utilized Coachella as a platform for artistic reunion. The 2012 lineup continued this tradition, boasting performances from reunited acts including Mazzy Star and fIREHOSE, among others. Yet the reunion generating the most buzz and providing the biggest wow factor was a holographic representation of a hip hop legend who has been dead for 16 years. In the middle of a performance by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s, the music world’s collective jaw dropped when a mobile, seemingly three-dimensional image of Tupac Shakur appeared on stage to perform two of his hits.
I wanted to take a few moments to comment not on the performance itself, nor on the technological wizardry that facilitated Tupac’s return. In the days since, Dre has expressed hopes to take the 2Pac hologram on tour - and to give Marvin Gaye and Jimi Hendrix similar treatment. The remaining Jackson brothers also expressed interest in resurrecting Michael for a Jacksons “reunion.” That immediately got me thinking about the implications that such a venture holds for popular music and culture.
In his landmark book Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1999), media scholar Friedrich Kittler considers the implications of sound recording’s capability to bridge the chasm between the living and the deceased. “Record grooves dig the grave of the author,” he writes. “Upon replaying the old cylinder of 1897, it is the corpse that speaks.” As Kittler notes, this was an eerie proposition at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries. Whereas death had previously meant absolute finality, now the dead could speak (and sing) to us via their disembodied voices.
As freaky as that may have seemed, it has become a cliche in the pop music world, and a very profitable cliche at that. Consider the most glaring example, Natalie Cole’s 1991 album Unforgettable…with Love. Stepping away from the 1980s dance pop of her previous two albums, the Unforgettable project reunited Cole with her father, who had been dead for 26 years. Working their way through the jazz vocal standards that made her father famous, Unforgettable sold a whopping 7 million copies, and initiated two continuing trends in pop music: the duets album, and uniting the dead and the living in the interest of hit-making.
Other examples soon followed. As the cornerstone of their 1995 multimedia Anthology project, the surviving members of The Beatles “finished” two Lennon demos and issued them as singles. “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love” both went Gold, and provided the Fabs with their 34th and 35th Top Ten singles in the US. Alicia Keys joined Frank Sinatra in song at the Grammy Awards ten years after his death. Kenny G spat on the grave of Louis Armstrong when he joined the ghost of Satchmo for a recording of “What a Wonderful Word” on G’s 1999 duets album. Ol’ Dirty Bastard has graced recent albums by Wu-Tang family members, Blakroc, and the N.A.S.A. project. Twisting the dynamic, the Notorious B.I.G. issued his own duets album posthumously. Yet the King of Pop beat him to the punch, enlisting the deceased B.I.G. for 2001’s “Unbreakable” (and I assure you that the wait for someone to duet with the ghost of MJ will likely be a short one).
All of this to say that resurrecting dead musicians for new performances (and more importantly, new product) is nothing new. Yet there’s something fundamentally different between creating a 3D holographic image to perform music and using old recordings to create new music. Both can be seen as exploitative, but there’s something undeniably “next level” about the prospect of “live” performances by deceased artists.
The management of a deceased artist’s legacy is always tricky business, because the dead cede control to the living. For better or worse, an artist’s death often has the effect of increasing their cultural cache, and their profitability. This combination increasingly results in flooding the market with product – demos, unreleased music, compilations, more compilations, reissues, still more compilations, etc. Regardless of how much product an artist releases posthumously, there is perpetually one more lost album to be rescued from the vaults. This can be great for obsessive fans who relish the opportunity to hear every take, every unreleased composition, every false start of projects that never made it to store shelves. But it can also (much more easily) desecrate an artist’s legacy, as their estates and labels become all too willing to release any and everything that will generate enough interest to garner profits. The most recent example is 2010’s Michael album, panned by fans and critics alike (not to mention continued speculation that some of the vocals weren’t even Jackson’s). Indeed, I recall a pretty strong reaction to The Beatles’ Anthology versions of “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love” – some thought the audio was poor (at the time, Ozzy commented that Lennon sounded like he had a sock in his mouth), while others claimed that the songs were so far removed from what Lennon’s original vision may have been as to render the new recordings illegitimate. The “live” holograms of deceased artists stand to have similar effects.
The response to the 2Pac hologram has been overwhelmingly positive. It is impressive – especially given that Dre’s camp was able to keep this totally under wraps. But once the “wow” factor diminishes, we have to seriously consider the impact that further exercises of this practice will have on artistic legitimacy and legacies. In watching the 2Pac hologram (moments after my students hipped me to it), my initial reaction was awe-stricken amusement. But even before that first viewing drew to a close, I began to think “this is kind of a cheap move.” Beyond simply introducing a new revenue stream for deceased artists’ estates, the possibilities of holographic resurrections are potentially endless. Regardless of their artistic merit, posthumous recordings are at least representative of the artist’s creative expression. The holographic renderings on the other hand, can ostensibly behave and speak in any way that the programmer chooses. (I haven’t done a thorough sweep of Pac’s material this week, but I’m pretty sure that none features the lyric “What the fuck is up, Coachella?”) Any posthumous management of an artist’s legacy and image is necessarily a manipulation, but the manipulative potential here is seemingly limitless. And I find that fucking frightening, honestly.
We have to ask what this means for the cultural integrity of artistic legacies. It’s clearly a cash in – and as noted above, there is plenty of precedent for posthumous exploitation in the name of financial gain. More disconcerting is that the 2Pac hologram (and its progeny, should this week’s buzz prove to be prophetic) openly reduces artists to mere image; a tacit affirmation that long standing critiques of the culture industry as shilling products that are all artifice in fulfillment of the profit motive. To be clear, I don’t buy into that critique wholesale – but the prospect of audiences paying top dollar to witness simulacra of their favorite artists “perform” in manners that the artist had no hand in constructing seems to validate the critical thesis. On the other side of the equation, what does this mean for living artists? If we ascribe legitimate artistic value to holograms of deceased performers, what does that say about how we value living performers? What’s the value differential between the two? Is there one?
I’m fascinated that this is technologically possible – but in following the buzz, Tweets and commentary this week, I’m concerned that as fans we’re jumping into this a bit blindly, without giving real thought to the implications such a move could have on popular music and culture.
Also, maybe if Dre wasn’t tinkering with ear buds and holograms, we’d have Detox by now.