Terrance Heath

Holograms of Famous Performers Are Still Dead Inside

Filed By Terrance Heath | May 22, 2014 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment
Tags: Billboard Awards, Billie Holiday, dead celebrities, hologram, Michael Jackson

So, I finally watched the video of the Michael Jackson hologram from the Billboard Awards, and... meh.

As Amy Winehouse might ask, what kind of fuckery is this?

I don't have strong feelings one way or the other, but the whole thing left me kind of cold. Sure, it looked like MJ, and it had his signature moves. (Kudos to the programmers and other technical experts who made those moves happen.) But it didn't have any of the electric energy of a performance by an actual, living, breathing human performer. No matter how well-produced, I know I'm watching a projected, programmed image of MJ synched up to move along with one of his recordings.

Awhile back I read a rumor that some music business types were thinking of sending a hologram of Amy Winehouse on tour. The MJ hologram was the first time I actually watched such a production, but after seeing it I can't imagine an entire concert performance by a hologram. (Fortunately, the Winehouse holographic tour was shelved when her father protested.)

With live performances, there's a kind of energy exchange between the performer and the audience. (It's been a while since I've performed onstage, but I can still remember what it felt like.) The audience responds to the artist, the artist responds in turn, and its reflected in the performance.

That's why an artist doesn't necessarily perform a song and/or dance exactly the same way in every live performance. That's part of the spontaneity that makes live performance special. You get none of that from a hologram.

A "holographic resurrection" feels artificial for another reason. It can erase the imperfections that made an artist or a particular performance compelling in the first place. It can forever freeze an artist in time, and potentially erase the ways an artist changes with time, along with the way the depth and understanding that comes with those changes is reflected in an artists work. Most people, I think, would prefer to preserve an artist as his or her peak or "perfection."

billie-_holiday.jpgBut as I've written before, perfection never interested me much. I'm less interested in the artists who are pitch-perfect every time, much as I'm less interested in the people who do all the right things (or at least appear to) than in the people who screw up their lives in one hundred different ways, and at least try to recover and move on. (I think we all have an inalienable right to fuck up.)

People who never stumble bore me. The people who stumble, fall, get up, and keep moving are far more compelling.

Billie Holiday, for example, is one of my favorite singers of all time. But I prefer the Billie of the 1950s over her recordings from the 1930s and 1940s, when her instrument still had its purity and cornet-like quality.

Holiday's last recordings are actually my most favorite. By the 1950s not only were the effects of alcoholism and drug addiction permanently etched into her voice, but experience added a depth and a poignancy to her delivery. The sessions yielded one of Holiday's most moving recordings, "Just One More Chance." Holiday was so bad off that it's said a nurse had to help keep her propped up on a stool as she sang.

Four months later Holiday would die, leaving behind a catalogue of performances that charted her entire journey as an artist. I can't imagine any record company would resurrect the Billie Holiday of the 1950s via hologram, nor would I want to see it if they did.

I understand record companies wanting keep making a profit once an artist is deceased. That's why they dust off old recordings and drag unreleased recordings out of the vaults to be refreshed, remixed, repackaged, and re-sold or sold for the first time -- even, in some cases, when the unreleased material was unreleased for a reason.

That's especially true with MJ, who was notorious for recording far more songs than he would be able to use for any one album. Dead or alive, a popular, beloved artist can still be a moneymaker.

But what of the fans? Do Michael Jackson's fans, even the most fanatical, prefer a hologram to nothing? It might be tempting to keep an iconic artist "alive" through holographic performances, but perhaps it's healthier to let them go.

Sure, let their recordings stand as a lasting testament to their career. Let unreleased recordings introduce people to previously-unseen facets of an artist, and the creative process. But let that artist leave the stage to make room in the spotlight, and perhaps in our hearts, for new, rising talent.

In the case of Michael Jackson, even a tribute performance by some of the many artists he influenced would be better than a holographic performance. It wouldn't have offered the illusion that Jackson was "back," but his spirit would certainly have been felt. That's something only a performance by living, breathing, human beings can do.

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