Maybe because fear and anxiety about death are so hard-wired into the human brain, we find ourselves fascinated by the concept of life after death. If so, it might explain our culture’s obsession with vampires and zombies (not that the latter really constitutes life after death, but that’s irrelevant for now). The last several years have found us particularly attached to these creatures. True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, Twilight (books and films) and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (book and imminent film) have sucked in scores of enthusiasts, while Zombieland, Left 4 Dead, The Walking Dead (comics and TV show) and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies have frenetically dashed or raggedly ambled their way into our hearts…and intestines. These movies, TV shows, video games and books that I mention barely scratch the surface of the surface of the offerings available to sate our cravings for bloodsuckers and brain-munchers.
Lately though, things seem to be taking a turn for the bizarre. Vampires remain safely confined to fiction, but a recent slate of disturbing incidents make a compelling argument that we are at the beginning of a zombie plague. In response to the rise of these occurrences, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a statement denying the advent of a zombie apocalypse…though what they actually say is that they aren’t aware of any “virus or condition that would reanimate the dead (or one that would present zombie-like symptoms).” Just cause they aren’t aware of it doesn’t mean it can’t be real. But for now, I’m going to accept the CDC’s declaration that these chilling acts are unrelated, and not indicative of the impending end of days.
There is, however, one upsetting example of the dead rising from the grave that has been gaining a lot of attention recently as well, and unfortunately this one is all too real. I’m talking about the holographic resurrection of deceased entertainers.
It started in April at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, when Tupac Shakur took the stage in hologram form and sang with Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. You might remember Tupac from his hit songs including “Keep Ya Head Up,” “Me Against the World” and “Dear Mama,” or from films such as Poetic Justice, or from his September 1996 death after being shot in Las Vegas. Yes, the man died 16 years ago, but the world couldn’t let go. Songs and albums continued to be released years after his demise, and now the hologram has kicked things up to a new level of creepy. Dr. Dre oversaw the resurrection, which was constructed by the visual effects company Digital Domain and staged at the concert by AV Concepts. It was the first time that such an effect was accomplished without using old or repurposed footage. This was a newly created, original performance by Tupac. How his vocals were achieved remains a mystery.
It’s not like we haven’t seen forms of this before. Fred Astaire was brought back to dance with a vacuum cleaner in a Dirt Devil commercial, John Wayne was worked into an ad for Coors Beer, Natalie Cole sang a duet of “Unforgettable” with her late father Nat King Cole, and Celine Dion sang with Elvis Presley on a 2007 episode of American Idol. But in each of these cases, previously existing footage (or recordings, in the case of Cole) was used. Tupac’s performance was brand new. And it has kicked off an alarming trend. Setting their sights higher than just projecting old footage, CORE Media Group – which owns the branding rights to Elvis – is partnering with Digital Domain to bring him back for newly created performances. Apparently they envision Elvis returning for new concerts, TV shows and movies. In addition, holographic versions of Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Marilyn Monroe might be on the way, and Michael Jackson’s siblings seem to like the idea of bringing Michael back for a big tour.
Yeah, I’ll bet they do. Cause the world is clamoring to see just Tito, Jermaine and the others in concert again.
Haven’t we already seen what happens when Michael Jackson returns from the dead?
Sure, it’s all smooth moves and funky choreography until he chases you into a spooky house with all his friends and eats your innards.
We may be in the 21st century, but old-fashioned hucksterism is alive and well. The fact that these efforts amount to insensitive cash grabs are the least troubling thing about them. The responsible parties can talk all they want about bringing thrilling new experiences to audiences and how magical it will be, but the magic they’re espousing is of the dark variety, and anyone who’s played around with voodoo or horcruxes can tell you that dark magic doesn’t end well. The artists in question have no say in how their likenesses are being used, but even more crucial is that they aren’t responsible for their own performances. When Elvis, or Tupac, or Hendrix were alive and performing in concerts, they were engaging with their audiences, feeding off real energy and giving it back in return. If Presley thrust his hips, it wasn’t because a computer program told him to do it. He did it because he decided, “I’m going to thrust my hips now. And then I’m going to walk over here and bend down and sing directly to this girl in the blue T-shirt, and now I’m going to cross over to the other side of the stage and fall on my knees and sing to the rafters.” He decided to do those things in the moment, because he was feeling the song and the vibe in the room. Hendrix didn’t smash his guitar, light it on fire or play it behind his head because he was being manipulated by a puppet master. He did those things because he was Jimi fucking Hendrix and that’s what he wanted to do.
Those experiences can not be replicated. A hologram has no soul. It’s a cheat. Tupac’s Coachella stint can be viewed in isolation as “a moment,” but in the end it was just an impressive lightshow. You can’t take a gimmick and turn it into an industry. Or hey, maybe you can…Hollywood seems to be doing it with 3D. But a gimmick is a gimmick, and it doesn’t provide or replace an authentic experience. Tupac, Elvis, Hendrix, Morrison, Marilyn, Janis, Michael, Whitney…they’re dead. They all died too young, with more to contribute to their art, but they’re dead, and for any of us who loved any of them, their deaths became part of our relationship with them. The mourning and the memories became as important a part of the way we relate to them as the concert we saw them perform during their lifetime. And if we never got to see them perform, a hologram will give us no more truthful an experience than we would get from an impersonator. It will just cost a lot more money. And where does this digital-age grave robbery stop? Will performers like Astaire and Wayne be brought back to “act” in movies again? Will politicians resurrect late party champions like Reagan or Kennedy to speak at their conventions and endorse a current candidate? It’s not hard to imagine this getting quickly out of hand.
Look, I’ve got nothing against a good hologram. But let’s use them appropriately. Here are some acceptable uses for holograms:
1. Intergalactic government agent/construction worker killing his enemies
2. Imprisoned princess recording plea for help
3. Humanoid alien communicating with dead parents
4. Starship crew members escaping the rigors of space exploration and hostile encounters with Ferengi by enjoying a little R&R in simulated 19th century London
5. Actors participating in theme park rides based on their movies
6. Backup band for glam rocker Jem
7. Whatever Bill Murray wants (as long as he’s still alive and directly responsible for the usage)
Elvis, Tupac, Marilyn…the legacies of these stars have endured for years after their deaths. There is no lack of interest in their work or awareness of their lives, and that seems to be going just fine. This line doesn’t need to be crossed. Bringing someone back in hologram form and placing them into whatever venue some promoter or greedy estate manager decides is not only a shallow act of self-interest, but completely disrespectful to the artist. Death is a natural part of one’s life, and carrying the memory of the dead is a natural part of life for those left behind, whether it’s the deceased’s intimates or legions of admirers. So I’m hoping that soon enough, all his Tupac-inspired enthusiasm for rock star holograms will die down and that logic and sense will prevail.
But it probably won’t. This is show business, after all.