what do holographic popstars mean for the music industry?
Why force a human into being a shiny, PR-friendly pop product when you can build your own and it won't talk back?
YouTube still of Hatsune Miku
Having been banned from entering certain countries and cities due to legal entanglement issues, Chicago drill artist Chief Keef is going on tour from London to Connecticut -- as a hologram. Someone will press play and supervise the pre-recorded routine of Chief Keef yelling “that’s that shit I don’t like” into a microphone, lyrics pouring out in perfect keys, moves orchestrated weeks in advance. Rather than sweating under the beaming white stage lights, Chief Keef can remain in his doric-pillared California mansion, reclining under goose feather duvets and sinking his diamond encrusted grills into cheese burgers. Probably.
Musicians as holograms are nothing new, they’ve been a part of the recent mainstream consciousness ever since Tupac’s digitised reincarnation on the 2012 Coachella mainstage. The first of its kind, Tupac’s conjuring was terrifying, with the curves of his muscles cartoonishly bloated and what should have been a crudely scripted “Thug Life” belly tattoo looking a little too neat. In the following couple of years, Michael Jackson became a hologram, so did Roy Orbison, Whitney Houston and Elvis -- the latter in concert with Celine Dion and in Blade Runner 2049 . In 2014 Janelle Monáe and M.I.A performed simultaneous duets in LA and New York, with cyber copies of one another. This May, the Fenty Savage lingerie launch saw a pixelated projection of Rihanna easing to the floor in a black corset and suspenders while her prototype looked on, laughing and sipping fizzing prosecco. In last month’s music video for Rita Ora’s Girls Cardi B appears as a Blade Runner-style cyberbabe, birthed out of lime green code and acidic lighting, the rapper leans down and kisses Rita before poofing out of sight.
It’s clear that holograms are destined to become a larger part of the musical landscape. We have already witnessed automation taking over other aspects of human labour -- now we can scan passports and check out shopping without the need for human intervention -- but what exactly these digitised bodies will do to the music industry remains unclear.
With a virtual Chief Keef clone touring the cities he’s banned from, it appears holograms could enable artists to bypass legal restrictions on their work. Although historically this has not been the case, back in 2015 Chief Keef intended his hologram to perform in Indiana for a Stop the Violence benefit concert held for the family of a toddler run over during a drive-by shooting. Although Keef wasn’t there in the flesh, police switched off the projection and shut down the venue, attributing it to his outstanding arrest warrants and claiming that the concert, “posed a significant public safety risk.”
It appears the issue for police is not just the presence of the artist, but also the dissemination of their image. If they conceive a person or musical genre to be capable of inciting violence, it doesn’t matter if it’s a hologram or the actual artist -- if people are dancing to it, police want it erased.
Holograms also throw into question certain moral implications concerning profiting from a deceased celebrity’s image. In February, fans were outraged when Justin Timberlake’s Superbowl Halftime Show was rumoured to include a hologram of Prince, even though historically the Purple Rain singer had called them, rather poetically, “the most demonic thing imaginable”, before adding that “everything is as it is, and it should be”.
For Prince, these hollowed out virtual images posed a threat to artistic autonomy: “What they did with that Beatles song [Free As a Bird], manipulating John Lennon's voice to have him singing from across the grave, that'll never happen to me,” he said, “to prevent that kind of thing from happening is another reason why I want artistic control.” Timberlake eventually cancelled plans for Prince’s hologram, instead dueting with a 2D projection, which seemed less like an apology and more like a crap version of the same thing.
The issue is, when an artist is ready to say goodbye, is it fair to conjure them back using digital necromancy? To force their hollowed-out image to perform endlessly until their music is so ubiquitous it sounds like a monotonous background fuzz, a polyphonic ringtone or one of those slow jazz playlists that play in dentist waiting rooms?
What happens if someone reincarnates Bowie? His last album, Blackstar, was a beautifully choreographed goodbye, mottled with references to his own mortality. Would he want to be reeled out in front of an audience and forced to sing ch-ch-ch-ch-changes for the rest of eternity?
The last dilemma holograms throw into question is that they could begin to absorb, or even takeover, the market for human popstars. They certainly are popular, Roy Orbison’s hologram tour sold out even though the tickets cost £55. The general admission for Chief Keef’s London performance is £95 and Tupac’s cyber reincarnation remains one of the most talked about moments in pop culture history. Even now YouTube videos endlessly hypothesise about how the engineers managed to do it.
With most popstars singing through the mechanic haze of autotune and face tuning apps or airbrushing filters morphing human faces into flawless avatars, the push towards something wholly automated makes a lot of sense. Holograms don't have feelings so they won't complain about being tired or hungry, they won’t cancel shows due to pregnancy, they won’t take too many drugs and get checked into rehab. Why force a human into being a shiny, PR-friendly pop product when you can build your own and it won't talk back?
How many times do we have to hear Grimes bemoan being bound by a “shit label” or Chance the Rapper say, “If one more label try to stop me/ It's gon' be some dread head n----- in ya lobby”, to see there is a conflict between the way industry execs want to make profit and the way musicians want to make art.
While most holograms are based on a fleshy, flaw-ridden human, Japan already has its own post-human popstar, Hatsune Miku. This animation is able to generate a sugary-sweet singing voice from melodies and lyrics inputt into software. Miku might not have a pulse, but she has loyal fans who come out in hoards to raise aquamarine glow sticks to their icon and her flowing ponytails. Miku has achieved mainstream success, opening for Lady Gaga's ARTPOP Ball tour, going on her own MIKU EXPO tour in Indonesia and in the US, getting remixed by Pharrell Williams and debuted on American TV with a performance on the Late Show with David Letterman.
As we become more comfortable with the wailings of the machine, following CGI influencers and transmogrifying our faces with deer filters, how long it will be before beautiful projections are winning BRIT awards and dominating the UK Top 40? If music labels can nurture holograms into branded automatons, singing catchy hooks that glue to the neurons of your brain, they won’t have to pay a proportion of music sales to an artist. At this point, what need do labels have for a breathing, sweating human when they can design a glittering projection to hip-lock and wail high notes better than anything living thing ever could?