It’s only a matter of time until new multimedia technology finds its way into the Pop business – there’s always need for more spectacle. But sometimes, that new technology also leads to new ethical questions we would prefer to collectively ignore.
In the case of the recent trend of “bringing Pop stars back from the dead” using “holograms”(there’s no actual holograms involved, just 2D projections on see-through screens employing an effect called “Pepper’s Ghost” that has been used for at least 150 years and has even been part of Disneyland attractions for decades, but other people have written extensively on that), we have to ask one important question: Where is the line between loving homage and shamelessly abusing a great legacy?
I will be looking at two notable instances here(Michael Jackson “performing” at the Billboard Music Awards a few days ago and X Japan using a likeness of Hide on their reunion tour in 2008), contrast them and argue for my position: namely that one of them was a beautiful moment while I found the other distasteful.
There’s absolutely no question: Michael Jackson is one of the biggest Pop stars to have ever lived. It was only a matter of time until something like this would happen. The performance produced for the award show featured a digital recreation of the performer dancing to and singing a song from the new, posthumous album.
Here’s my problem with that: Michael may have sang a demo of the song a long time ago, but he neither produced the final result or had any part in the album, nor did he ever approve of the release. Essentially, the record company is trying to turn any old recording of him into money while there’s still hype around the dead performer. This is not a posthumous release of a finished product that was meant to be released – they picked up random demos that Michael may or may not have ever intended to release, produced them in a way that Michael would have probably not produced them and then released them only to make money. There is no respect for the artist in this process, the respectful thing would have been to either release nothing or to just release the demos in the form in which Michael left them – instead, they made something new using bits and pieces of his creation and are now selling it as his vision, under his name. This both affects and cheapens Michael’s legacy, much like the first posthumous album they released shortly after his death. Yes, this is the second one already.
I think I made my issue with this whole situation clear: it’s exploiting an artist’s legacy and adding new elements to it that the artist may have never intended to release. It tarnished the legacy, especially for a perfectionist like Michael Jackson. To add insult to injury, rather than using old video footage of his performances, they digitally recreated Jackson to make him “dance” and “sing” to the new song, essentially turning the situation into a freakshow. And why? For money. To promote this album. The award show performance wasn’t to celebrate Michael, it was to sell (new) music.
X Japan also have a deceased, legendary band member that has a lot of legacy riding on his shoulders – guitarist Hide. When they reunited 10 years after Hide’s death, they decided to include scenes of him playing into their concerts using the same technology.
Here’s how X Japan did it: they played one of their classic songs, Art of Life, a song in which suicide(Hide’s cause of death) is contemplated. And as they are playing, the projection just appears as Hide’s guitar parts come along. There’s no fuss around it, no big announcement prior to it, no new song: it’s a moment of remembrance. Made from video footage taken during X Japan’s 1994 concert at the same venue rather than created digitally, it’s a humbling experience, it evokes a sense of finality, it shows us that the band hasn’t forgotten their lost member. Nothing new is created in his likeness, nobody is trying to sell you anything – it’s a collective act of remembering.
It’s not glitzy, it’s not glamorous – but it’s authentic. This is where the difference lays. You can either remember a deceased artist – or you can try to profit from him. You can remember an artist and end up profiting from it, but money can’t be your sole goal.
The digital Michael Jackson that appeared on stage during the Billboard Awards show was technologically impressive. Recreating a person so realistically, making the movement flow and the face emote to the song, is something the best CGI artists still struggle with. Even if I found the performance design tacky and unfit for such a legend, I have deep respect for the people that made the technological side of the performance possible, I do.
But when it comes to using such technology merely to make money with no regard to an artist, no respect for his legacy, I find it disgusting. How did we get to the point where somebody is a mere commodity after their death? How did we get to Audrey Hepburn “starring” in a cheap chocolate commercial years after her death and Michael Jackson “promoting” his new album?
X Japan did the right thing, they chose to use restored video footage of a real performance to a real song and used it when the band was performing that song again. Their performance wasn’t as advanced technologically, the projection didn’t look as lifelike – how could it, it was made from a 1994 video recording in bad lighting conditions! But it was just so much more beautiful.
Try to imagine a homage to Michael being shown using the same technology. Imagine seeing a medley of his biggest hits using restored video footage of real Michael performances being projected onto stage, reliving his biggest moments in new glory. It could have been beautiful. Instead, they opted to turn this potentially gorgeous moment into blatant advertisement for their new album and nothing more. Low…very, very low. And quite creepy.
What do you think on this issue? Leave a comment!