Exclusives 28 June 2022
Author: Molly Claire

GRM Exclusive: Is There an Ethical Way To Use Holograms in Live Performance?

28 June 2022

We have been living alongside holograms every day without even acknowledging it, ID cards, DVD’s, banknotes & video game packaging all have holograms on them; but these holograms aren’t impressive hence why no one talks about them, they merely have a rainbow-like tint when moved about.

When thinking holograms I jump to Star Wars, Spy Kids & Men in Black, movies I watched as a kid and thought it would be a future I’d never get to experience. These sci-fi movies seemed so ahead of their time, with jetpacks, hoverboards, flying cars & holographic video calls! Today half of these things exist. To think the pixilated 3D image of Princess Leia calling for rescue in the 1977 Star Wars film is now a realistic scenario… But have we now taken things too far? Are these childlike dreams tarnished?

On the 18th of April 2012 Coachella Festival brought the unexpected to a new level, a virtual being was born. Among a crowd of 80,000 people the late rapper Tupac Shakur stood before the audience with the illusion of a ghostly presence.

Snoop Dog and Dr Dre are one of the first artists to perform alongside a deleb (dead celeb) as a hologram, it was one of the first times the music industry experimented with human like holograms. This was the beginning of a new future, although technically it wasn’t a hologram but a light-beam-produced, three-dimensional image, Tupac could be seen as a human silhouette and for sure performed like one. The technology was still evolving at this point, it was compared to ‘Michael Jordan balling alongside the looney tunes characters’, otherwise said to have been thoroughly unconvincing. At this point the idea seemed novel and friendly, it was so glitchy and pixilated it stripped away the realism. The audience could tell the human figure from the 3D figure.

On April 18th, 2012, the America rapper Raekwon was interviewed by Vibe Magazine, in interview Raekwon gave his opinions on holograms in the pop industry and particularly the Hologram Tupac.

The interview began with Rae stating confidently that the Tupac hologram ‘was beautiful, like seeing his spirit’, in other words a work of art in tribute to the late rapper, this already is a completely different view to many of the fan’s opinions. Hearing this view from an artist himself opens the eyes of a pessimist, like myself. Maybe if things were co-signed by parents/friends of whom were close the idea of pixelated resurrections can be somewhat ‘beautiful’. As the interview continued Raekwon began to say, ‘The idea of starting that up for pop is brilliant’, let alone it being a tribute to a late artist, but the industry of pop could thrive off the art of holograms, which since 2017 it has.

Raekwon himself could not believe what he was seeing but really enjoyed it, seeing things in a completely different light. Rae stated that it: “was brilliant. I tip my hat to Dre because it really shows the sense of love he had for Pac’. Twitter overran with mixed reactions, the majority of hip-hop lovers felt it was an amazing performance whilst the other half shared the opinion of it being ‘disrespectful’ and to not puppeteer the dead.

The music industry has always been pretty good at keeping up with new technologies, taking risks to explore the possibilities. Trials for holography began with animated 3D art work and the sculpture of light formations to now bringing performers from beyond the grave. This is where ethical problems arise. Are Holographic resurrections the encore we really need? Or are we exploiting the peacefully rested by controlling their soulless pixilations? Essentially ventriloquism on the dead, that’s unethical right?

Whitney Houston’s estate announced the plans for her six-month tour, ‘An Evening with Whitney – The Houston Hologram Tour’, ironically just a few weeks after Halloween. Words from Houston’s executor, or should I say past executor, ‘Houston’s legacy was in need of a makeover’, this eternal contract is beginning to manipulate history, the aim is to rewrite her past, make a shiny new Whitney. Whitney was not always in control of her image, her sound or even her finances. The music industry consistently tried to strip the musician of any ‘blackness’ in her lyricism, sound and voice – when this didn’t work, she became ‘Americas Black Sweetheart’. This title she disagreed with heavily; but it never concluded she would be willing to ‘retouch’ her image with new technologies. Yet, all this lack of control of life is being resurfaced after death, she is potentially going to be exploited all over again; however, this time being 100% in control of others and having her legacy rewritten to the preference of the media and her estate.

‘This is an artist who spent some time in her career in the throes of substance abuse, did not always seem in control of her image, or her sound, or her finances,” King says. “And so now there is this potential that she’s being exploited all over again.” – Refinery29 2021

In similar fashion to Whitney, many musicians, one of them being Chance the Rapper has publicly expressed his disapproval of a hologram style reincarnation. In his album The Big Day there is a song, “Sun Come Down” which recites his wishes for his legacy after death: ‘‘Please don’t make no holograms, don’t wanna do it twice”.

Prince is also known for his outspoken view on holograms after death; around ten years ago Prince spoke in an interview with Guitar World where he expressed his huge disliking and discomfort with holograms, this was before they were even a topic! ‘That’s the most demonic thing imaginable. Everything is as it is, and it should be’. Former drummer Sheila Escovedo tweeted that Prince personally asked her to never let anybody turn him into a hologram, both his friends and management had respected his wishes, or so he thought. Years later, we saw him holographically reincarnated on Justin Timberlake’s 2018 Superbowl half time performance.

Mixed reactions flooded the twitterverse, was it a hologram? Or was it just a screening of a past show? Before the show went live Sheila Escovedo settled the feud publicising JT assured her there would be no Prince hologram, then the show happened and well, it’s not exactly a hologram but it’s something of the sort. Whilst the Prince estate praised the performance, true die-hard fans heavily disagreed. As previously mentioned, in the Guitar World interview Prince was asked directly about the use of digital editing to “create a situation where you could jam with any artist from the past.” His response clearly showed he was not on board. Theoretically its unethical, Prince didn’t like the idea of himself being on stage after death or being heard from beyond the grave, yet there he was, to be heard by millions. So I guess whether or not you have friends and or management on board, one can never truly protect their legacy after death.

The hologram market in the music industry is widely known for its cheesy shock value, it’s great for people who still have an intense emotional connection to the performer. But even now these die-hard fans are seeing through the cold-blooded cash cow.

From here onwards ‘Being worked to death’ now poses a new meaning, in assessing the ethics of holographic concerts the focus must be what the hologram is made to do and what they are/what form they are in; Such as the huge screening of Prince. In theory, if you were to recreate a concert of a passed musician word for word, mirrored choreography and so on, it seems to morally on par with showing a recording, right? However, it is still a huge change – recreating a HR, VR version of this performer from the previous 2D digital recording is a modification of the medium. If the performance goes beyond the digital recording it stands to be morally problematic. Putting words in a dead person’s mouth is unethical and slightly disturbing. Typically, the engineers have the holograms perform new shows and say new things. The dead performer cannot stand in to stop their legacy, they are being used to create new performances whilst having their image act as a puppeteer. Hence why many alive musicians & celebs have already cited their legacy to ensure they will not be reborn as a soulless pixilation.

The discussion becomes a lot trickier when the deceased celebrity has not stated (whilst alive), if their legacy can be continued through holograms or not – the reasoning for this is obviously, holograms didn’t seem a possibility decades ago, so it wouldn’t of been a necessity for celebrities of yesteryear. Also, not every artist grows old and has time to set legal rights to their name, Tupac, Amy Winehouse, and Aaliyah all died suddenly at young ages. The unprincipled factor here is the executor of the estate is taking a guess, 50/50 gamble on what the artist would have wanted – legally an artist’s/celebrity’s estate can exploit or authorise rights If they want to. As it stands it’s not illegal but immoral, estates aren’t committing a crime but crossing boundaries that are insanely cynical and disrespectful.

Without the explicit approval of the artist, we rely on the family and the estate of the departed. No action can be taken without these two sides being completely on board as collaborative partners. In this case, it’s nowhere near as good as having the artists approval though unfortunately legally this is where it stands. In the music industry ownership is scattered across fathers, cousins, record labels and managers, there is no peace of mind that an artist will have rested for good, with the ever present promise of monetary gain.

Ultimately, who knows what the late artists would have wanted for their legacy, no one truly knows you as well as you know yourself, especially when it comes to making your next move in life. Prince said it best: “If I was meant to be there, I would have been, as much as I would have wanted to be there, fate didn’t have that planned for me”.