Saturday, June 1, 2019

dead pop stars and their profitable afterlife

Interesting piece on the pop hologram phenomenon by Owen Myers at The Guardian, featuring some quotes from me, specifically on the exploitation of dead stars .

Here's the full responses I sent to Owen a week or two ago:

My gut insta-reaction is that it’s a new way for the old to tyrannize the young – because you can’t get any older than being dead. So the next step beyond the reunion tours, and all the legacy acts that dominate festival line-ups, is the hologram tour: no longer alive artists extending their brand power beyond the grave.

The syndrome raises all kinds of ethical and philosophical questions. To what extent are these performances in any real sense, given that a performance (whether showbiz entertainment or performance art) is by definition live, involving the unmediated presence of living performers, whereas the hologram tours  are  “unlive” and involve  non-presence? 

On an ethical and economic level, I would liken it to a form of “ghost slavery”. That applies certainly when done without the consent of the star, by the artist’s estate in collusion with the record company or tour promoter. 

But even if an artist might consent while still alive and legally grant the posthumous rights to  their image, voice, etc, for exploitation, that doesn’t make it right or proper. Nor does the fact that there might be a consumer demand for this make it a wholesome development. 

It’s a form of unfair competition: established stars continuing their market domination after their death and stifling the opportunities for new artists.

It’s reminiscent of Marx on  capital as the spectral vampire of dead labour, which when living and working had surplus value sucked out of it and then turned into yet more finance capital, thereby continuing the dominion over and exploitation of  living labour for generations to come.  But it’s Das Kapital crossed with Freud’s writings about the uncanny.

Hologram tours are very much an extension of the syndromes discussed in Retromania. I don’t think they existed as more than a rumour when I was writing the book - there might be a brief mention of them in there. But I do discuss the idea of movie stars being reanimated and how that was happening then already with figures like Audrey Hepburn being used in commercials using digital trickery. 

It does seem  like another facet to this that will soon be possible is that the technology will emerge such that the vocal timbre and mannerisms, the facial expressions and bodily gestures, conversational speech patterns, etc etc, of performers can be captured digitally - through assimilating and analysing the sum total of all their existing recordings, performances, videos, films, etc etc -  and that you will get a sort of digi-simulacrum of the artist singing new songs, guesting as vocalist or rapper on other people’s records, appear in videos or movies etc. That seems totally conceivable to me. The simulacrum would probably not be able to do convincing spontaneous stage banter or appear on chat shows, but who knows?  In those circumstances, they could be remotely ventriloquized by someone offstage, so that that person’s voice – or even written text – would be spoken by the simulacrum’s real-seeming voice.  In the recording studio, you’d just need the software which would generate the voice, or the instrumental performance.

In response to a question about whether watching a hologram performance was really any different from watching, say, an old Marilyn Monroe movie on TV.... .

No, I think there’s a greater dimension of wish-fulfillment and suspension of disbelief. The spectators are allowing themselves to half-believe that they are in the presence of the star. That’s why it’s like a ghost – a ghost could be defined as a “present absence”, neither here nor there, neither now nor then, but in some ontologically queasy interzone between being and nonbeing.

It’s eerie, it’s fascinating, it’s troubling.