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. 


  1. Indian prime minister Narendra Modi used holographic techniques to reach out to his base in the 2014 election. I'm desperately trying not to invoke Godwin's Law here . . .

  2. Phil Knight sez:

    The thing about Marx's spectral vampire is that finance capital has long gone way beyond this, in that it is literally conjured out of thin air these days. It's an entirely magical system that has only the most tenuous relationship not only with the material world, but also with the material world of the past.

    The thing I am tempted to wonder here is to what extent will these holograms embody the mana, the charismatic spiritual essence, of the stars they emulate? As Weber pointed out real charisma is a wholly organic (though uncanny) thing, and manufactured charisma, which I suspect is the best these holograms can produce, is a much weaker phenomenon.

    I actually see the need to produce holograms as a weakening of the media affect of late capitalism - it can no longer generate charisma in and of itself. How will such holograms compete with any individuals with real charisma who may emerge outside the hall of mirrors?

    Also, maybe I should start blogging again and stop spamming your comment sections.

  3. oh no Phil, please keep on commenting, i love it.

    but yeah start blogging again too ASAP.

    and contribute to the new Noughties blog, which, erm, is a bit slow getting started - zero posts to date - but i am hatching one, honest.

    actually started a little blog on a group of the Eighties and then discovered you'd already done that in the Faces on Posters many years ago! wonder if you can guess which artist

  4. yeah finance capital is completely phantasmagoric now with derivatives and so forth, micro-second decisions done by computer... mind you i always thought something deeply irrational about that whole world, for reasons too complicated to explain i ended up being accepted to study History and Economics, which was the last thing i wanted to do - the Economics bit. managed to shed that bit after only a few weeks of torture, but during that brief moment i was real difficulties with the basic assumptions founding the whole thing which was that economic agents were rational entities acting in the sober calculation of their interests... i was like, "hmmm, no, no, that's not the case".

  5. Charisma is an odd one,if i remember Weber right, it's a property of unmediated presence - something that happens when you are in a room with the person and directly under its effect - and it's an undeniable that we've all encountered, often just with people that you come across or are friends with - certain people have an ability to change the energy in a room, catalyse things, or naturally take lead ... and same with institutions, businesses, etc, some people seem to be able to project authority and inspire confidence

    i wonder how Weber would have altered his theories if he'd been around for the age of mass media. he died on the very eve of the era of Hollywood and radio and long before TV.

    because there are figures who have that quality of charisma in conjunction with certain technologies of lighting, camerawork, etc - or certain broadcast media - but who seem relatively denuded of that glow or X-factor in real life.

    a modern stage performance is so boosted with lighting and ampification and other forms of adulteration (pitch-correction on the vocals), use of backing tapes, including tapes of other vocal parts as prerecorded by the main singer, so that the performer might be doing the main bit live but there's also other versions of themselves non-live... already there is a hologram-ic element to live performance, or at least an element shading into CGI / animation zone, it's part real part illusion

    i wonder if anything like Weber's charisma or old-fashioned stage presence still exists in that hypertechnologised situation

    but yeah i doubt if the X-factor can be bottled like that in a simulation

    it does seem unlikely

  6. That Phil Knight again:

    Oo-er....what noughties blog is this? I can't remember any of the 80's bands I wrote about, tbh, except maybe ACR.

    As for charisma, I think to a large extent we've forgotten what it really is in its raw form. I mean, can you imagine anyone bursting into tears and involuntarily wetting themselves while watching a Beatles hologram? The incredible phenomenon that was the Beatles in their prime just cannot be replicated - it was a near-religious phenomenon, like those waves of enthusiasm that tore through medieval Europe.

    One way to look at the explosion in the techniques for artificially boosting charisma is that it is somewhat akin to fracking - the employment of ever more complex technology to extract an ever-diminishing resource.

    There's also an analogy here to the cycling between religion and magic. As religions become more formalised and bureaucratic, then space opens for charisma-laden magical outsiders and sects. So, I could easily see a scenario where a fairly basic no-frills group, but with enormous personal charisma, could upend the current hypertechnoligized scene. Punk of course was an example of this, an antinomian rejection of the prog orthodoxy.

    But is the music industry really that attractive to the charismatic these days? Politics looks a more attractive option due to it being in such flux. It's well known there are a lot of magicians in places like 4chan, and it seems to be that meme production is where the magical shaping of culture happens nowadays.

  7. another brief thought on the depletion of charisma in the live performance setting - the use of giant video screens works against it, because (in my tiny experience of megashows) you cannot resist looking at the screen most of the time rather than the much smaller indistinct figure onstage (unless you've got one of the pricey seats near the front)

    at very least the coexistence of the performer and the video image of them must produce a weird kind of split in perception and in the transmission of the star aura

    tangentially connected, my mum like a lot of older people in the sticks goes to these events which are real-time broadcasts of operas or musical concerts in the heart of London, relayed out to a cinema or similar venue in a town like Amersham or Chesham. i have wondered what that is like, as an experience - it's happening in real-time, it's an event, but so much of the vibe of the real-place event (the formality of the concert space, the musicians and singers only yards away, vibrations coming through the air direct to your ear etc etc) are not involved. you can turn up wearing a shell suit if you want, it's more casual, so there's nobody there but a screen. (my mum really enjoys them for what's it worth)

  8. the group if you haven't noticed is this pride of your hometown

  9. I'd completely forgotten I'd written that!

    Anyway, if you're interested in the genesis of this kind of phenomenon, I would recommend this mind-blowing talk:

    Avail yourself of the the concept of electronic stained glass!

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