No, There’s Nothing Unethical About Performing Holograms Of Dead Singers…

…as long as they don’t materially misrepresent the performer or the performance. They may be icky, but they aren’t unethical. This is in ethical contrast with the Ethics Alarms position on zombie performers in films, as examined here several times, most recently upon the unveiling of zombie James Dean.

The issue has arisen because a holograph of Whitney Houston, mercifully in a form before her physical and vocal decline due to drug abuse, is touring the country. Here’s a review of one of the performances; Zombie Whitney will make her debut in the US soon. Big plus: she doesn’t have to worry about the Wuhan virus, just holograms of the Wuhan virus. Fans have been less than ecstatic, as much because of the quality of the image as the ickiness of the concept. Here’s part of one review:

Your phone camera can’t focus on her because it knows it’s not an actual person. At times, she resembles a Mortal Kombat 11 character. Backed by a real band and flesh-and-blood choreographed dancers – who have the double-edged-sword effect of adding some dynamism to a show which can feel static while also emphasising how unreal the hologram looks in comparison– she disappears and re-materialises in different costumes and hairstyles Star Trek transporter-style, and performs during a storm during ‘Run To You’, seemingly sodden from the rain. Because it’s obviously a pre-recorded singing voice taken from live performances, there’s no spontaneity, no interaction, no sense of drama over whether she’ll hit the high note. …it’s often more interesting to watch how the crowd reacts to the hologram than what’s onstage. They clap after each song (which initially feels akin to saying “Thank you” to a self-service check-out)….Whitney always strove for perfection: this is the idealised Disney-version fans see in their mind’s misty eye, and some have even claimed that tonight has helped them wash away memories of her disastrous 2010 tour, where she appeared drug-ravaged and raddled. The atmosphere is that of a communal live album listening party meets mass raucous hen do.

In another review from across the pond, fans expressed doubts about the ethics of exhibiting the singer without her “consent.” But unlike the images of post mortem Carrie Fisher performing a film role she never actually performed, there’s no pretense with holographic singer that she’s really there or performing. Nobody’s fooled; it’s little different, if at all, from a videotape or film of an actual performance. Now, if Whitney’s image and voice were manipulated to make her sing “Baby’s Got Back” or have her get on all fours and squeal like a pig, thing she would never do and never did, that would cross the line just like putting James Dean in a 2020 film.

Houston’s estate, of course, is cashing in on this, because they own Whitney’s image. I see scant difference between exhibiting the Houston Hologram and John Wayne’s estate  commissioning a statue.

Looking at it subjectively, while I wouldn’t want to see a dead performers I admired forced by technology to give  performances they never gave in roles and films they never consented to do, I wouldn’t mind seeing a realistic approximation of what great singers looked like on stage. Show me Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall, or Marcel Marceau in his prime, or Elvis, Danny Kaye, or the Beatles. I’ll know it’s not them, but it will still be a memorial to an actual performance, by artists who we will never see perform live again, and a bit more vivid, perhaps, than just a projection on a screen.

Sure: it is now necessary for living artists to make their desires clear, and to have those wishes respected, if they don’t want to tour for eternity in Hologram Hell. Frank Zappa’s kids have  Dead Dad on tour. The theater, which holds 1,800 people, was nearly sold out on opening night. Apparently Zappa’s hologram does some funky things like turning into a mass of dental floss at one point, but I assume Frank would love that.

Base Hologram started out by securing rights to produce performing holograms of Maria Callas and Roy Orbison. Orbison’s estate, which is controlled by his three sons,  was pleased with the deal. A 58-date Orbison-Buddy Holly hologram tour began in San Francisco in September. Concert promoter Peter Shapiro is not negative about the trend, and what he assumes is coming. He told the New York Times,

 “Look at who’s gone, just in the last couple of years: Bowie, Prince, Petty. Now look who’s still going but who’s not going to be here in 10 years, probably, at least not touring: the Stones, the Who, the Eagles, Aerosmith, Billy Joel, Elton John, McCartney, Springsteen. That is the base not just of classic rock but of the live-music touring business.”

These are unique talents that future generations should have an opportunity to see. Unlike the manufactured and manipulated fake film performances where dead artists are made to do and say things they never agreed to or had control over, I don’t see what the harm is, other than some slippery lope concerns that I wrote about here.

I don’t even think it’s icky.

22 thoughts on “No, There’s Nothing Unethical About Performing Holograms Of Dead Singers…

  1. I think it’s definitely icky. There is plenty of film in the can as well as TV footage of all these stars performing. Along with this there are plenty of Elvis, etc. imitators who can do a great job with their material if you want to see a live show.

    • Nor would I. In fact, I’d pay to do it. But what these holographic images rob their real life models of was their ability to react to and be fueled by the audience, its love and its energy. Mercury was the epitome of that. So these holograms, no matter how good the technology becomes, always are misrepresentations, because that sinergy with teh audience is what made those artists great—Garland, Jolson, Dietrich, Sinatra, Elvis, Holly, Ray Charles, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Freddie, who was pretty damn close to being the best of all.

      • Close to being the best? Did you see Live Aid?

        Oh FYI, while libraries are closed–and did you remember to do your last-minute panic librarying–remember you can still check out books via overdrive.

        Great time to check out All Systems Red and get your Murderbot fix.

        For the uninitiated, Murderbot is a Security Unit with social anxiety who much prefers standing around and watching media to having to stop the stupid humans from doing stupid things that will get them killed. It would much prefer the humans did something more productive and less dangerous, like, say, make more episodes of The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon.

        • The minute I got the email that our libraries would close the next day, I panicked. I went to the library the first thing the next day and got several large books to accompany the two I still have checked out.

  2. This is a very complex issue, and I applaud you for addressing it. What I feel will always be noticeably missing from digital performance in a live setting is something that we humans can always, if subconsciously be sensitive to: masses. A hologram is a photon thick, not much mass, if any. (Anyone know the weight of a photon?) A live performer has real, perceptible mass. Even when I go to the Hollywood Bowl and can watch a screen that projects the image of the stage performer in near-realtime, I am aware that his or her body is actually in the same zip code I am.
    Anyway, it’s going to be a discussion point more and more moving forward, and one as a live performer myself, I am interested and not too put off by.
    I admire what the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersberg, Florida has pulled off; they have digitized an interactive Dali that is fairly realistic who speaks directly to viewers in his own, actual voice. There is an unmistakable “weird” quality about it, but since he WAS the king of Surrealism, it’s not necessarily a minus.

  3. A hologram of a performance that happened is in my mind, the cutting edge equivalent to watching old movies, especially ones where some of the actors have since died. It’s a recording, digitally remastered. I think using things like consent to pushback against this are contrived, and a form of luddism. No one pickets Old Yeller because the dog has died, and that doesn’t change when the dead actor is a human.

    What I don’t understand is how having Zappa turn into dental floss, regardless of whether he would have liked it, is materially different from Zombie Dean or Fisher, except perhaps in scale. Zappa, to the best of my knowledge, never turned into dental floss. Is there a point where producers have taken enough liberties with the target’s image that it ceases to be a recording and starts being something else?

    Food for thought…. Would a cartoon, where an animated figure was billed as a dead subject be unethical? If not, does the ethical line lie in whether or not the image “passes”? What if an actor was made up with prosthetic constructions a la Miss Doubtfire to the point where they absolutely, 100% look like the dead subject in order to continue filming after an actor has died? How different would the Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus have been if Heath Ledger hadn’t died? Furious 7 if Paul Walker hadn’t died? Phillip Seymour Hoffman in The Hunger Games? Oliver Reed in Gladiator? Bruce Lee in Game of Death? (Admission: I had to rely on Google for the last two)

    • On Zappa: I think it can be stipulated that nothing his kids did with Zappa’s image would be anything he objected to or would object to. He’s the exception that proves the rule. His art was cynicism, satire, surrealism and chaos. Using his own image in furtherance of his art seems completely reasonable.

    • Concert hologram projections are more akin to a movie theatre, but technology has supported playing back the experience in more diverse surroundings. This might just be a fad that quickly fades from popularity as soon as people discover that streaming recorded concerts with creative and multiple camera angles is more enjoyable than watching a replay where your viewpoint is subject to your position.

      From mentioning cartoons, my first thought was Calvin and Hobbes–recasting dead actors in new films is more akin to an artist pretending to be Bill Watterson and drawing new strips… It’s fan fiction to a whole different level. It’s nothing like reprinting Schultz’s Peanuts for a decade after his death.

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