Only Holograms Left Alive

A hologram ghost is among the top 10 grossing touring artists of all time.

My Google alert for “holograms” has, for most of this year, been taken over with news related the Jem and the… movie (not complaining!) And the names of celebrities given Pepper’s ghost treatment continue to grow ever more surprising:

Mario Vargas Llosa!

(Yes, he is still alive.)

Llosa, whose brother-in-law runs a hologram production company is a rare example of a living public figure represented as a hologram. Dolly Parton uses this technology at Dollywood but only to play the role of the “Ghost of Christmas Past,” at her theme park’s production of A Christmas Carol. It is spectral. It is too uncanny to reproduce the living this way. Even the company that built the famous Tupac hologram refers to this product line as “Digital Resurrection,” explaining the “end doesn’t have to be the end, digital resurrection is just the beginning.”

Simon Reynolds, in his 2011 book Retromania, pointed out how Amazon warehouses led to back catalogues dominating best seller lists. Amazon had physical space to accommodate any title. Name recognition (The Rolling Stones formed more than fifty years ago, and have received at least that many years of press) and algorithmic recommender systems, in addition to trends like anniversary editions to revive and repackage old material as a new release, mean that a recording artist’s longevity lets it compete with emerging artists season after season. “Let’s assume that approximately the same amount of great music is produced each year…That would mean each new year’s harvest of brilliance must compete with the past’s ever more mountainous heap of greatness,” he writes.

Years ago, local taste and suggestions from store clerks might have resulted in more diversity among various top selling artists lists. Recently I walked past a record store in Park Slope with a chalk sign out front announcing new releases from Taylor Swift and the Foo Fighters. It was sad to see even one of the scattered few remaining brick and mortar physical music shops failing to deliver more than what algorithms might do if I typed “new record releases” in a blank white Google search bar.

The Michael Jackson hologram, as part of The Immortal World Tour, a Cirque du Soleil production, is now among the top 10 biggest grossing tours of all time. His estate has earned hundreds of millions of dollars since his death, a figure that invites perverse incentives in an already notoriously crooked industry.

Maybe one day Michael Jackson’s ghost will duet with Rachmaninoff’s ghost. A hologram has yet to perform with a player piano “live” but there’s no reason that won’t happen if tickets might be sold. The composer left piano rolls that in 1998 were recorded with a modified Bösendorfer piano set to pedal and hit keys to the weight of his hands. Rachmaninoff’s ghost even plays live. He accompanied Joshua Bell at a concert in 2009.

A venue in Australia, where a reproducing piano recently performed the piano rolls, even wrote about the composer in the present tense: “Rachmaninoff presents an unquestionable charm in his live performance, often sounding as though he is improvising when in fact each piece is played with absolute precision and the keenest attention to detail.”

Perhaps these holograms are a manufactured normalcy field that could relax bioethical concerns about human cloning. Anyway, Beyonce’s vast digital archive — described in GQ as “a temperature-controlled digital-storage facility that contains virtually every existing photograph of her, starting with the very first frames taken of Destiny’s Child, the ‘90s girl group she once fronted; every interview she’s ever done; every video of every show she’s ever performed; every diary entry she’s ever recorded while looking into the unblinking eye of her laptop” — makes more sense in contrast.

There’s no way to control your image after death but anyone rocketing to superstardom today must prepare to sacrifice all of it. Any trace of what originally drew us to their work can be rewritten in time. They will live on as singing paper dolls to rearrange and position as culture desires.