I often joke that the only way you’ll ever get me to part with a couple hundred bucks for a concert ticket is if someone figures out a way to bring Ian Curtis back from the grave and put the original Joy Division back on tour.
Cloning technology being where it is — and constrained for now, at least publicly, by certain ethical boundaries — I’ve probably got a few years left before I really have to eat my words. But we’re on the path. The holograms are massing, and they’re coming to play your town.
This Sunday, a resurrected Roy Orbison will take the stage at the Sony Centre in Toronto as a high-tech spectre fronting a live orchestra in a touring production created by Las Vegas company BASE Hologram dubbed In Dreams: Roy Orbison in Concert.
The tour website describes the show as “a 16-song hit parade” and “a full-on live experience that will have you singing along to the most tenderly charismatic rock pioneer ever,” promising that “between songs you will clap your hands numb as he interacts with the other musicians and reacts to you in the audience.” Tickets range from $75 to $205 — for a really close-up look at the effect — with a handful of seats remaining at press time.
But how “full-on” is a “live experience” that requires the deployment of what has been described as “a military-grade laser” to create the illusion that a performer who died in 1988 is walking the stage again? And doesn’t a “hologram tour” by a dead rock ’n’ roller run completely counter to the point of live music in the first place?
Live music is ephemeral, just as life is ephemeral. That’s why live music is magical. You’re there in the moment, enjoying that moment for as long as it lasts, and then that moment is gone forever. You’ll have your memories and your “I saw Amy Winehouse in Austin when Back to Black was just about to crack” stories as long as you live, but you’ll never get that moment back. That’s why those of us who like going to shows keep going to them. We’re chasing those moments.
Winehouse is apparently next, by the way. The British singer died far too young in 2011, but now BASE Hologram is working with her father to put her back on the road with a live band of her own in 2019.
Even ABBA, whose members are still very much alive, are ready to let four holograms do the work for them onstage in the near future, too. Expect to see those digital “ABBA-tars” make their debut singing a new track, “I Still Have Faith in You,” on an NBC tribute special in December. Can’t wait.
- A digital likeness of the late Ronnie James Dio unveiled at Germany’s Wacken metal festival in 2016 appears ready to hit the road imminently.
- Two other U.S. companies at the forefront of the nascent holographic-entertainment industry, Hologram USA and Pulse Evolution, currently hold the rights to bring the likes of Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Billie Holiday and Selena back to life as they see fit. If it’s proven that money can be made from these early holo-tours, we will soon be inundated. A virtual zombie army of dead entertainers will be upon us.
Indeed, what used to be a one-off novelty — hologram Tupac playing Coachella in 2012! hologram Michael Jackson performing at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards! — risks becoming the norm for touring shows.
Obviously, the prospect is attractive to anyone who has a stake in exploiting a deceased artist’s legacy. Their “estates” — usually presided over by family members like Mitch Winehouse or Alex Orbison, who’s been a tireless champion of BASE Hologram’s efforts to bring his dad’s music to a new audience — can theoretically watch the licensing cheques roll in until the end of time. Once the 28-date Roy Orbison hologram tour wraps, for instance, it’s for “the first-ever hologram residency” in Branson, Mo., a town that, ironically, was once lampooned in The Simpsons as an entertainment destination populated predominantly by entertainers thought to be dead.
Meantime, record labels have a new way of monetizing their catalogues at a time when ever fewer people are buying records and promoters are guaranteed headliners who will show up and get the job done on clockwork time without complaining about the catering or chucking a whiskey bottle at anyone backstage, presumably at a fraction of the cost required to bring in human performers, to boot.
It’s not much of a leap to imagine a future moment where we can all beam a holographic performance by Elvis or Michael Jackson or David Bowie into our living rooms, picking and choosing the exact era of their careers we’d prefer to be represented. Farther down the road we might be able to implant memories of seeing Pink Floyd live at Pompeii like the virtual vacationers in Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.”
Is that a good thing? While I’ve found the whole dead-celeb hologram thing immensely creepy since a crude likeness of Tupac Shakur turned up to perform with Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre at the Coachella festival in 2012, I will concede that watching a really well-done hologram of Roy Orbison perform “Crying” in front of a troupe of living musicians could be really neat. And the rise of hologram artists like Hatsune Miku and Lil Miquela who don’t actually exist in human form at all does seem to herald the medium’s future possibilities as an art form unto itself, an art form that might stand on a foundation more solid than the novelty value of seeing dead singers (or ABBA) reanimated onstage.
Part of me, too, is tempted to view the embrace of holographic entertainment as a subconscious cultural acknowledgement of our place in a reality that such bold thinkers as theoretical physicist David Bohm and neurophysiologist Karl Pribram have posited is actually holographic in nature. It’s a complicated subject — Michael Talbot’s thoughtful 1991 classic The Holographic Universe is a good place to start — but there has lately been some mathematical evidence to support some of these concepts. There’s a head-spinning amount of jargon such as “black branes,” “boundary worlds” and “Anti-de Sitter five-space times the five sphere” involved in the reasoning, but string theorist Juan Maldacena’s calculations have led him to believe, as Brian Greene notes in The Hidden Reality, that “string theory within the bulk of this space-teim shape is identical to a quantum field theory living on its boundary” — or, in other words, that our reality could be a holographic projection onto a surface of another reality that is indistinguishable from that reality in every way.
Yes, we could now be thrilling to the act of watching holograms perform “live” for us inside what is, in effect, a giant hologram. Suddenly the idea of someone cloning Ian Curtis for the stage a few years from now doesn’t seem all that far-fetched.
Ben Rayner is the Star’s music critic and based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @ihateBenRayner