It is the year 2035, and as a 41-year-old, I stand next to Dazz Jr. in the new United Soldier Center (built in 2030 to bring all Chicago sports to the same place) and look toward the stage. “Daddy, why are we here?” says my son.
“We’re here to see Queen, kiddo. One of the best bands of all time,” I answer, looking down to make sure he’s wearing his Night at the Opera shirt. I ruffle his hair. “This was one of Dad’s favorite bands growing up.”
The lights go down and the crowd below us (we’re up on the second level) begins to scream and cheer. All is dark, and then, drifting through the silence, come the words: “Is this the real life . . .” More screams. The song continues and a lone spotlight illuminates the center of the stage. Rising up from a motorized platform is a shadowed figure bent over a microphone stand. The cheers escalate. “. . . look up to the skies and see . . .”
“I’m just a poor boy!” The stage illuminates all at once, and there they are. Queen. All of them. Dazz Jr. points down to the figure swaying and crooning center stage. The lights behind him are bright, but he himself seems to shine in an almost unnatural way. “Who’s that, Daddy?” asks my son.
I swallow hard and clasp his shoulder. “That’s Freddie Mercury.”
Last Sunday night, the Billboard Music Awards featured a Michael Jackson hologram. Watching the playback, it was pretty astounding. For four minutes, the King of Pop was onstage, dancing and singing and moonwalking to perfectly choreographed pyrotechnics and light shows. It was like we had Jackson back among us, and it was really neat, but a dark precedence lurked just behind the curtain. If we can bring people back like this, what does it mean for death in popular culture?
Back in 2011, the Tupac hologram appeared at Coachella, and in ways we probably have not yet fully seen, the world of entertainment changed forever. The people at Digital Domain Media Group Inc. showed us in five short minutes that death, after some clever programming and tricky light work, was not the end. With enough technology and enough money, there was nothing to stop this new generation of consumers from bringing someone back into the world, albeit in a flat, intangible way. At the time, it was exciting, but now, some might say the idea is taking a dark turn.
There are two especially worrisome examples of this modern treatment of entertainment deaths. The first, of course, is the Michael Jackson hologram we saw on Sunday, but the second is Philip Seymour Hoffman. After the actor’s death earlier this year, the producers of the Hunger Games franchise announced that instead of replacing Hoffman with another actor, they will simply render him digitally into the final two movies. On the surface, it seems like a good idea — you keep your continuity, you do not have to write his character out of the series, you can keep your current script — everybody’s happy . . . but are they? The idea of a computer-generated person just feels wrong. There is no other way to put it — the idea just doesn’t pass the Eye Test. Something about it intrinsically doesn’t feel right, but why?
Imagine being Seymour-Hoffman’s mother and father and going to see the image of your son in a Hunger Games movie, or being Jackson’s family and watching him onstage last weekend. Sure, it might be an emotional thing to experience, but the fact remains that what you are seeing is still not your son; it is a computer’s representation of your son. In that light, the CGI and the holograms seem little more than glorified home videos, and you can watch those videos as many times as you want, but that doesn't bring someone back. An image on a screen or on a stage is no replacement for a presence.
Take another step back and look at this from the view of the average pop culture consumer. If you were at Coachella in 2011, can you come out of that show saying that you saw ‘Pac in concert? Not really. That version of Tupac could not freestyle or bounce off of Snoop Dogg or slap hands with the crowd — he was just an image. Same with MJ on Sunday night — that was not MJ, and although this feels clear now, what about when these holograms grow more common, more popular? The leap to “I saw (fill in the blank) in-person” might not seem so far in a few years. Northwestern students could be lounging on the lakefill at Dillo Day watching Jimi Hendrix light his guitar on fire. Notorious B.I.G. could pack the United Center from top to bottom. Kurt Cobain could cameo at Riotfest, with the real Dave Grohl on drums for good measure. The stars we love would never truly leave us, and while that might be reassuring, it might also mean that we really start to take these losses for granted. If we can have a hologram of anyone we want, does it really matter when we can't have the real thing?
Naturally, we would jump at the chance to see all of these legendary too-young-to-die artists, but the rise of holograms might cheapen their deaths. Imagine if, in this hypothetical hologram age, that we lost a famous young artist. Might it seem a little less impactful to the average listener or viewer, knowing that we would still be able to experience them in-person? If their death was not the end of our ability to experience them, technologically-speaking, would their death matter anymore? Imagine another scenario where a music festival, like Coachella, is filling in the spots for a hologram band. How do they decide who to hologram? What makes someone’s resurrection more valuable than another person’s? I do not want to think about a world where we have to draw a line between a Keith Moon hologram and a Jimmy Sullivan hologram — it isn’t right. People are still people, and when we start to blur the lines between life and death, we might be in danger of losing sight of that.
On the flipside of all of this, though, is an ageless question. It is one we might all have to answer one day, as sound continues to evolve and the concert experience continues to expand. At the heart of this whole debate lies a simple query: Is the legacy of the music worth it?
As the final, soaring notes of “Radio Ga Ga” reverberate through the United Soldier Center, I cannot stop the chills from shooting up and down my back. I shiver. I look down at my son — he’s clapping along with Mercury. I see his mouth try to catch up the words. “You had your time, you had the power, you’ve yet to have your finest hour . . .” He glances up and notices me looking off and away. “Daddy — what’s wrong?”
I shake it off and look at him. “Nothing, kiddo. You ready to go?” He looks back at the stage and sees Freddie Mercury fading away. They all disappear together — May, Deacon, Taylor — they dissolve into the air and into the silence. He nods, and we head out. He hums those last few bars as we walk.
Out in the parking lot, Dazz Jr. asks his last question of the night. “That was really fun, Daddy. Could we see them again sometime?” I stop, not sure what to say. After a moment, I crouch down and look him right in the eye. He looks back at me, all star-struck and wondrous and filled with discovery, just standing there innocently. I bite my lip and look back at all the people streaming out of the arena, talking and laughing and cheering. I turn back to my son and stand up. He takes my hand and we keep walking.
“Maybe one day, kiddo. Maybe one day.”