Ghosts on Stage

When I was about seven years old, my Mom took my brother and I to Florida to spend some time with our maternal grandmother. It was our second visit to see her, the first being a few years before after the sudden death of my father. We kids were giddy with excitement because we’d been promised a trip to Epcot. In preparation, my Mom let me scan through the brochure and I read about an exhibit that allowed one’s “deepest desires to become real” (or some similarly vague copy) through the power of creativity and technology. (I’m fairly certain that I read about Journey into Imagination.)

In my 7-year-old brain, I immediately thought that the exhibit had some super-futuristic computer that would tap into my mind and create an apparition of my dad. I really wanted to see him—certainly an animated lizard and the magic of Disney could bring him back in some form.

Either I said something to my mother and she let me down gently or I eventually figured out on my own that science wasn’t quite there yet. But a little corner of my heart is still pissed off that there was no way to bring my father back, even for a moment.

It appears this kind of magic has arrived. News outlets and Twitter have blown up with the news that Tupac Shakur, who was gunned down in 1996, performed at Coachella this weekend. The late rapper was brought back thanks to some deep pockets, a bunch of visual effect artists, and to perhaps serve as a money-making optical illusion.


Digital Domain’s chief creative officer Ed Ulbrich drove home the fact that the hologram was a fresh creation and not simply a projection of found footage. “To create a completely synthetic human being is the most complicated thing that can be done,” Ulbrich said. “This is not archival footage. This is an illusion. This is the beginning. [Dr.] Dre has a massive vision for this.”

“Synthetic” is the key word here. The brain, muscles, lungs, guts, bones—and soul, if you’re into that kind of thing—that made Tupac move and dance and create have been still for almost 16 years. Tupac Shakur is dead. (Or at least way off the grid, like Elvis.) The “new” material he’s released since his death are edited demos and recordings he made. Before his death. Putting those tracks into the mouth of a video projection is only a neat parlor trick.

Why do it, aside from the reason that it’s possible to do so? Well, there’s money that could be made.

Representatives for Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg plan to discuss logistics for a tour involving the two performers and the virtual Tupac, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

What’s a piddling $100,000-$400,000 to create an illusion of a dead man when that money can be made back several times over on tour?

It is a cool trick. But it’s still a trick, just like the one played on me by my own naivete combined with a well-written tour pamphlet when I was seven. If there was some way I could have seen a computerized version of my father at Epcot, what would I have gained? Perhaps a moment’s joy, but the sorrow of knowing it wasn’t the person I loved so much would have crushed my little kid heart.

It’s the same thing with Tupac, or Notorious B.I.G, or Amy Winehouse, or Kurt Cobain (please keep this technology away from Courtney Love, everyone) or any one of the dozens of artists who died at the height of their popularity. The mind, body, and soul that created the art that moved so many millions of people is gone. A visual rendering made to look alive only reiterates that loss.


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Filed under Music, Pop culture

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