Earlier this month, Roy Orbison began a new tour of America. Frank Zappa, according to his son Ahmet, will soon be kicking off a series of gigs in the US. And Amy Winehouse is all set to return to live performing next year.
What have all three performers got in common, apart from being musical heroes of mine? Well, for one thing, they are all dead.
Now, call me old-fashioned but I prefer live performances to be just that. Performances by musicians who are still alive. I know I am something of a dinosaur when it comes to such things but I tend, on the whole, to prefer human beings to posthumous digital creations.
I remember going to see the film Stardust at the old Clock cinema in Leeds back in the mid-1970s. It wasn’t a great movie but it made a half-decent stab at exposing the ludicrousness of the period’s sex-and-drugs-and-rock-’n’-roll excesses. Our anti-hero, played by David Essex, finds fame but not happiness and becomes a recluse. After he overdoses live on television, his manager – a slick turn by Adam Faith – protests: “You can’t die. I own half of you.”
It was a droll line, revealing the cynically exploitative nature of that branch of show business. Today, however, a pop star’s mere death need not get in the way of a lucrative career. To quote another great line I have stored away from an iconic TV series of that era – The Six Million Dollar Man – “Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We can make him better than he was.”
The gentlemen who run the music industry – and they are mostly men – have had, for some years now, the digital technology to create a dead celebrity hologram. And they haven’t hesitated to use it for financial gain.
Winehouse is the latest star to be posthumously digitalised. In 2019, accompanied by a live band and backing singers, Virtual Amy will begin a three-year tour which crosses the globe.
“Amy Winehouse has all the elements of being a great show,” declared Brian Becker, head of the Los Angeles-based firm Base, which is committed to resurrecting the late soul singer. “Her music and her life are being celebrated in multiple mediums. She’s iconic, she’s contemporary, yet her music appeals to all generations. She was beautiful and she was charismatic. And her life was dramatic.”
This is all true. And, as has already been demonstrated when Michael Jackson “performed” at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards and Tupac Shakur rapped on stage with Snoop Dogg and Dr Dre two years earlier, there is clearly a market for such entertainment.
This doesn’t stop it from being wrong.
The idea of bringing back deceased stars in this way is freaky, ghoulish, soulless, inauthentic and unethical. Indeed, the dead celebrity hologram industry is an indictment of our culture.
Two decades ago, responding to requests to perform with a holographic version of Duke Ellington, Prince said: “That’s the most demonic thing imaginable. Everything is as it is, and it should be. If I was meant to jam with Duke Ellington, we would have lived in the same age. That whole virtual reality thing, it really is demonic. And I am not a demon.”
I’m with Prince on this. Inevitably there has been an attempt to produce a 3D version of the Purple Rain singer – Justin Timberlake tried to set up a duo with the hologram at last year’s Super Bowl – but his devoted fans were having none of it.
I am a big fan of flesh-and-blood Amy. Virtual Amy I can do without. It is commendable that the money her family receives from the tour will provide support to people struggling with addiction but, really, there is no need to rebuild her. Or to perfect her; the LA company behind the tour want to showcase the “best version” of Winehouse, erasing from our collective memory her last ever gig when she slurred her lyrics.
But part of the genius of flesh-and-blood Amy was her knack of capturing the frailty of human existence, something a robotic version will never be able to replicate.
And, besides, she hated touring.