Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi!: This Tupac Shakur hologram is freaking me out

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The stage darkens, and a hush falls over the crowd. Suddenly a figure rises from the stage floor, a shirtless man with sagging jeans, bathed in an eerie white light. He casually surveys the crowd, saunters to the front of the stage, microphone in hand. After profanely greeting the audience, he launches into two of his most well-known songs, and is even joined onstage by Snoop Dogg for a duet. As the final song ends, the figure leaves the stage to the roar of adoring fans.

Sounds like a typical concert? Perhaps, but it boasts a major difference: the figure is not real. In fact, the performer died over 15 years ago.

This scenario actually occurred April 15, 2012, during the annual Coachella music festival. While the event always closes with a major headliner, this time the star was actually a so-called “hologram,” an optical illusion that virtually resurrected Tupac Shakur, the rapper gunned down in his prime in 1996. A combination of computer animation and an 1800s magic trick/optical illusion entitled “Pepper’s Ghost,” the special effects created a lifelike image of Shakur who performed “Hail Mary” and “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted,” the latter a duet with Snoop Dogg. Yes, Snoop Dogg strutted onstage and traded rhymes with the virtual Shakur.

Judging from comments on YouTube and the audience’s enthusiastic reaction at the show, the elaborate illusion served its purpose: to shock and entertain a jaded, tech-savvy generation of music fans. But the event triggers important questions: Just because the technology is there, does that mean it should necessarily be used? What ethical issues does it raise? And most importantly, does it fly in the face of what live music is all about?

Presumably Shakur’s family granted permission for the company, AV Concepts, to use his likeness. However, would Shakur himself have agreed to this stunt? Obviously he is unable to speak for himself which makes him (and any deceased celebrity) seemingly fair game. After Coachella’s success, Dr. Dre announced plans to tour with the hologram; shortly after, Jackie Jackson expressed interest in he and his reunited brothers touring with a virtual Michael Jackson next year.

Who’s next: Elvis Presley? Frank Sinatra? Whitney Houston? How would any of these artists really feel about being turned into what are essentially optical illusions?

Watching the Coachella clip, it’s alarming to see the audience shouting, clapping, and waving at a hologram, something that is literally all smoke and mirrors. They are cheering an image. Snoop Dogg interacts with a two-dimensional projected animation. In other words, none of this is real.

Instead, concerts are all about interaction between the performer and audience, and all the imperfections — a missed note here, a flubbed lyric there. The give-and-take between the artist and crowd serves an important function for both parties: the crowds’ screams of approval at a fiery guitar solo, the singer holding a note just a bit longer to impress the audience, the sound of the crowd stomping on the floor, begging for just one more encore, and the lead performer accepting flowers and signing autographs.

All of these elements comprise the ultimate concert experience, and inspire artists to play or sing to their greatest ability. None of these experiences can be duplicated with a hologram, as they require living beings.

Returning to the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Presley once said: “A live concert to me is exciting because of all the electricity that is generated in the crowd and on stage. It’s my favorite part of the business, live concerts.” The Shakur optical illusion violates all those principles, and utilizing holograms robs artists who cannot speak for themselves of their voices and dignity.

Ultimately, such trickery deprives audiences of the very human and imperfectly perfect experience of hearing live music.

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