Are holograms a creepy way to honor fallen icons like Michael Jackson?

There was a telltale waver in the beginning, perhaps unintended, that served as a signal that Michael Jackson’s singing, dancing hologram was, in fact, a digitized representation of the legendary singer. On Sunday night at the Billboard Music Awards, the image trembled as though it was superimposed on the surface of a glass of water that’s been moved ever so slightly. After a few wobbles, it stabilized. Phew. He was lifelike, all right, but just enough. It appears the hologram’s creators chose to render Jackson as he looked sometime between “Bad” and “Dangerous” — and let’s be honest, they had more than a few variations of “the King of Pop” to choose from. The aesthetics recalled the “Remember the Time” video: lots of gold and similar lighting.


Jackson Hologram at the Billboard Music Awards. (YouTube)

The effect was quite realistic, though at times just jerky enough that Jackson’s hologram more closely resembled his representation in the Nintendo Wii game “Michael Jackson: The Experience” than the man himself. In fact, it was actually slightly less realistic than the Tupac hologram that appeared at Coachella in 2012 (which was actually a projection, not a hologram), but the response was a little different:

 

Both images debuted for audiences who weren’t necessarily fans of Tupac or Michael. Most of the Billboard awards’ audience were too young to appreciate Jackson in his prime, which explains how you end up with a show in which Miley Cyrus headlined a Beatles tribute.

Tupac at Coachella also seemed a strange choice, though the rapper grew more popular in death. Coachella draws a wide swath of artists and fans, not a dedicated hip-hop audience. For the most part, Tupac went over well, and people responded positively. It was such an unexpected novelty, and Tupac had been dead for 16 years when his hologram made its Coachella appearance — much longer than Jackson, whose death in 2009 still smarts for his more dedicated fans. Shakur’s hologram performed a song everyone already knew with Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre, and so benefited from the powerful draw of nostalgia. At least you could rap along with the slain MC.

Jackson, on the other hand, was resurrected to promote posthumously-released work, and Billboard hyped his “special appearance.” Once a lawsuit revealed the tightly-kept secret, producers didn’t have too many alternatives. Jackson sang a new song called “Slave to the Rhythm” — not even “Love Never Felt So Good,” the lead single from “Xscape” that at least has had time to settle into the collective psyche.

Jackson had a reputation as an obsessive musical perfectionist. Would he be okay with music and performances that seem to be merely Michael Jackson-ish? One wonders whether Epic Records chief executive L.A. Reid would send Jackson’s hologram to work the talk show circuit if it weren’t for the risk of such a move being interpreted as a tasteless, naked grab for attention and record sales.

The Jackson hologram raises some questions: Is this where we’re headed? Long after Madonna is gone (or perhaps, as with Jackson’s hologram, not that long), can we expect to see the Material Girl performing “Holiday” in a Grammys tribute, suspended in digital formaldehyde, just the way she was in 1983? And if so, what good are music videos? It’s not even clear that holograms work as a gimmick for live audiences. To wit:

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Soraya Nadia McDonald covers arts, entertainment and culture for the Washington Post with a focus on race and gender issues.
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