Holographic Pop Stars

Picture this, if you will. You’re sitting in the front row of a packed auditorium abuzz in the dark. Cued by the stage lights, Whitney Houston walks to her mark on stage near Christina Aguilera. She faces you and, eyes aglow, begins the first verse of “I Have Nothing,” as if she hasn’t been dead for four years.

Studio audience members at the season finale of “The Voice,” which aired last Monday, witnessed this uncanny performance that featured Christina Aguilera singing with a holographic Whitney Houston. However, editors of “The Voice” scrapped the footage because Pat Houston, the late diva’s sister-in-law and executor of her estate, decided the hologram was not fit to broadcast.

But Hologram USA, the tech company behind the discarded spectacle, won’t back down from the Whitney project so readily. Hologram USA is one of a few companies refining the art of digital resurrection and plans to launch a nationwide tour this year featuring Whitney’s hologram as the centerpiece. Whitney is just one of the latest in the company’s digital arsenal of patented entertainer data-ghosts. Billie Holiday, Buddy Holly, Liberace, Judy Garland and potentially Prince compose just some of the roster of hologram icons the company owns the rights to.

Acrovirt, a holo-tech company with similar aims, articulates the technology in existential terms on their Indiegogo page; partnered closely with the Quintanilla family and estate, Acrovirt plans to capture and convert Tejano music martyr Selena Quintanilla’s biological and psychological particulars into what they call her “digital essence,” an autonomous digital entity that acts and learns like its “human donor,” to tour nationally and bring their tech to the market.

Holograms of dead artists first punctured the public consciousness back in 2012, where Hologram USA rendered Tupac on stage with Snoop at Coachella, and rocketed back to headlines two years later at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards when a competing company called Pulse Evolution summoned the King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson, to dance. Controversy arose when Hologram USA sued Pulse for $10 million for allegedly infringing on patented technologies used to make Michael happen.

Promising to maintain Whitney’s “absolute authenticity,” Greek billionaire and Hologram USA’s CEO Alki David told Billboard that Whitney’s tour wouldn’t simply be a concert, but a celebratory narrative of her tragic life in theatrical detail, her history of drug addiction distilled to Vegas headliner.

And therein lies the rub. Although sold as elegy, the tour aims to capitalize on Whitney’s legacy by manipulating her total likeness, setting a precedent where a star’s handlers can continue to profit by exploiting memory. When you can literally program your star, a return on investments is almost guaranteed. The Michael Jackson lawsuit and Acrovirt’s insistence on infiltrating the marketplace proved that the logics of profit, marketability and patenting will rule the future of American holographic entertainment.

Of course, these endeavors happening stateside aren’t the first of their kind, at least in terms of technology and popular reception. How could anyone forget when Japanese phenomenon Hatsune Miku — arguably the first posthuman pop star — hit the States in 2011?

When Miku hit our shores, American media obsessed over her cipher body and regarded her as the holographic harbinger of the death of the pop star. What makes Miku a new media marvel is not that she’s a hologram singing the song of the end-of-times; rather, she represents the next logical step in the union of digital and pop cultures.

Social media has democratized music production and distribution, putting artists at the mercy of their droves of online fans. Miku’s iconoclastic non-existence is simply part of the collaborative, participatory momentum of Web 2.0, and takes its fan-centric ethos further. What’s revolutionary about Miku is that all of her songs are written by fans. Unlimited by traditional strictures, fans are collaborators with the opportunity to produce the media they consume.

With a name ripped straight from a techno-utopian novel, Japanese software company Crypton Future Media released the Hatsune Miku program in 2007, the third in a suite of Vocaloids — kawaii avatars that sing through voice-synthesizing software. She was received with overwhelming positivity and an outpouring of creativity. Crypton licensed Miku under Creative Commons, empowering artists to fantasize using her likeness. Vocaloid software is installed on hundreds of thousands of PCs globally and guarantees that the fans keep the rights to any songs they produce. Crypton also launched a social media site dedicated for Vocaloid media production where fans collaboratively write songs in probably the most dynamic open-source pop music experiment to date.

While data-compiling tech companies like Hologram USA bank on cults of nostalgia and grief for fallen celebrities, Crypton and Miku enthusiasts everywhere are nurturing a more lateral, open-source media ecosystem and dismantling the preferred top-down mode of artistic production that idolizes winner-take-all, patent-privileging fame.