Michael Jackson (1958-2009), King of Pop, was resurrected for a special performance at the Billboard Music Awards in May 2014. Unfortunately, he did not rise in the flesh but as a high tech hologram, and not for the first time. Jackson’s holographic image also appears in the Cirque du Soleil show Michael Jackson: ONE that currently resides in Las Vegas. Yet both holograms differ substantially. Most peculiar of the two was Jackson’s Billboard hologram, presented on a stage decorated with semi-religious elements. Seeing Jackson as such, ‘performing’ from beyond the grave, evokes questions about immortality and the technical means to achieve it.
Beyond the illusion
In ONE the digital projection of the King of Pop is convincingly used to underline the legendary Jackson anthem Man in the Mirror (1988). At the end of the show, which celebrates Jackson’s multifaceted talents as an artist, Jackson’s lifelike hologram appears out of a cluster of stars to interact with the Cirque performers.
The holographic image appears on stage to emphasize the lyrics of the song, challenging the audience to look beyond the illusion and the perceived image of the artist, into the mirror of each individual’s own life. The woman or man in the mirror is the only person who can choose to become ‘one’ with the vulnerable, the poor and the needy.
In this way, Jackson’s hologram makes sense and adds depth to the Cirque performance. For those with a more philosophical mindset, Jackson’s hologram also reflects the star’s mortality, evoking questions about the fragility of life and the hollow shell of fortune and fame.
Jackson’s latest hologram at the Billboard Music Awards, however, is a different story. According to a spokesperson for the Michael Jackson Estate, the digital version of Jackson was, technically speaking, not a hologram but a virtual Michael Jackson, created with the latest technology. Frank Patterson, CEO of Pulse Evolution who created the virtual version of Jackson, prefers to call it ‘an illusion’. Hologram, virtual MJ or illusion, the purpose stays the same: the King of Pop was resurrected at the Billboard Music Awards to sell his posthumous dance track Slave to the Rhythm.
Seeing Jackson ‘alive’, singing and dancing – even moonwalking – with a group of highly stylized dancers brought tears of joy to some in the audience. The King of Pop was back, performing on stage as if he had never died. The week after the Billboard show, though, comments on Jackson’s Facebook page – counting 75 million friends – ranged from “It was awesome!” and “For that brief moment MJ was alive again” to “His career is now a figment of someone’s imagination” and “This had nothing to do with the magic and energy Michael Jackson was all about. Please stop selling out his legacy.”
Similarly mixed were the responses of Jackson’s family members and professionals who had worked with him during his lifetime. Jackie Jackson, Michael’s eldest brother who was present at the Billboard Music Awards, said after the performance: “It was beautiful, unbelievable. I thought he was there for real. I got teary eyed a little bit, just watching my brother. Michael would give thumbs up, he would have loved it.”
But not everybody agrees. Brad Sundberg, for example, who was Jackson’s sound engineer and technical director for nearly two decades, posted a tongue-in-cheek comment on Facebook that read “1983 called and they want their hologram machine back” – adding on a more seriously note: “It was a very odd, perhaps sad spectacle last night on many levels. I wanted to like it, but it left me cold. Michael was real, his voice and talent were genuine. In the studio we didn’t generate something that wasn’t there, we captured something that was beautiful on its own. Last night was just make-believe.”
Was it just innocent make-believe or was Michael Jackson being posthumously exploited for the sake of ratings and album sales? After all, the Billboard hologram was put together to promote Jackson’s new album Xscape – currently number one in 52 countries.
The title of the album leaves room for speculation as well. From what or whom did Jackson want to escape? From himself? His fans? The paparazzi? Or from being controlled, as Jackson’s song lyrics seem to suggest: “Everywhere I turn, no matter where I look / The system’s in control, it’s all ran by the book / I’ve got to get away so I can free my mind / Escape is what I need, away from electric eyes.” If this is the case, Jackson predicted the one thing that he could not escape from, not even in death.
When taking a closer look at the performance of ‘Jackson’ during the Billboard Music Awards, some oddities become visible. The first observation – and perhaps the most annoying technical flaw – is that Jackson’s hologram seems to suffer from an incidental loss of frame rate, which becomes visible during fast movements. His image is too ‘cut out’ from its surroundings and virtual background to maintain the illusion of a living person. Rather than a human being made of flesh and blood, Jackson looks like a very well developed game character or a computerized impersonator.
Secondly, there are some strange stage elements. The frame that surrounds the stage is decorated with artefacts that resemble golden suns, stylized in an almost Egyptian manner, with the sunbeams radiating as in the drawings of a child. Interestingly, these sun-like artefacts resemble the monstrances used in the Roman Catholic liturgy, but without the cross. In this form of liturgy, the consecrated bread is put in a highly decorated silver or gold vessel for the purpose of worship by the faithful. The consecrated bread is visible behind glass and is often surrounded by ‘sunbeams’. The reason for the rich decoration of these vessels is that Roman Catholics believe that the consecrated bread is Christ himself.
The Billboard stage setting becomes even more peculiar when adding the emblem that is centred at the top of the stage frame, towering high above the audience. It is Jackson’s personal logo: the letters M and J topped by a crown. For the Billboard show, the logo is made of gold – or something that looks like gold – and is set in a corona of sunbeams. Again, this rings a bell for Catholics, who are all too familiar with religious medals embossed with the initials of Jesus and his mother Mary.
Pretending to be Jesus
It is not the first time that Jackson’s performance – if that is what the hologram can be called – includes religious symbols or uses religious imagery. Earlier in Jackson’s career, in 1996, an incident occurred during the BRIT Awards. When Jackson, fully dressed in white, performed Earth Song with a group of children, British musician Jarvis Cocker jumped on stage in protest of the performance and waggled his bottom in Jackson’s direction. Jackson, outwardly unaffected, ignored the disruption and continued his performance, ending with one of his signature poses: head up and arms horizontally outstretched.
When questioned about his actions, Cocker explained on BBC1: “He was pretending to be Jesus – I’m not religious but I think, as a performer myself, the idea of someone pretending to have the power of healing is just not right. Rock stars have got big enough egos without pretending to be Jesus – that was what got my goat, that one particular thing.”
Was Jackson deliberately presenting himself as a messianic figure? This question has never been answered. As a Christian, he must have been aware of the religious image he evoked, including the risk of being accused of pompous self-deification. An alternative question is if Jackson’s latest holographic image is being used to create a type of newly risen Christ. Despite the unusual stage setting, this seems unlikely. Jackson was big enough in life to last posthumously without artificial pop-ups in semi-religious settings.
Is there any other purpose that can be assigned to Jackson’s holograms? Certainly. The Billboard ‘resurrection’ helps to reflect on the topic of eternal life and the technical means to achieve it – or not.
Search for immortality
Man has always sought to gain immortality, for example through the search for the Garden of Eden, the mythical Philosopher’s Stone or the Fountain of Eternal Youth that the Greek historian Herodotus wrote about. All of these are manifestations of man’s attempt to overcome the greatest of all barriers, the frontier of his contingence: death. In the past, man could gain some form of immortality through music, writing and art.
In more recent times, immortality is attempted by means of audio and video taping. Authors, singers and thinkers can be seen and heard in our times, even when their physical bodies are long gone; yet they live on in our digital era. Now the question is: is the digital revolution capable of going even further? To ‘save’ our ‘souls’, so that we can live forever?
In 2013, British game developer The Creative Assembly immortalized gamer James Payne in Total War. Payne was a passionate player who died of cancer at the age of 24. The developer ‘cloned’ Payne, who now lives on (forever) as a computer generated Roman commander.
Modern digital technology, as some enthusiasts claim, will be able to ‘conserve’ the essence of human beings by uploading their ‘codes’ to a server, thus creating eternal (digital) life. The complications of such technology are almost unfathomable.
The game Master Reboot (2013) tries to philosophize about this topic. In the near future, the game narrative explains, a mysterious company called ‘Mysteri’ will offer people a chance to upload their memories in the so-called ‘Soul Cloud’. When these people die – that is: when their physical bodies have died – they will live on forever by means of their own memories. And relatives can log in to the account of their deceased loved ones to relive all those happy memories.
The problem the game tries to formulate is the ‘status’ of the uploaded memories. The game suggests that the deceased Soul Cloud user is forever trapped in his or her own memories, forced to relive every inch of his or her lifetime in an eternal limbo. The game itself wonders if the Soul Cloud is indeed the heaven that Mysteri claims it to be, or if it is more like a purgatory-without-end.
Another problem of the Soul Cloud is that no real interaction can take place between the ‘memory’ of the user and the visiting relative. Everything is set in stone. The only option is reliving the past, without hope of change and without a newly developing future.
A second issue that Master Reboot puts forward is the question of ownership. When someone has uploaded his or her memories to the Soul Cloud and physically passes away, who is the owner of these memories? Not the original creator, because he or she has passed away. Not the ‘essence’ in the Soul Cloud, because ‘it’ cannot make decisions in situations it has not encountered before. Is the owner perhaps Mysteri, the company that owns the servers on which the memories are hosted?
The same question applies to the hologram of the King of Pop. Who ‘owns’ Michael Jackson now that he is physically gone? Who decides what he ‘sings’, how he ‘dances’ and when he ‘performs’? The answer lies with the Michael Jackson Estate. The Estate, run by entertainment lawyer John Branca and music executive John McClain, decides when, how and if Jackson performs from beyond the grave. Whether this is done to promote Jackson’s legacy or to serve the mighty dollar – or both – is a question of integrity that only the Estate can answer.
In any case, Jackson himself does not have anything to say about his posthumous life in the music industry. That makes it easier to understand why some say that Jackson has become a slave, and not just ‘to the rhythm’.
Finally, let’s not forget that, although the Jackson hologram may have brought back the King of Pop for a brief moment in time, no real interaction with the virtual image is possible. The computer operating the hologram can only render what is set in its memory, either by means of the photographs and video fragments that have been fed to it, or by means of a completely new animation. In life’s harsh reality, Jackson 2.0 is as dead as the inimitable Jackson 1.0 has been for five years. There is no resurrection, only illusion.
© Annemarie Latour and Frank G. Bosman
Publication: this article was first published on the blog of cultural theologian Frank G. Bosman on June 11, 2014.