Why Can't We Let Dead Musicians Be Dead?



Michael Jackson's hologram doppelganger at this year's Billboard Music Awards.
Recently you may have seen Michael Jackson on television, despite the fact that Michael Jackson has been dead for five years now. Through the use of hologram technology, his corpse has essentially been dug up and plastered on our TV screens, with herky-jerky movements and backing music crafted posthumously from antique scrapped recordings of the man's voice.

Freddie Mercury showed up at Queen's musical We Will Rock You in London. Tupac showed up at Coachella. Ol' Dirty Bastard and Eazy-E at Rock the Bells. It seems like this is where our society is headed into the future, and it raises an interesting question about us: Why can't we let the dead just be dead?

Of course, we've been doing this sort of thing for decades. If it wasn't literal denials of the deaths of Tupac and Elvis Presley, both of whom have been "spotted" living out secret lives beyond the grave in small towns around America, then it was the idea of the posthumous album.

It's fair enough to craft a posthumous album when there's something to work with, as in the case of Queen and Freddie Mercury's Made in Heaven, which was composed from directions left behind by Mercury who was working on the album when he died. There's something respectable about that, in that it honors the wishes of the dead.

On the other hand, more often than not posthumous albums are created from scraps of material swept up off the cutting-room floor or picked out of studio garbage, making lackluster albums from material the artists knew wasn't good enough to be on an album in the first place. Take the aforementioned Michael Jackson record, this year's Xscape, which is clearly scraping the bottom of the barrel for MJ leftovers from which to conjure up an album.

These sorts of moves have always been crass, but begrudgingly accepted any time an artist dies. Sometimes they even turn out pretty well. It seems like Johnny Cash's output hasn't suffered any in quality or quantity since his death.

But the recent hologram obsession is taking American refusal to accept death to a new, nauseating low. Whereas the posthumous records may be disgraceful in some ways, especially when tampered with endlessly, they at least have some basis in the wishes of the artist. After all, Jackson at some point recorded those scraps, even if the resulting song sounds nothing like what he probably imagined in life.

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The holograms are another matter entirely. It's using the likeness of the dead to perform movements and actions that they never did and possibly never would have in life. Would Jackson have plotted out that performance at the Billboard Music Awards, or would he have found it beneath his exceptionally high standards? No one can ever know, but we still see "him" doing it, because someone used his image to do it.

This sort of resurrection is tantamount to putting words in the mouth of the dead. It's like using a sound-alike to record new songs and releasing them under the deceased artist's name. It's like painting a fair imitation of a Picasso and signing it in his own name and handwriting.

It's just a little bit sick. It raises ethical quandaries all over the place, but more importantly, it shows our inability to let go. We are a society that struggles with the idea of our own mortality, and we refuse to let our stars suffer their inevitable fate.

We refuse to see death as a fact of life, and instead work as hard as possible to prevent it by ludicrous resurrections like this. But death is as much a part of any human being's life as change is, and these two insurmountable forces cannot be bargained with.

As painful as it might be for fans, we have to accept that our idols will fall, just as every human being who has ever lived will. We have to accept that they aren't coming back. And in accepting that reality, we need to stop this shameful practice of dragging their legacies through the mud with holograms. It's not seeing them one last time, because it's not really them; it's refusing to accept change and move on.

It's a cruel reality, but holograms aren't the answer. Form a tribute band, write a song that might sound like something Michael Jackson might have recorded, or even go out and become an impersonator. Whatever we do to live with the loss of the exceptional talents of the dead, let's stop trying to pretend with the use of all these creepy computer generated versions of them. Let's let the dead be dead, and let them rest in peace.


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