Episode  MSP52  The Singing Dead
Episode  MSP52  The Singing Dead
With Amy Winehouse set to tour the world in 2019, are we stumbling towards a future of zombie stars? Artists frozen in time and doomed by AI and CGI to repeat their hits for infinity.
These shows are dictated to and transcribed by machines, and hurriedly edited by a human. Apologies for the minor typos and grammar flaws.
Sometimes it feels more like an episode of the X-Files or one of Infowars’ crazier moments when you’re talking to Kulturpop’s Matt Armitage. Today, I believe we’re talking about technology and deceased pop stars. That’s right: it’s the singing dead. It’s time to Mattsplain.
I can only assume we’re talking about Amy Winehouse, here?
· Yes. In case any of you missed it, last week there was a story that Amy Winehouse, who died in 2011, will be embarking on her first world tour since her death.
· And, in case you’re wondering how that works, it’s not a bunch of fans sitting around her casket while her albums are played over the PA.
· No, it’s something even more sinister and macabre than that.
· Amy will actually be onstage, belting out her hits, night after night.
Like a hologram?
· Yeah. It will be a mixture of holograms with cutting edge CGI and presumably AI, so it gives the appearance of being live and natural.
· Even though she isn’t alive and this isn’t natural.
This is what they did with 2Pac at Coachella a few years ago?
· Before I dive into the technology side, yes, there have been quite a few attempts to bring dead artists back to the stage virtually.
· 2Pac is one, back in 2012.
· Frank Sinatra was brought back for a duet with Alicia Keys at the Grammys.
· Michael Jackson, of course at an award ceremony in 2014.
· There have even been rumours that Justin Timberlake might appear with Prince at a Superbowl.
And they use the same technology?
· The music business is a really dirty one, and there have been a number of companies trying to pioneer various technologies and systems.
· And they’re all constantly suing and counter-suing each other.
· Some of them even sue the estates of the artists they’re trying to secure.
· \I think a couple of time, the estates haven’t liked what the companies have come up with and pulled out on the grounds of maintaining the dead star’s legacy.
· It’s this weird thing in music. They think it’s a great idea to sue their clients and customers.
Is that one of the reasons we’re seeing relatively few of these kind of events?
· Yes. All of the nonsense over who owns which patent, who infringes on what.
· Which doesn’t seem to be helped by various players switching companies, or companies going into receivership and the people behind it starting up a new one.
· One of the reasons we only saw Michael Jackson’s hologram appear at the Billboard Awards in 2014 and nothing wider is because the people in this tiny little industry kept suing each other over who owned the actual technology.
· The reason we haven’t seen Joan of Arc, the Comeback Tour, isn’t because the technology and the ability isn’t there.
· It’s because the small group of operators in this field would rather sue and counter-sue than get to work.
· It’s also incredibly costly, which we’ll get to later.
Let’s go back to 2Pac. How did work from a technical point of view?
· The clever bit of that was actually the CGI and animation techniques that allowed it to happen.
· I know to us, it’s the fact that they seem to be onstage that’s mind-blowing but that part, in Tupac’s case was actually pretty simple.
· It used a system that’s been around since the middle of the 19thcentury, called Pepper’s Ghost.
· Essentially, it’s smoke and mirrors, it uses layers of glass and refraction techniques to make it appear that an otherworldly figure is onstage.
· It was pioneered for Victorian-era theatre, so that they could get what looks like ghosts and spirits onstage for plays.
Do we get side-tracked by the notion that this is supposed to be the age of technology and progress?
· Human beings are terrible at learning from or even examining their history.
· The 19thcentury was technologically amazing.
· We moved from steam to combustion engines. Cars and the earliest powered aircraft were making their explosive debut.
· Electricity was seen not just as a way to light up and power the world but also to cure everything from hysteria to boils.
· WE had the first modern Medicines and anaesthesia, pasteurization, x-rays and, of course, photography and the first film cameras.
· And theatre was the music festival of its age.
· So, naturally, people wanted the latest technologies and developments.
How do we get from Top Hats to 2Pac?
· Those projections of him onstage with Snoop and Dr Dre were an extension of those 150 year-old techniques.
· And if you go and watch footage of that show online you’ll see that 2Pac doesn’t really seem to be there.
· He kinda floats and shimmies and it’s only when Snoop comes out and stands next to him that you get an idea of the scale.
· There’s nothing really tangible about his image.
As you said, the clever bit is the CGI part…
· Making him appear onstage is simple. We’ve been able to do that for over 100 years.
· Easy. A child with some Lego and a mirror could do it.
· Think about all the animation and speech synthesis that had to be done.
· The projection itself didn’t look real, in that it didn’t have solidity and depth.
· But the recreation of 2Pac the human was pretty cool. His gestures and movements, and especially his facial expressions.
· One of the reasons humans respond very badly to androids is that they look creepy.
· Even the early CGI attempts at humans – like the movie Polar Express – there’s something unsettling about them.
· We recognise that they look like us and they’re inhuman at the same time.
· So replicating the effect of the 100s of muscles that create expressions and micro-expressions on our faces.
· And the constant shifts and alignments that our bodies make.
· That’s tough. And for the 2Pac show, that really was some impressive work.
You mentioned the cost aspect earlier. Presumably it’s the CGI that pushes those costs up?
· Exactly that. When you look at the CGI in a movie, very often the actors will have been mapped in 3D in a green screen studio.
· That doesn’t make it simple. But they have precise measurements to base the physics on.
· With stars like Amy Winehouse or 2Pac, obviously they weren’t expecting the Grim Reaper to pop by for tea, in 2Pac’s case, that modelling tech wouldn’t have existed anyway.
· So they have to be recreated from photographs and video footage.
So when we talk about Amy Winehouse touring live, there’s all this complicated and expensive deliberation going on behind the scenes.
· Of course. It helps that the technology has advanced a lot as well.
· From what I can gather, Amy will be a projection, of course but not onto a screen.
· There will be a live band and singers backing her up. Plus all the usual big tour stuff.
· I’m assuming there will be an AI component that allows her to speak onstage and appear to ad lib.
· And I’m sure it will look good.
· The company behind it, Base Hologram, is currently putting on shows by the 60s crooner Roy Orbison and the opera singer Maria Callas. Where they also used body doubles shot in 3D to build a base for the hologram.
· That way, it’s not cuts from old show footage or reels.
· You can check out some of the songs from the Roy Orbison show online.
· It’s weird. It’s definitely him. He seems to have form and solidity.
· But’s he slightly off as well.
Do you find it creepy?
· Very. At the end of tracks he kind of motions to the band and singers as if to say thank you.
· That’s odd. It’s a machine. It’s not sentient.
· And there’s a disconnection. He’s playing guitar as well as singing.
· With the singing, you can trick the brain, but the guitar parts don’t look natural.
· It’s a bit more obvious that it’s a machine or miming.
We’re heading into a break. When we come back, should we be bringing the dead back to life?
Before the break we did something that is weird for you, we actually talked about technology and how it works.
That’s the how. What about the why? Should we be bringing the dead onstage?
· Only if they’re grateful.
· It’s really complicated, isn’t it.
· If we go back to Amy Winehouse, I’ve seen a lot of different comments on this.
· It’s mawkish and it’s tacky and it’s seedy.
· Then there are other people, often from a different generation, who love the music and never got the chance to see the artist live.
This does stretch the definition of live…
· It’s a bit like reverse karaoke.
· You go to karaoke and you sing but the backing track is usually pre-recorded.
· Here it’s the other way around. Everything is live except the star’s vocals.
· I’ll admit, I don’t really like the idea. You might as well watch an old in-concert performance.
· What I want to go into are the wider implications. Like, would Amy Winehouse would have wanted her image used like this?
For stars like Amy Winehouse, who died early, it’s quite obvious which version of her you bring back. But what about stars like Elvis who had various stages of his career and identities? Or shapeshifting artists like Michael Jackson, Prince or David Bowie?
· As you said, with Amy Winehouse, she died very young.
· That version of her with the messy beehive hair is the one you’ll bring back.
· For Prince, do you bring back the Purple Rain guy? Or the later Superbowl guy?
· Will fans want to see Bowie’s Aladdin Sane or Ziggy Stardust?
· Bowie killed off Stardust long before his purple patch of late 70s and early 90s hits like Fame and Ashes to Ashes.
· Could a Bowie as Ziggy hologram perform those songs?
· Michael Jackson could be brought back as a kid. How would songs like Billie Jean work, with a very adult theme, if they were sung by a child Michael?
That artists will be expected to carry on working after they die?
· Of course, why not? If they can?
· And not just music stars.
· We see it in movies. Sometimes it’s done as a tribute to the star, like Carrie Fisher in Star Wars and Paul Walker in the Fast and Furious franchise.
· But we’ve seen stars like Audrey Hepburn and James Dean resurrected to star in commercials.
· When do we get to a point where it’s ok to die of be forgotten?
Like the lawsuits in Europe against Google. By people arguing for the right to be forgotten. That their past deeds or history doesn’t need to be instantly searchable or discoverable?
· I’ve always been very much against that right to be forgotten.
· I know it causes embarrassment to some people.
· But the information has always been there. We don’t go back through newspaper archives to amend or destroy the information in them.
· We don’t change birth and death records.
· For good or bad the knowledge is there. Yes, it’s more instantly available.
· And that’s one of the adjustments we’re having to make as a society as a whole.
· But this nexus of technology and information is raising new questions that go far beyond whether you can get your mum to delete those Instagram baby snaps.
Essentially you’re saying that being legal isn’t enough? We should point out that in all these cases the law has been followed. Rights have been granted. No copyright has been infringed.
· The law is only one element. There’s a wider moral and social behaviour aspect to this as well.
· Similar to last week’s show – the technology is already way beyond our ability to judge whether these things are right or wrong.
· Because, as a society, we haven’t had those conversations yet.
· People have the legal rights because those rights belong to an earlier age.
· Back then, it was about releasing a CD best of that cashed in from the death of a star.
· Or, with someone like Elvis, to keep milking the music and memorabilia.
Or the so-called ‘new material’ by everyone from the Beatles to Amy Winehouse to Michael Jackson.
· Yeah. I think 2Pac has released more supposedly new material than he managed to do while he was alive.
· And there are two sides to this. We’ve had the controversy over whether the Michael Jackson tracks were actually sung by him or by a sound-a-like.
· 2Pac’s legacy is a mix of scraps and making the most of an incredible spree of recording he did in the months before his death.
· Every scrap of feedback by Jimi Hendrix seems to have been remixed and released.
· Prince, on the other hand, has a legendary archive. You could probably legitimately release original and completed work by him for the rest of my lifetime.
· He was incredibly prolific. He would record and shelve entire albums on a regular basis.
· So, there’s no one size fits all here. I found some of the posthumous Amy Winehouse stuff a but distasteful.
· But I thought that Beatles track, Free As A Bird, quite a fun experiment.
I‘m glad you mentioned The Beatles. Let’s go with a thought experiment. Let’s say I’m really good friends with Yoko Ono and she’s given me the rights to John Lennon’s work. I get an AI and put it all in. So now I can have John Lennon sing pretty much whatever I like. I’ve got another AI that analyses his compositional style. Can I create new John Lennon songs?
· That’s the question isn’t it?
· I know a lot of this sounds esoteric and as though it doesn’t matter to most of us.
· But it really does.
· What if your employer laid you off and kept a virtual version of you around?
· You’ve been captured on their security cameras for years.
· They can build up your writing and speech style from emails and documents.
· And possibly voice recordings.
· So in some ways we are all John Lennon.
What would that work be?
· That’s for society to decide.
· Look at CGI Arnie in the last Terminator.
· Was that Arnie? Was it a fake? Was it a composite?
· Or that recreation of Princess Leia in Rogue One?
· With actors it gets even weirder. Because the film company has the rights to the character you play.
· Arnie could be the Terminator for literally hundreds of years to come.
· Bohemian Rhapsody, the biopic of Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury has just come out.
· With great reviews for Rami Malek in the role of Mercury.
· But who would be the ideal person to play that role?
· It would be Freddie Mercury himself. And we’re pretty close to having the full suite of technology that would allow that.
It’s not virtual reality so much as blurring reality?
· Yeah. Take that game you were playing last weekend. Red Dead Redemption 2.
· I’ve seen the shots. It’s fantastically realistic.
· Richard comments
· So, now, you insert John Lennon or John Wayne into that game. The characters in it are already almost alive.
· Now you’ve brought John Lennon and John Wayne back to life in a way you can interact with or befriend\
Are there any instances where we can use this kind of tech and it’s clear cut?
· Obviously, holograms have been put forward as a new way to archive memories.
· As 3D images rather than 2D film and photo.
· Not really an issue with that.
· It’s also been mooted as another way for artists to appear.
· The folky pop band Feist used a kind of projection to appear in 3 cities at once a few years ago.
· The rapper Chief Keef was supposed to undertake a holographic tour this year because legal restrictions prevent him from travelling to certain countries.
· The dates were supposed to start in late August but I can’t find any reports that they actually went ahead.
So, it could become an alternative form of performing for artists who are very much alive?
· Sure. There was a piece published this week about pop star burnout.
· Ariana Grande, whose UK concert was targeted by a suicide bomber in 2017 has spoken out about the pressures she now feels.
· For stars who, for whatever reason, want to hunker down, a live hologram would enable them to perform for crowds across the world and stay close to home, where they have the support system of friends, family and medical professionals where necessary.
I’m assuming that this kind of technology has uses beyond the music industry?
· Absolutely. It has even been mooted as an alternative way for people to present lectures or speak publicly.
· Of course, the tech would have to get a lot cheaper and easier before that happens on a wide scale.
· But it will. It’s what technology does.
· I understand that people are even exploring whether it would be legal for the US President to use holograms for public appearances.
· Copies of any politician would be awful enough but imagine a multi Trump appearing in every US city every night while he stays at home and scarfs down Big Macs in front of Fox News 24/7.
· That’s the future dystopia for you, there.
Those shock-horror scenarios apart, do you think we need to think about this more deeply, or is it just a fun night out for people who miss their favourite star?
· It is tricky. I’ve already said, I find it in poor taste to bring Amy Winehouse around the world.
· I’m sure her dad disagrees. It’s easy to say that it’s for commercial gain but I don’t think we should jump to that conclusion.
· He may genuinely be trying to share his daughter’s work with the world in a new way.
· That said, I do think we have to beware of how we normalise technology.
· As I mentioned earlier, you have to look at the convergence of all this tech.
A system that would allow machines not just to impersonate you but to physically become a version of you?
· Yes. That’s why we need all these debates about what a person is.
· What a personality is.
· It may be that in the future, we decide that no one is allowed to be resurrected like Roy Orbison after they die.
· It’s like that Black Mirror episode where the holograms are a snapshot of the person. They feel pain and suffer.
· We’re at the point where we have to stop looking at this stuff as science fiction.
· When we think about traditional sci fi, it’s Star Trek or Iain M Banks, hundreds or thousands of years in the future.
· Stuff like Black Mirror isn’t hundreds of years in the future. It’s the Day after Tomorrow.
· You can’t plan a century ahead. But you can plan for tomorrow. And you can certainly think about the day after tomorrow.