27 April, 2012

No Freedom, Even in Death: Virtual Tupac Part II

Over a decade and a half after his death, the legacy of Tupac Shakur is something that's still discussed, in sources ranging from MTV to NPR. For most of this time, the discussion centered on the music and performances during his life. But now there's Virtual Tupac, here to add an appendix to the artist's life story.

Not only has Virtual Tupac taken pop music a step further into the realm of the manufactured (in this case, literally) star, but it also shows how little control an artist has over their own persona, especially after shuffling off the mortal coil.

This certainly isn't the first time an artist has “performed” new material after their death. Natalie Cole famously sang a duet with her late father Nat King Cole in a version of his hit “Unforgettable” that was only possible through recording technology. The Beatles made a similar move with “Free As a Bird,” a new Beatles song consisting of the remaining three members playing behind an unused vocal track from John Lennon's solo days.

But in these examples, at least it can be said that the living parties were closely related to their deceased collaborators. Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg had left Death Row Records by the time Tupac was murdered, and while Dre did work with Tupac on the classic “California Love,” there's no indication that the three were BFFs.

And then there's the cable commercial using the Buddy Holly meoldy, the Glee episode featuring the “tribute” to Whitney Houston, the Ford commercials and bad movie trailers with Johnny Cash singing in the background.

If you can say one thing for all of the above examples, whether good or bad, they at least never made any challenge to the singers' deaths. Yes, Natalie was singing with her dad, but there wasn't any banter or other random element to make it seem as though they were actually in the same room together. Virtual Tupac kicking off the performance with a rousing “What the fuck is up Coachella?” brings him into the present moment in a disturbing way.

It's true that most individuals really have a limited amount of control they can exert over others' perceptions of them, and even pop stars – whose entire job is to craft and flourish a public image – are ultimately subject to the whims and caprices of the audience. But at least the artist has the chance to take an active role in their life.

With Virtual Tupac, all control that the real Tupac had over himself and his actions is gone. Would real Tupac have played those songs? Would have have shared a stage with Dre and Snoop? Would he even played Coachella? None of this matters any more, because Virtual Tupac is here, ready to stand in anywhere he's set up. And if it's decided that Virtual Tupac should do things the real Tupac would never have done, well, not much real Tupac can do about it.

And while most people won't necessarily confuse Virtual Tupac with the the deceased real Tupac, the association will be created in their minds (that's just how the brain works, like it or not). Virtual Tupac hawking some light beer in a commercial will, in continued discussion, become Tupac hawking a light beer. The line between the actual man and his digital doppelganger will blur, especially as the time when he was alive dwindles ever further into the past.

All a person truly has is their self, but when even that can be replicated and manipulted, then what does one have? Labels and managers are famous for stealing artists' songs, royalties, and publishing rights, but when they can take even your face and body, what's left?

26 April, 2012

Virtual Tupac and the Rise of the Undead Pop Star

Okay, yes, a bit of a stretch, but what does the Tupac hologram performance at Coachella really mean? A heartfelt (if creepy) tribute to a talent cut down in its prime? A tacky, tasteles exploitation of said talent by people who should know better? Or is it a sign that the innate humanity of our entertainers is now optional?

This isn't a phenomenon without precedent. In 2007, the Japanese (who else?) introduced Hatsune Miku, a singing, dancing pop sensation who just happened to be completely computer generated 3D model. In this case, the vocals came from heavily treated samples from a voice actress, but the rest was all created in the lab (or wherever the programmers hang out). This being Japan (where new technology is simply a friend you haven't met yet), Hatsune is naturally a stadium-packing hit.

But Virtual Tupac is different. One, this is America, where we value authenticity above all, especially when it's made up. But also, Tupac was a real person – an actual, flesh and blood man who lived and breathed and finally died, who created a body of work in that time. More importantly, a man who may have wanted a say in how his work was performed.

Anyone paying attention to the sausage-making aspects of the comics world knows that creators' rights is a major issue right now, with more comic-makers taking sides for or against (usually the latter) certain publishers (and their parent corporations). So with that in the forefront, it puts a certain troubling spin on the whole Tupac “performance.”

Not a lot of people probably know this, because it didn't get much media attention, but in 2000 the Recording Industry Association of America approached Congress hoping to get legislation passed that would make materials created by bands designated as “work for hire” for their labels. This would mean that anything the band put out would be wholly owned by the label, who could then pay the band once for coming in and recording. The bands would no longer own the songs they created – no royalties, no say in how they were used, nothing. A band who went platinum could still be living in a flat in some broke-down part of town, working day jobs to survive, while the label head watched the royalties pour in.

Needless to say, this scenario never happened, and in the age of the Internet, more artists are opting to go the self-release route, or at least retain greater creative control if they do sign. Could it be coincidence that you see more Mickey Mouse Club kids turned into adult pop stars – people who are already used to the machine, who've been trained to trust the guy in the suit? If you're one of the old labels, and you see more up and coming artists disinclined to sign with you, what do you do? Particularly if you're so ingrained in the old, top-down control mindset that you'd sue your own fans for downloading music?

Enter Virtual Tupac. Still beloved by millions of fans, but dead long enough that tacky cash-in moves can be spun to appear as well-intentioned “tributes.” The songs are already there, the persona is already there, the act is already there. Just scan some old photos, program in some moves, and instant pop star. No worries about whether or not he'll sell, that's already been proven. And, no worries about him asking for a bigger cut of the royalties or moving to another label.

When director Kerry Conran spliced in old footage of Sir Lawrence Olivier to play the villain in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, it was handled probably as tastefully as could be and most likely well-intentioned (the film was a tribute to the epic serials of yore), but much like the splitting of the atom, it was the act that unleashed all sorts of unforeseen results upon the world.
In a future age where artists see large companies as necessary evils to be kept at arm's length at best, or anachronisms to be avoided at worst, the labels have to think of something. There has to be something new and shiny to dangle, even if it's recycled. Just look at the Rolling Stones. Or better yet, the Beatles. A band that hasn't been together in 40 years, with only half the group still alive, still outsells the vast majority of living, working bands today – and will most likely continue to do so for the unforeseeable future. What if you could have a Beatles reunion?

True, you might have to wait for the rest of the band to shuffle off the mortal coil, just so they all look consistent. But it's not as though flesh-and-blood “reality” has been a sticking point for most people when it comes to experience. Anthony Burgess commented on this in 1962, with his novel A Clockwork Orange. “It's funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen,” says the narrator Alex, as he's being forced to watch behavior modification films.

But in an age of “reality tv,” where a great number of people view the world through a backlit plastic screen (just like right now), what's the difference? If you're 500 feet away, watching forms move on stage and having to look at the screens alongside the stage to make out any detail anyway, does the authenticity of the performer matter?

Maybe Virtual Tupac is a one-off stunt. Maybe the inherent inhumanity of “him” is too much for the average person to accept as anything other than novelty. But then, entertainment is all about novelty, and in an era where filmmakers will spend half a billion dollars to create virtual replicas of the world just a few miles away, maybe we just met our new American Idol.