Death has never quite been Game Over for a musician; in fact, for many, it’s just the start of their career. Example? In life, rapper Tupac Shakur released four albums, but six came out after his death in 1996 (his biggest-selling album is his 1998 Greatest Hits). And, to be clear, I’ve got no problem with that. But things have changed: whereas before artists could return from the grave in recorded form, now the undead are coming back to stalk the stadia and stages of the world: behold, the hologram concert, the latest effort in pop’s attempt to keep the coffers topped up long after the dearly has departed. Earlier this year, Frank Zappa (d1993) played the London Palladium. Right now, Billie Holiday (d1959) is in residence at a theatre in LA while Roy Orbison (d1998) and Buddy Holly (d1959) are touring North America. Next year, Whitney Houston (d2012) is playing several dates in the UK and an Amy Winehouse (d2011) show is in development.
So what? Well, for me, it all feels a bit too much like a cynical cash-in. It’s not even as if these are real holograms, either. These rock ’n’ roll revenants are actually bought to life by a 19th-century illusion known as Pepper’s Ghost, where a 2D image is beamed from offstage to reflect towards the audience off a piece of glass at 45° to the seats. High tech it ain’t. But – and this is the important bit – it’s a cheap way to do a world tour. After the initial investment in creating the illusion, the same show goes around the world for years, unchanged. It’s so efficient, in fact, that Jeff Pezzuti, CEO of the company that produced the Zappa show, told me that, before long, holograms would take the place of live musicians who can’t hack the pressure and physical demands of a world tour. That, I’m afraid, is a very grim prospect.
No one disputes the need for artists to earn a living but surely not when they’re not, well, living? Rock ’n’ roll used to be a celebration of being alive; now it revels in death. On the bright side, there are no annoying new songs to prompt the inevitable rush to the bar. Even so, I probably still prefer my performers with a pulse. In the words of Rainbow: Long Live Rock ’n’ Roll – in more ways than one.
Michael Hann writes about music for the FT. Roy Orbison “plays” Toronto on 20 November.