Friday, April 20, 2012

Never can say goodbye:
The Tupac Show and what it says about us

WHEN TUPAC Amaru Shakur showed up on stage at the Coachella Festival last week, 15 years after his death by gunfire in Las Vegas, it was the sort of technological sleight of hand nobody was ready for. It was not the real Pac, of course, but an amazing simulation thanks to Digital Domain, James Cameron’s visual production company, and two hologram-imaging outfits, AV Concepts and Musion Systems, based in London.

The companies strung together clips of Shakur from concerts in his lifetime and, with the magic of ones and zeroes common to the digital age at their disposal, artfully arrayed and projected a life-size image of Tupac onto the Coachella stage, to perform “Hail Mary” and “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted” with Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre (very much in the flesh).

The reaction was swift. People at the festival in Indio, Calif., were by turns slack-jaw stunned or flat-out disgusted. Social media exploded, one said it was “wrong on so many levels,” others were over the top with praise for the stunt at the festival, which didn’t begin until three years after Tupac was dead.

Rihanna posted on Twitter: "#TupacBACK #unbelievable #IWASTHERE #STORY4myGrandKidz."

Drummer Questlove of the Roots tweeted: "That Pac Hologram haunted me in my sleep. Rest In Peace 2pac.......#OkIWill!!!!!!!!!!"

What’s still being explored are the prospects for this being more than a one-off. Talk quickly surfaced about the Tupac “hologram” going on tour; The Wall Street Journal reports that Dr. Dre is planning to take the AV Shakur on tour soon. “Dre has a massive vision for this,” Ed Ulbrich, chief creative officer at Digital Domain, told the Journal.

Other reports emerged that envisioned the same thing for the image bank of Michael Jackson, once the most popular entertainer in the world, and easily one of the most filmed and photographed. E! Online reported that Jackson brothers Jermaine, Tito and Marlon (preparing for their own Unity Tour starting in June) are considering a Michael Jackson video replica.

(Can Biggie be far behind?)

Never mind the fact that such big-scale parlor tricks aren’t really news. In March 2010, a 3-D hologram version of anime pop star Hatsune Miku toured in Japan with a live band, and sold out several venues. Musion Systems reports on its Web site that the same technology was used to produce Frank Sinatra performing “Pennies From Heaven” at Simon Cowell’s 50th birthday party, in October 2009.

And according to The Washington Post’s Hayley Tsukayama, the celebrity conjurings are an update of Pepper’s Ghost, “a stage trick that dates to the 1800s. In the old version, an actor would hide in a recess below the stage as stagehands used mirrors to project the image of a ghost.”

Still, for now Tupac Shakur is the master of time and space, now like before a creative force and a marketable commodity, and a stunningly visual reinforcement of the idea that death can be a brilliant career move, however unintentioned.

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THE OTHER implications of all this — what this says about us as a society — announce themselves at a level deeper than mere image exploitation. You don’t have to be a psychologist to see how the desire to regain what we’ve lost, or even its reasonable visual facsimile, isn’t freakish or ghoulish or in bad taste. It’s human nature.

The idea of taking Tupac “on tour” isn’t that different from holding on to a keepsake of the dear departed: a photograph, an audio recording, a snippet of home video that awakens the remembrance of things past. Nowhere is it written that an heirloom or a keepsake can’t be digitized, can’t be the gift that keeps on giving.

Like Natalie Cole’s haunting, lapidary duet on “Unforgettable” with her late father, Nat (King) Cole, or the box-office triumph of “This Is It,” Michael Jackson’s valedictory performance, Tupac’s AV resurrection fills a need to replace that which we deeply miss with a moment of triumph recalling those whom we once deeply celebrated.

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“The sight of thousands of screaming fans waving glow sticks while the holograph 'performs' on stage is straight out of a science fiction novel,” said Nicholas Graham in The Huffington Post, who condemned  the Hatsune Miku apparition as a “terrible omen not only for musicians but also the continued existence of the world as we know it.”

That may be true to explain the adulation for a chanteuse who never existed except in the world of anime. The Tupac event is different. In that two-song performance in California, we’ve arrived at another live-action way to pay tribute, to say “we miss you.”

The idea has deep roots in the culture. When Walt Disney introduced the audio-animatronic Abraham Lincoln at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, it broke new ground in giving physical substance to the personae and ideas of dead public figures, and recognizing our emotional attachment to them. In Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report,” the main character (played by Tom Cruise) mourns the loss of his son not with a one-dimensional photograph but with a full-size, room-filling hologram.

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The Tupac event shows that the means of delivering that collective reverie, its vector into the wider culture, really doesn’t matter. It’s a manifestation, however financially lucrative it is for its creators, of a collective wish fulfillment.

What many people at Coachella or online felt looking at the Tupac image — witness the tweets from people who said they watched Coachella Tupac in or near tears — isn’t much different from what we all feel when we look at grandma’s Bible, or a photograph of the mother we miss every day, or a grainy home movie of a close friend from back in the day. There’s really no difference. It's that tug of recognition. That pang of regret. Miss you Moms. See you in time, homie. Miss you Makaveli. Wish you was here. Never can say goodbye indeed.

For all our impersonal tendencies, our rapacious self-centered aspect, we see that the Tupac imagery and our reaction to it is another way to hold on to what we miss, to what we didn’t want to lose in the first place. That’s nothing but, and nothing less than, proof of the common recognition of loss that marks our humanity — regardless of the ones and zeroes needed to make it possible.

Image credits: Tupac top: Getty Images for Coachella. Tupac second: via YouTube. Disney Lincoln animatronic: National Geographic Society via Tupac bottom: Musion Systems Ltd.

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