Exactly one week after the resurrection of Jesus, it would seem that “Black Jesus” or Tupac, the rapper whose life has most consistently been analogized to resemble Jesus’, was also born again. The story of the real Jesus had him appearing to his faithful disciples last Sunday. Tupac’s ghost was no different – last night in front of 100,000 fans at Coachella, he came alive beside Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg to perform “Hail Mary” and “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted.”
The history of hologram technology and entertainment looms wide and complex. After all, Japan has been churning out holographic popstars for years now. Stateside, there seem to be two reasons to employ an artist’s hologram – either to broadcast the performance somewhere other than where it physically is – or to bring back a beloved, late artist to dazzle once again.
The former fulfills a practical, albeit often superfluous, need. Holograms brought the figure of Will. I. Am to the CNN newsroom in one of the most ridiculed production decisions made during the 2008 elections Obama-McCain coverage wars. More recently – and probably more presciently – Mariah Carey gave a five-country concert in Europe from the comfort of her home as part of an elaborate Deutsche Telekom ad campaign. Audiences were treated to Carey’s famous and beloved Christmas hits. Given Carey’s legendary voice and notorious lack of choreography, many critics were left wondering if it even mattered that she wasn’t physically there.
The other use of the hologram – to resuscitate a late star, is more tricky. In 2007, Celine Dion performed a duet with the hologram Elvis Presley on American Idol. Eerily, the show had a kind of natural quality to it – so much so that viewers originally thought it was an impersonator lipsynching, and the internet jury was quick to find a video of the original performance which was then “copy-pasted” next to the Canadian. But perhaps the lack of uproar had less to do with it being lifelike, and more to do with the lack of actual Elvis fans watching the show.
One thing both Elvis and Tupac share is the relentless chorus that insists both artists are still alive. But while Elvis died after having become largely irrelevant and American Idol projected the iconic Elvis image, Tupac died at the height of his fame – and was projected at Coachella in full glory, shirtless, with his instantly-recognizable and oft-imitated THUG LIFE tattoo sprawled on his toned, rock-hard midsection. He addressed the crowd – calling out the name of a festival that did not exist when he was alive – and performed a dynamic set with old friends Snoop and Dre. While Twitter was flooded with messages of awe, with many users lauding the performance as the best use of technology “ever”, (nevermind momentous advancements in medicine and transportation that have transformed the planet), it seems pretty fitting to me that the rapper who released most of his albums posthumously and whose legacy is sustained by new teenagers discovering his music would reappear in holographic form.
That this new generation at the hipster pilgrimage that is Coachella readily received a hologram of Tupac reveals the fault lines in today’s hip hop cannon – and the trouble with performing hip-hop. Unlike Elvis, who could stand there, as yes, a tortured artist, but mostly as a simple Americana token beside a songstress and belt a classic, or Mariah Carey’s famous five-octave range being broadcast all over Eastern Europe with the tacit understanding that this is the ultimate “gimmick”, Tupac’s energy and what he stood for is completely incompatible to the image Coachella-goers were treated to last night. One Twitter user (@gwalsh94) summarized the experience with the following tweet: “#HolographicTupac >>> Drake, Lil Wayne, Wiz.” While that may have felt true, because of the novelty of a Tupac hologram, it doesn’t seem fair to today’s artists to broadcast old ones and subject them to comparisons. If the real relationship here is that hologram Tupac is superior to those artists, let’s promote the kind of hip-hop that can deliver that energy and bombast in non-holographic form.
The comparison is hardly fair to Tupac either. The Tupac who came back last night is not the living, troubled, distracted but immensely gifted MC from the 90s. It’s almost impossible not to cringe when you hear Tupac say to Snoop “It’s 2 of America’s most wanted, in the same…place, at the same…time” when those two are, respectively dead and basically the grandpa of Wiz Khalifa. It is the canonized version – the one on the t-shirts, the one who had the dubious honor of being memorialized by very successful and talented king of non-substance Rick Ross on “Tupac Back.” And most importantly – the one whose audience was, at best, tween-age when he was alive and who came to hear Dre but also AVICII and Florence and the Machine. We owe both of those Tupac’s more than that – and we should let him age gracefully, like his disciples Dre and Snoop, whose stellar performances were literally overshadowed by their friend’s ghost.