Dead stars from Whitney Houston to Maria Callas are going on tour again. As Miley Cyrus explores the issue in a new Black Mirror, we uncover the greatest identity crisis in music today
In the star-making Disney Channel switcheroo Hannah Montana,Miley Cyrus played a teenage girl who is able to metamorphose from regular eighth grader to pop icon, simply by donning a streaked blonde wig. Most of the show seems quaintly dated now, but one moment taps into a very 2019 pop anxiety. On The Other Side Of Me. a featherweight single from the programmes soundtrack album, Cyrus sang: I flip the script so many times I forget / Whos on stage, whos in the mirror.
Cyrus has shifted her image from foam-finger humper to wholesome cowgirl since, but her new acting role centres again on the self-searching theme of that forgotten 2006 pop classic. In the new season of Black Mirror, Cyrus plays Ashley, a tween-friendly pop star whose latest marketing gimmick is Ashley Too, a miniature talking robot toy that replicates both her Pepto-Bismol hairdo and platitude-spouting persona. The episodes trailer ends with Ashley Too acquiring potty-mouthed sentience, screaming for her owner to get this [USB] cable out of my ass! Holy Shit! Specifics are under wraps, but the episode seems centred around a big, knotty question: if someones essence can be transplanted into a mechanised clone, where do we end and robots begin?
Im not saying that Hannah Montana is a millennial Tiresias a modern-day seer with supernatural visions of the future but Im also not not saying that. The binary between man and machine is growing increasingly porous, with virtual assistants like Apples Siri and Amazons Alexa taking up residence in our phones and homes, and growing increasingly humanlike by the day. When instructed to rap, Alexa performs a string of Tom Lehrer-esque nonsense about rocks and sediment. If you ask Siri if she can dance, her response is: I do a pretty mean robot. Software that replicates the personality of celebrities may be a while off, but its not inconceivable that well-liked celebrities could lend their voices similar products in the future, laAshley Too. You can certainly imagine a market for the RuPaul Alexa who tells users to step your pussy up every morning.
Its a given that celebrity image is built on smoke and mirrors. But were in a curious spot today, where the music industry is manoeuvering to convince audiences that the veneer of an artists presence is a compelling substitute to watching a flesh-and-blood performance. Enter the pop star hologram.
Pop holograms started out as a trompe-lil trick. Initially, these rudimentary likenesses werent technically holograms at all, but light projections on to a thin piece of glass or gauze that evoked a spectral presence, using a Victorian sideshow technique called Peppers Ghost. At the 2006 Grammys, this old ruse was used to make Madonna appear to duet with Gorillaz, before the apparition was swapped out for her spandex-clad real-life counterpart. In the 2010s, Peppers Ghost enabled Tupac to rise from the dead at Coachella, Michael Jackson to moonwalk at the VMAs, and Mariah Carey to appear simultaneously in five European cities for a T-Mobile gig in 2011. (It feels like the whole universe is connected! Its T-Magic, she said.) In a sublime bit of kitsch that only she could pull off, Celine Dion duets with a projection of herself in her current Las Vegas residency, and lightly banters with her ephemeral clone. Come back tomorrow, Im here every night, smiles the hologram. Yeah right! Dion hits back, as the projection disappears with a swipe of her hand.