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A digital image of Tupac Shakur is seen performing at the Coachella Festival. (Getty Images)

Tupac Shakur At Coachella: Part Of A Long History Of Singing With Ghosts

by David Wagner
Apr 17, 2012

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Rapper Snoop Dogg and a digital recreation of deceased rapper Tupac Shakur perform onstage at the Coachella Festival.

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David Wagner

The Internet has been abuzz over a recent "performance" at Coachella by a resuscitated Tupac Shakur. You can hear about how it was done on today's All Things Considered. (Please note that the lyrics in the video contain strong language, are not safe for work, and so forth.)

Hologram Tupac — who is really, it seems, CGI Tupac — immediately sparked a slew of bemused think-pieces. Some argued that the performance marks the end of live entertainment as we know it. Some drooled over the technology used to make it happen.

Others were just plain creeped out.

But these commentators ignore a crucial point: this isn't the first time around for this concept. Ever since technology has enabled us to do so, we've been bringing musicians back from the dead for questionable "collaborations" and digital "duets."

Anyone remember that time American Idol exhumed Elvis Presley for a glitzy rendition of "If I Can Dream" alongside Celine Dion?

Dear God, what an unholy union. In a somewhat more tasteful — though just as perplexing - performance at the 2008 Grammys, Alicia Keys harmonized with a black-and-white Frank Sinatra on "Learning the Blues."

In a much more touching instance of this phenomenon, Natalie Cole was reunited with her deceased father to sing Nat King Cole's classic "Unforgettable." Sure, it's sappy and slightly macabre, but at least it makes sense.

Admittedly, the Coachella performance was for a crowd, and often, these unearthings are studio-only affairs. Like that time Louis Armstrong rose from the dead to join Kenny G for a very special take on "What A Wonderful World."

Listen closely. That rumbling just beneath Kenny G's saccharine soprano sax doodles? That's the sound of every early jazz innovator rolling in his or her very own grave.

Tupac's foil, Notorious B.I.G., hasn't been spared from this treatment, either. Biggie was resurrected for a whole album of such "duets." Forget the fact that he never even met half the artists on Duets: The Final Chapter. Somebody must've thought it was tasteful to cut and paste his verses into these Frankenstein-ed tunes. The most puzzling of all has got to be Biggie's number with another long-gone legend, Bob Marley. (Again, lyrics not safe for work.)

Video games have opened up a whole new can of worms. Guitar Hero 5 allows players to unlock famous rock stars such as Kurt Cobain. In one video, some sick individual forces the deceased Nirvana frontman to sing over Public Enemy's "Bring the Noise" and Bon Jovi's "You Give Love a Bad Name."

What makes Hologram Tupac different from all these examples? He was undoubtedly the coolest-looking reanimation yet. He prowled the stage with an eerily lifelike presence. His muscles rippled convincingly. His pants sagged credibly. And his voice believably shouted out the name of the festival ... even though the first Coachella was still years away when Shakur was gunned down in 1996. The whole thing was downright uncanny.

But we shouldn't say that Hologram Tupac is anything new. He's just a big technological improvement on previous attempts to keep our favorite musicians around a little longer.

The ethical questions he raises are just as familiar. Is it right for us to digitally marionette musicians around a stage for our own enjoyment, even though they obviously never agreed to such appearances? And, if we're really trying to honor them, wouldn't it be better to let the music they created while alive stand on its own?

Hologram Tupac reportedly may go on tour soon, and he promises to be quite the spectacle. But if there's anything we can learn from past attempts to resuscitate dead musicians, it's that the fact that we can doesn't mean we should.

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