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iTupac Live: The Weird Logic of a Touring Hologram

A hologram of deceased rapper Tupac Shakur performs onstage during day 3 of the 2012 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival
A hologram of deceased rapper Tupac Shakur performs onstage during day 3 of the 2012 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Field on April 15, 2012 in Indio, California. Photo: Christopher Polk/Getty Images

At first blush, the notion of a two-dimensional Tupac video game sprite going on tour with a collection of younger, alive-r rappers seems like an awful one — the barrel-scraping finale to the conversion of the late rapper into a posable action figure.

In that sense, it may be a blessing that the person with a “massive vision” for sending the iTupac out to host/headline an outlandish tour is Dr. Dre, a man who — with all due respect and sympathy, because I get this, I really do — has not recently been super-great in terms of finalizing and actualizing massive visions, including Detox, the album he’s been gestating and endlessly reconfiguring since 2000, presumably because he doesn’t want to release anything that’s not ridiculously great and worth the endless wait — a wait which just keeps being extended, raising the pressure ever higher. Taking a dead man’s hologram on tour is a grand endeavor, too, so it tickles me to imagine that the “massive vision” will be refined and sent back to the drawing board and reapproved by Tupac’s mom over and over until the hologram eventually undertakes a massive tour of nursing homes.

Here’s the thing, though: If there’s anything that’s underlined by the most-talked-about performance at Coachella coming from a video projector, a digital-effects company, and a few panes of glass, it’s that people are not incredibly into live music as such. Meaning: The average person has no special attraction to the mere fact of musicians performing music, something you can confirm by walking through just about any urban park or subway system in the developed world. The average person does not head out to clubs at random simply to hear musicians play whatever they’re playing, on the logic that it’s more entertaining than watching television; for most people, it is not. The average person does not even much like it when acts they enjoy — acts they have made plans, paid money, cursed ticketing corporations, and left the house to see — play new songs they’re not yet familiar with. Performance is not the draw, and this is perfectly okay.

The draw for most people with live music is the sense of the event itself — the moment where a cultural product they love as a kind of media gets to stake out some space in the real world. It sounds dumb and tautological to point this out, but our engagement with pop culture is almost entirely mediated; it takes place in a huge tangle of recorded sounds and recorded images and an electronic ether surrounding them. It is a relationship with a whole lot of powerful, interesting stuff. (Stuff that is built on and teaches us amazing things about actual people, but stuff nonetheless.) A concert marks the moment where some of that stuff gets a foothold in real public space — where all the experiences people have had alone with their headphones and the stuff, or staring at YouTube videos of the stuff, or having conversations about the stuff, or at parties dancing to the stuff, can collect in one place, become literal, and be celebrated at a scale that seems proportional to people’s investment in said stuff. I suppose there was a period, decades ago, when musicians performing in a room seemed like the official version of the stuff, and any records or documents they happened to make was some kind of secondary, theoretical efflorescence from it. But now it’s completely the opposite: There is a whole wide world of documents out there, and every once in a while you can watch one effloresce into the presence of actual people in a high-volume room, acting out everything you loved about it.

Maybe sort of like what cosplay is for comic-book nerds.

In that sense, maybe iTupac is just a necessary way station on his journey through the often-chintzy world of being an icon — out there among the folk heroes and airbrush-art muses, with Mickey Mouse and the Elvis impersonators and the Mona Lisa that people draw mustaches on. Leading inexorably to the point where his abs are as much a part of the western brain, or at least its T-shirts-and-cartoons lobe, as Marilyn Monroe’s mole or the Leaning Tower of Pisa or The Scream, and the concept of showing “respect” toward any aspect of his memory seems bizarre and pointless.

In which case, a digital Tupac avatar makes a weird amount of sense as a touring musician, does it not? Leave alone that the concert tours of titanic nineties musicians from before the slow collapse of the record industry are always a safe financial bet: iTupac Live would be based around a person whose media documents are iconically beloved, down to the smallest ab-detail, and whose efflorescence into real-life space feels somewhat momentous, given that he is, you know, dead. (I say “somewhat” because death did not stop a rippling projection of Nat King Cole from scoring a top-20 hit duet with his daughter in 1991, or old footage of Fred Astaire from selling Dirt Devils in 1997, or the creation of a whole realm of intellectual property surrounding what creepy puppet-like things can be done with the likenesses of celebrities after their passing.) The avatar in a Tupac–avatar tour wouldn’t even matter. It would just be an excuse for a lot of people to collect and commune with a whole bunch of recordings they think are important enough to be played to huge cheering crowds.

Or, more likely, the novelty factor would rapidly wear off, and people would begin to feel like they were just standing in a room together watching someone playing Tupac: The Video Game on a very large and detailed screen, and a kind of weird strained depression would settle over the whole endeavor.

iTupac Live: The Logic of a Touring Hologram