In a recent viral TikTok, a 21-year-old named Alexis mourns their best friend, Nats, who died in a car crash two years earlier. “My bestie is dead, so girl, I’m really about to put you on,” they say, before blasting Bad Bunny’s “Tití Me Preguntó” and shaking their ass on Nats’s grave. Alexis then kneels and looks at the camera, continuing to twerk, before pointing at the headstone as if to say Your turn. The irreverence toward the dead in this clip fascinates me. Is this disrespectful? Is it what Nats would’ve wanted? I can just picture her shouting, “Bitch, get off my grave!” or “You’re so stupid for this, ho!” All of these playful ways to say I miss you too.
We are all figuratively dancing around headstones in 2022. Experiencing death means doing what we can with what our loved ones left behind, and often, what’s left behind is digital. It’s now almost instinctual to post a carousel of moments before they died — screenshots from a silly conversation or an old video with a caption. But what if we actually try to make them talk back? Or used those old memories to make money? Selena’s estate has attempted to find out with Moonchild Mixes. The controversial new album features vocals the Tejano singer recorded between the ages of 13 and 16, which were then lowered to make her sound older and blended with fresh musical arrangements.
The manipulation of dead voices for capital isn’t new. When constructing Whitney Houston’s Las Vegas hologram show, where a lifelike version of Whitney is projected onstage, CEO Marty Tudor of Base Hologram Productions said he was very concerned with making the late singer’s hologram feel genuine: “It’s creepy and eerie to make the artist do something they would’ve never done … but if you are authentic and live within the rules of who they were, this is a celebration of her legacy.” Morgan Neville, the documentarian behind Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, where ten hours of the late chef’s voice were fed into an algorithm that later became the movie’s narration, was also concerned about Bourdain’s agency. “I wasn’t putting words into his mouth,” she said. “I was just trying to make them come alive.” There are other examples: Ye having the late Robert Kardashian as a hologram wish his daughter Kim happy birthday, Aaliyah’s brother completing the singer’s voice-over work so she could “finish” Queen of the Damned after she died in a plane crash, a recent commercial where a telenovela icon named El Chavo Del Ocho comes out of the screen and tells the viewer everything is going to be okay.
Selena’s estate has released a steady stream of posthumous projects since the singer’s murder in 1995, ranging from the tasteful (the video for “Dreaming of You,” where you see a girl watch Selena sing on a TV as she disappears with a lover into the night) to the unfortunate (a Forever 21 fashion line, a Selena-themed credit card). As for the new album, Selena’s estate insists she would’ve loved it. “We’re still going to do what we want with our music, with our sister, with our band,” her sister Suzette said about Moonchild Mixes, adding, “I don’t think there’s anything that ‘crosses the line’ when you’re speaking of somebody’s legacy.” And, in another interview: “This is just breathing life into older music for the newer generation.” Overall, the family has been adamant about not responding directly to questions of ethics about digitally aging a teenager’s vocals without her consent, but rather what their approach means for fans of Selena. It seems as though the estate doesn’t fully trust how new listeners and already devoted fans would approach Selena’s early works. They are at once protective of their deceased family member while using old recordings to participate in an ever-shifting market, as if they themselves don’t want to be forgotten.
It probably won’t come as a shock when I say that Moonchild Mixes sounds weird, though I did find myself unexpectedly singing along to “Enamorada de Ti” — with its addictive chorus, it’s the album’s only saving grace. Every other track can be described using the following string of metaphors: (1) I’m at a theme park named Selena, buckled into a metal contraption shaped like a rose, getting closer and closer to a smiling version of the star with wires in her chest and washers in her cheeks; (2) I’m listening to somebody being held prisoner inside of an old cell phone who can only communicate via ringtone; (3) I’m squeezing the plush toy dog I had growing up that I had creatively named Princess, and each squeeze makes a rhythmic, barking noise that sounds like a dog but isn’t quite; (4) I’m holding on to a balloon at a birthday party created by an algorithm for somebody who will never, ever show up. Perhaps my mom, who listened along with me as she was drying dishes, can summarize it better: “Creepy,” she said. “Sad. Where are the guitars?”
Then there’s the production, which is desperately trying to keep up with a mechanical ghost puppet, struggling to bring Selena’s essence back to life by way of a drum machine and synths. You can hear it on the very robotic “No Llores Más,” or the way the instrumentation is altered on “Como Te Quiero Yo a Ti,” creating three different versions to make a regional Mexican, cumbia, and pop vibe. “Cariño Mio” sees her voice echo and then call back to itself, which isn’t uncommon in contemporary music, but, given the circumstances, feels stilted and cold. The whole thing is an uncanny nightmare because it came from an uncanny concept. Selena’s father, Abraham Quintanilla, stated in an interview, “My son worked with the computers and if you listen to her, she sounds on this recording the way she did right before she passed away.” Other times he’s said that it’s as if she were in the recording studio “this morning.” These are curious statements because they make you imagine a Selena that perpetually stayed 23, the age she was when she died; if it were truly this morning, her voice would actually be lowered to sound like a woman in her 50s. They want to keep her alive, but not like that.
Years ago, I found a clip of Selena talking to a reporter about her biggest influences, one of which was AC/DC. The reporter said he really didn’t hear any AC/DC in her music, to which Selena smiled that famous, infectious smile and replied, “Every singer has their interests growing up in the things they listen to, little things that a singer might do or that a musician might play in a song will come out later on. You take your little bits and make your own sound.” Listening to this album, that personal sound Selena talked about is missing. Selena performed with immeasurable cadence and emotion. There are only a handful of performers, living and not, who look like they were meant to be onstage, and she was one of them — a true rockera singing pop-cumbia hits, all of this from growing up and developing her own musical palate and influences, having ears and eyes of her own, being part of the world. But here they’re using a voice from when she’s barely lived. The production can’t keep up with Selena’s voice because Selena’s voice can’t keep up with the production because they weren’t ever in the room together. Listening to Selena’s older music, or rather, newer music on albums such as Amor Prohibido, you can hear her soul. But if she were here to actually make a new album, she maybe would’ve ad-libbed something over a chorus, or her voice would’ve swelled with the guitars. You would’ve heard the very thing that made her special, something that can’t be re-created with computers.
Yet even with the ethical quandaries surrounding this record — and the way the tracks made me cringe for Selena — I still find myself having empathy for her family. While writing Dreaming of You, my 2021 novel-in-verse about a poet who brings Selena back from the dead through a Wi-Fi séance — only for the resurrected singer to talk exclusively via clips from her old interviews and songs — I was mourning a friend who had died years before as well as my grandfather, whose last breaths I missed because I wanted to meet with a literary agent to jump-start my “career.” I was processing grief and my own self-worth with the memories of this celebrity I deeply adored. I was interacting with something old to say something new, but also not new. I was doing it for myself. And maybe that’s what her family is doing. Almost 20 years on, perhaps they’re still mourning, still figuring something out. At the end of my book, after disastrous, otherworldly consequences, Selena dies again, from a gun that keeps shape-shifting, and then everything is somewhat normal, though still a little haunted. The character has to let her go.
Sometimes when I teach classes on ekphrasis, or the kind of poetry that has art or a cultural subject at the center, I show a clip of Selena performing “Como La Flor” at the Astrodome. She belts “Como la florrrrr,” and then stops and waves. She waits for the audience to sing along with her. She’s teasing them, almost, but it’s symbiotic; she won’t sing the song unless they sing along. In her wave, you see a Band-Aid wrapped around her finger and red lipstick stained on the microphone she’s holding. And in this moment, captured on film and for me to see on YouTube years later, lovers and horrors and sadness and hope crushed under my belt, I can see how imperfectly perfect she is. “I mean, LOOK AT HER!” I’ll tell the squares in the Zoom room. “Look!” Underneath that Band-Aid, she was bleeding. And on that device in her hand was a chemical she painted on her lips designed to not stay on forever. And oh, how I love her! Because she was not a disembodied perfected voice on a posthumously released robot album; she was a person. Who sweat, farted, forgot to floss, swore, ate pizza, fell in love fast and trusted people she shouldn’t. She was alive.