Roy Orbison’s lyrics bleed into the depths of your soul, conjuring twinges of melancholy you thought you had buried long ago—but as he bellowed his first note, the audience burst into a chorus of giggles. A full orchestra and back-up singers, led by a spirited conductor, were playing iconic Orbison tunes to a concert hall with upwards of one-thousand people, most of whom were elderly and white, and all of whom had paid dozens of dollars to attend the Roy Orbison hologram tour. There he was, the legend himself, dead since 1988, singing about his loneliness and sorrow, a two-dimensional man who wasn’t even a hologram at all, but rather, a high-powered laser projection, strumming his two-dimensional guitar, and singing about his very three-dimensional pain.
Sending the “hologram” of a dead rockstar on tour sounds a lot more bizarre and dystopian than it actually is. It’s not a particularly new phenomenon—in 1991, Natalie Cole performed a duet with a hologram of her late father, Nat “King” Cole, and in 2007, Celine Dion sang with a cyber-Elvis; but holograms took off in a big way in 2012, when a digital Tupac performed with Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre, the latter two in antiquated corporeal form, at Coachella. At the time, my colleague Derek Mead worried that this would start a trend of other rappers being repurposed into “digital cartoons who shill tracks that will slowly devolve into pop schlock for desert parties in the uncanny valley.”
Plenty of critics have directed their ire at the practice, calling it “creepy,” the result of a “greedily capitalist society” that plays god by resurrecting the dead for a quick buck. Earlier this year, a Bloomberg writer argued, “The holographic tours are just one example of how tech entrepreneurs are trying to abolish death.” They are wrong.
This sort of histrionic criticism of hologram concerts comes almost entirely from people who have never actually attended one. Even before I saw it for myself, I had a feeling I was going to thoroughly enjoy holo-Roy because I have a deep respect for late capitalist trash. It’s 2018 and I’m in the United States of America—if I can’t hang out with digital reincarnations of my dead idols, what’s the point of living in this hellishly beautiful mecca of celebrity-worship and consumerism.
“Do you dress up to see a hologram?” my boyfriend asked me before the show.
“I guess?” I replied, opting to wear trousers instead of my usual sweatpants, as a meaningless expression of courtesy for the cyber-reincarnation of Roy Orbison I would soon behold. It was a bitingly chilly November evening, and sadly for me, the all-time great singer, who died five years before I was born, couldn’t land a post-mortem gig in the Big Apple, so I had to make the journey to the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts in Long Island.
I asked an older couple named David and Karen why they came to see the show, and they didn’t have anything particularly deep to say about what it means to resurrect the dead. Instead, David explained they were always big Roy Orbison fans, and never got to see him perform while he was alive, so they thought it would be fun. The audience was about as excited as a room full of elderly people on a Saturday night could possibly be. Gary, the man sitting in front of me, said that he came to see the show because he had seen Natalie Cole perform with her hologram father in 1991, and he was hoping the technology had improved since then.
As it turns out, even holograms get opening acts. To warm the crowd up, Julian Frampton (son of Peter) played a couple tunes, making sure to self-deprecate between songs, joking that he is also a hologram. “I was in college when I was listening to Peter Frampton. That was over 30 years ago,” I heard an audience member remark. The crowd responded to Julian Frampton with extreme warmth, the way you’d expect a doting great-aunt to congratulate you on a minor achievement.
The projection of Orbison wasn’t Roy Orbison at all, but rather an actor portraying his likeness with the rockstar’s face CGI-ed onto him. Marty Tudor, the CEO of Base Hologram Productions, which organized the show, was quick to challenge me when I called the technology “a hologram of a Roy Orbison impersonator.”
“We worked with a Tony Award winning director from the theater who trained the body double in the movements, and then we did a ton of CGI work,” Tudor told me over the phone.
The concert was interspersed with videos about Orbison’s life, although much of the personal tragedy he endured—his first wife was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1966 and three years later, while he was on tour in Britain, two of his sons died after his home in Tennessee caught on fire—was omitted.The 60s rock ‘n’ roll icon’s sorrowful twangs could only be born from the agony of human existence, and it’s not like enjoying a projection of a flattened CGI Roy Orbison, accompanied by a orchestra of actual humans—violinists and cellists and three young back-up singers; a middle-aged blonde woman stoically nailing the guitar riffs—was going to change that fact.
If any dead musician is perfect for the hologram treatment, it might be Roy Orbison. He notoriously suffered from stage fright, and was a weird and uncomfortable performer who wore dark sunglasses, as if to shield his face from the audience. In his life, Orbison seldom spoke the audience when he wasn’t singing, so when the hologram took a stab at some light crowdwork, meekly thanking the audience for their applause after he finished a song, the clumsiness of a projection play-acting as the real thing felt fitting. It was awkward and weird and kinda beautiful, just like Roy Orbison himself.
Ultimately, there was no grand takeaway from going to a hologram concert—nothing to be gleaned about what it means to defy the natural order of life and death. Some things are just made to be enjoyed, even if, and more likely because, they are pure trash.