The Michael Jackson Hologram: Slave to the Spectacle

Because we apparently can’t let things be, a Michael Jackson hologram performed at last night’s Billboard Music Awards. Slouched atop a gilded, leopard-print throne, the MJ hologram lip-synched and gesticulated along with “Slave to the Rhythm,” a club-ready track off the latest posthumous Jackson album, Xscape. Dancers — virtual and otherwise — contorted themselves more seamlessly than the hologram, whose choreography was, yes, MJ-esque but of course could never compete with the smoothness of the real thing. Not that anyone would expect it to. The appeal of the dead musician hologram is rooted in shock, not nuance. But after all the resurrections of Michael throughout the nearly five years since his death, at what point do we give it up? When do we call a truce and let his career in life define him in death?

The holographic resurrection of Michael Jackson was bound to happen. The warning signs date back to just days after the Coachella 2012 premiere of the Tupac Shakur hologram, the first of its kind. “It could have Michael—absolutely,” Jackie Jackson said of a Jackson 4 Tour that could get its fifth member via hologram. “Wouldn’t that be wonderful? As a matter of fact, we had that idea two years ago for Michael’s Cirque du Soleil show.” But the Jackson family, in all its legal battles and stagings surrounding Michael’s legacy, are smart enough not waste a MJ hologram on a Jackson 5 Tour. Whoever made the decision on greenlighting the hologram decided that the stage for a moonwalking virtual Michael Jackson needed to be huge.

In today’s music world, there is no bigger spectacle than an awards show, where the prizes play second fiddle to the performances. Such was the case at last night’s Billboard Music Awards: 21 different artists (plus one hologram) performed over the course of three hours. 10.5 million people watched. This was the sort of arena in which Jackson thrived, even at the end of his career when he would be trotted out for tribute by leading pop stars of the day (Britney Spears, *NSYNC).

Jackson reached such extreme heights of pop stardom that any hint of humanity was construed as a flaw. Of course, he did have flaws — many of them — but we loved him nonetheless. Perhaps it’s easier to sweep his shortcomings under the rug and focus on the spectacle now that he’s gone — no amount of horrifying allegations or babies being draped out of windows can take away the fact that this man moonwalked straight into our hearts.

But I counter that there’s an alternative to a continual focus on his private life: the music is all that matters. Neither the shock of the spectacle nor the shock of the controversy mean a thing. This was why, despite being opposed to Xscape in principle, I changed my mind about the album once I’d heard it. The intent seems about as pure as a posthumous Michael Jackson album gets: to make MJ as musically relevant within pop circa 2014.

As I detailed last week, the army of producers tasked with such an endeavor — led by L.A. Reid and Timbaland — went to painstaking lengths to make this so, and it shows in the music. Xscape is a new way to appreciate Michael Jackson’s music. Though it seems like its goal is similar, the hologram doesn’t expand on the MJ experience — it takes past performances and creates a new composite, instead of an entirely new world in which to experience Jackson’s music.

As Billboard details, the MJ hologram took nearly six months to develop, with an eye towards detail. The Talauega brothers, Rich and Tone, were brought in to choreograph the hologram’s performance. They previously worked with Jackson on choreography for awards show performances (1995 VMAs) and his 1997 HIStory Tour, the era emulated by Jackson’s physical appearance in the hologram. The set was modeled on artwork from Jackson’s 1991 album, Dangerous; it was around that time that MJ recorded “Slave to the Rhythm.” All this is to say, the hologram was not without its careful considerations.

“When he started walking and dancing, I was teary-eyed,” Jackie Jackson said as he hugged the choreographers the Talauega backstage at the BBMAs, Billboard reports. “It’s hard to please Michael’s fans and Michael… I’m telling you it’s amazing.”

Shocking, creepy, awe-inspiring even… but amazing, I am not so sure. Thriller, Off the Wall, even Xscape — now those are amazing.

(Full disclosure: I was previously employed as an editor at Billboard from 2010-2012.)