For the Super Bowl LII halftime show in 2018 hosted in Minnesota, it was reported that Justin Timberlake and his team wanted to bring hometown hero Prince back to life in hologram to sing alongside the former NYSYNC star. In the past, holograms of Tupac Shakur (Coachella 2012) and Michael Jackson (Billboard Music Awards 2014) have performed alongside physically present stars at shows. The hologram was, for awhile, all the rage in the pop music industry.
Hologram comes from the union of the Greek words holos, meaning whole, and gram, which means recording (e.g. Instagram, or gramaphone). Thus, a hologram is meant to be a recording of a whole person. The images of the performers are projected in such a way that they appear three dimensional if slightly pellucid, able to be seen panoramically and not just from a frontward-facing angle.
The world was amazed in 2012, when the company Digital Domain created a hologram of the late rapper Tupac Shakur—whose death has long been the subject of conspiracy theories that claim he’s still alive, maybe living somewhere in Africa—to perform alongside Snoop Dogg at the Coachella music festival in California. The technology was undeniably cool, reminiscent of the futuristic tech from Star Wars or Back To The Future II. Hologram technology has long been anticipated as the medium of the future. Now, it was here, signaling that we were living in the arcadian technological future we had always imagined.
Hologram technology is undeniably cool. Its pure commercial use—like the luminescent shark that we see frighten Marty McFly in Back To The Future, only to be revealed as an advertisement for Jaws 19—is mostly innocuous, and would be pretty neat. But there is an undeniable eeriness to resurrecting these icons, a creepy overstep that demonstrates our feelings of entitlement to celebrities, living or dead, especially considering the real purpose of bringing them back to the stage, which is much less to honor their musical legacy than it is to make money (I’ve been to the Coachella music festival—there are few events more consumerist and capitalistic than that). While bringing an artist back to life is superficially rationalized as a tribute, underneath, it’s a more insidious practice. When this trick of technology is used to dredge up the dead from their dreamless sleep and put them back to work, it loses its benignity.
Many celebrities have expressed trepidation at the idea of being posthumously reincarnated as a virtual, hologrammic version of themselves. Timberlake’s attempt to use a hologram of Prince for his show was foiled when an interview with Prince in Guitar World magazine from 1998 came to light.
Guitar World: With digital editing, it is now possible to create a situation where you could jam with any artist from the past. Would you ever consider doing something like that?
Prince: Certainly not. That’s the most demonic thing imaginable. Everything is as it is, and it should be. If I was meant to jam with Duke Ellington, we would have lived in the same age. That whole virtual reality thing… it really is demonic. And I am not a demon. Also, what they did with that Beatles song [Free As a Bird], manipulating John Lennon’s voice to have him singing from across the grave… that’ll never happen to me. To prevent that kind of thing from happening is another reason why I want artistic control.
Though Prince hated the idea of his being posthumously used to turn a profit, the truth is, his hologramification was complete long before he died in 2016. Because the media industry synthesizes seemingly complete, panoramic virtualizations of celebrities—and makes that virtualization omnipresent in advertisements and media—celebrities can be said to be overtaken by their media ghosts while they’re still alive. We think we know a celebrity because we watch their television shows and listen to their music, read about them in tabloids and follow them on Instagram—yet all we know is an image, a body double, and often one that been carefully cultivated by marketing executives. From Rupert Till’s book Pop Cult: Religion and Popular Music:
Prince initially created an onstage character and developed a myth to surround him, to aid in the marketing of his music, and help overcome his shy personality. This has developed so that the semi-fictional character of Prince is now the main focus of his artwork. Prince’s self, or that perceived as such by the public, is his primary text, his body is the principal instrument he uses…
Celebrities in the music industry often begin as artists firmly committed to their artforms, only to wake up to find that they have become icons in a consumerist industry with little artistic control. By signing over their rights in order to gain the platform they to share their art on a large scale, they lose a crucial dimension of their humanity: their autonomy. The music industry is formed by “agents” and “agencies,” who work on behalf of an artist to create a recognizable brand, a platform, and ultimately financial success. In signing to an agency, an artist or movie star can find they’ve ceded their own agency to a system incentivized by capital, not motivated by a desire to help an artist fulfill their creative ambitions. It’s the closest thing to a deal with the devil that you find in the real world. Like Robert Johnson, the legendary blues guitarist who, as the story goes, went down to the crossroads in the Mississippi delta and signed over his soul in exchange for worldly fame and talent, celebrities sign a social contract that gives them fame and fortune, as well as amplification for their art—but it costs them their free will.
Celebrities live to see themselves replaced by a media doppelganger that is not really them. The dead, soulless image of them replaces them, even before they’ve physically died. They trade in their vitality, their reality as a human being, for immortality. As Bernard Dicky wrote in his biography of actor Billy Wilder: “Movie making is the transformation of living beings into dead images that are then given life by being projected on a screen… Since the stars have ‘died’ by giving up their image to celluloid, they can be immortal both in their lifetime and after their death.” Yet, this immortality comes on the condition of being commoditized. If you are valuable as a commodity, you can exist indefinitely, and beyond physical death.
When he was still alive, Prince was well aware of his commoditization by mass culture, his subsumption and replacement by a “persona.” Persona is the Latin word for a theatrical mask that was used to amplify an actor or singer’s voice (per = for, sona = sound). The persona gives the singer a bigger platform, but often the persona overshadows the person. As Till writes, the body becomes the instrument for the image, and not the other way around. Prince Rogers Nelson becomes secondary to the public image of “Prince.”
Prince found himself uncomfortably beholden to the image created to market him. In the early ‘90s, Prince battled with his record label, Warner Bros., over control of the release of his single “My Name is Prince,” which begins “My name is Prince and I am funky/ My name is Prince the one and only.” In 1993 he appeared in concert with the word “slave” written on his face. He lamented losing creative control to Warner Bros. “People think I’m a crazy fool for writing ‘slave’ on my face,” he told Rolling Stone magazine in 1996. “But if I can’t do what I want to do, what am I? When you stop a man from dreaming, he becomes a slave.” Prince railed against his enslavement by changing his name to a symbol that couldn’t be uttered, an act of reclaiming his identity. He didn’t simply change his name, he became something unpronounceable, which in itself is a pronouncement of inexpressible, inimitable individuality.
The simplification of an artist into an icon, a celebrity, cannot happen without the aid of a corporate entity, and, of course, we the consumers. By framing the status of celebrity as ultimate realization of the American dream, corporations entice us to believe that in achieving ultimate success, celebrities become ours to use, to deify or demonize, worship and abhor blankly, as if they aren’t real human beings. We don’t puzzle over our strange willingness to be hyper-critical toward celebrities. We shrug it off; it comes with the territory of being a star, we say. For many artists who become icons, the nightmare is the loss of not just creative control, but identity.
Entertainment Or Enslavement
There is something distressingly unnatural about our willingness to revive people after death, especially our readiness to wield and consume them as commercial products. Something undeniably Faustian. In this metaphor, who is the devil?
In a Wired magazine article from May, 2018, journalist Jimi Famurewa interviewed members of two companies that specialize in the creation of holograms for entertainment purposes: Pulse Evolution and Hologram USA.
Pulse Evolution made its name by bringing the king of pop, Michael Jackson, back to life at the Billboard music awards in 2014. The hologram of the late singer, illumined on stage, danced and sung (or at least moved its luminous lips) to a track, previously unreleased, called “Slave To The Rhythm” (song choice was a bit on the nose if you ask me).
The fact that they chose an unreleased track, rather than an old standby like “Billie Jean” or “Thriller” was a very deliberate decision. Writes Famurewa in his article: “It’s not difficult to give yourself over to it. To believe that the King of Pop is really, truly back.” John Textor said regarding the Tupac Shakur apparition that his company, Digital Domain, conjured in 2012: “What made that [Coachella performance] unique was Tupac saying, ‘What the fuck is up, Coachella?’ That moment told everybody this was something different.” What made it different was that this performance was not a recording, an homage, nor even a resurrection. It was a replacement.
In a YouTube video from WiredUK, Textor and David Alvi, the founder of another hologram company, Hologram USA, talk about the problems of the industry, but no mention is made to the potentially distortive effects to the way we perceive human beings, the moral questions that the practice raises, or the just plain strangeness of the burgeoning industry. It’s all spoken of as if all of this was simply logical. As if that which is imaginable is therefore inevitable. That the coverage of the industry all follow the competition between various companies highlights the rationale for each company’s founders and executives: if we don’t do it, someone else will.
The exhumation or rejuvenation of celebrities for their posthumous labor is especially grotesque when, like Prince, the celebrity in question had a distaste for their fame while they were still alive. Few celebrities have been more harassed and dehumanized during their careers than Amy Winehouse. In February, 2019 it was reported that the planned Amy Winehouse Hologram Tour, which was to be put on by hologram technology company Base Hologram would be postponed, due to “some unique challenges and sensitivities” of “remembering Amy Winehouse and her legacy in the most celebratory and respectful way possible.”
It is well documented that Amy Winehouse struggled greatly with fame throughout her career, and many believe that it ultimately contributed to her death of alcohol poisoning in 2011. In dying at the age of 27, she joined the famed “27 club,” full of famous musicians who died at the same year, earning her an even more compelling mythos. Perhaps it’s a testament to the hard-living lifestyle of the rock star, or perhaps it says something about the insidious nature of a culture that idealizes fame and arrogates the famous, ruthlessly criticizes them and drives them down dark paths, then imbues them with a mystical quality when they die young, and continues to exploit them even after death.
Amy Winehouse’s former manager said in a 2015 interview: “Fame came like a huge tidal wave…She got depressed, she got lost, she got into a bad crowd, started trying heavy drugs…” As her troubles with drink and drugs worsened, so did the tabloid’s lurid objectification of her. The public humiliation the media used to sell magazines was unmitigated and cruel.
In 2015 documentary Amy, in a tragically portentous interview clip shows Winehouse saying: “I’m not a girl trying to be a star or trying to be anything besides a musician… I don’t think I’m gonna be at all famous. I don’t think I could handle it. I’d probably go mad.” Journalist Paul MacInnes writes in his review of the film: “The idea of Amy as the object of our attention is central to the film. It’s difficult to watch without feeling in some way guilty, responsible in however small a way, for helping to push a vulnerable person into a spiral that ultimately claimed her life.” His choice of words—the object of our attention—emphasizes the objectifying, dehumanizing way that we consider celebrities in our culture. In 2009, Winehouse won an anti-harassment legal injunction to bar the paparazzi agency Big Pictures from following her, and all paparazzi from waiting outside her house to take pictures when she emerged. By all accounts, the cameras and public scrutiny that came with her fame terrorized her, driving her down a dark path and further seizing on the spinouts they instigated along the way. The culture of fame drove her to her death, then had the audacity to try to use her image posthumously to continue to make money.
It’s apropos to mention that Diana, the patron saint of “Dianification,” died in a car crash as she fled from a swarm of French paparazzi. Daniel Harris writes in his article “Celebrity Deaths,” from 2008: “It is a truism of celebrity worship that we end up murdering our stars, that our affection for them is so smothering that we kill them with kindness, hound them to death by siccing the paparazzi who drive them to suicide or send their limos careening into concrete.” Since her death in 1987, Princess Diana’s image has been commoditized to its utmost. Jill R. Chancey writes in her 1999 paper Diana Doubled: The Fairytale Princess and the Photographer: “The Diana memorabilia industry is still in high gear long after her death. Commodities such as porcelain Diana dolls, commemorative stamps and plates, picture books from a number of publishers, and memorial cassette tapes and CDs trade on the image of Diana…the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund has copyrighted a Diana logo for use on officially approved merchandise, a percentage of whose profits go to a philanthropic trust set up in her name.” (Anyone else have that purple Princess Diana-themed beanie baby?)
The Common Language Of Iconography
So why do we obsess over celebrities? Why do we need them in our culture? What do they do for us as individuals? Celebrities show and tell us who to be, by showing us what to buy: which shirts and underwear to wear, which brand of cigarettes to smoke and which colas to drink. We identify with their perfect, flawless images, blown up on the big screen, and seek to attain that same perfection. As Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin quote Bing Crosby in their book On Record: Rock, Pop and the Written Word: “every man who likes me sees in me the image of himself.”
Till writes that, like religious icons, which we have long viewed as “hollow vessels inhabited by god,” celebrities are also divine vessels which we fill with ourselves. By imagining ourselves as the celebrities, we deify and reify ourselves. In a sense, we are envious—we seem these celebrities onstage or on the gigantic screen, and we seek to be as actualized as they are, as certain and definite as they are, and so we consume them voraciously and collect them obsessively, wishing to embody them ourselves. The consumption of human images appears to serve us by giving us identity as it does the celebrities it simplifies, who achieve the fame and notoriety that we all desire.
The presence of icons in our culture simplifies things for us, allowing us to feel security in our identity by equating ourselves with god-like figures that we see on movies or TV. In some senses, it seems like a natural result of the ever-growing world, the apparent movement toward Lovecraft’s “terrifying vistas of reality.”
But while it seems to appeal to a part of human nature, the truly ravenous rate at which our culture consumes celebrities is not a natural consequence of observing talented or good looking people. It is a neurosis that’s been nurtured by the controllers of consumer capitalism. A world of media bombardment doesn’t merely permit us to pick and choose different celebrities to embody like products to brand ourselves, to integrate into our outward aesthetic—it demands it.
That doesn’t just mean self-definition by equation or embodiment, but also identification through negation. Not only do our fandoms become personality traits, but our revilement of certain celebrities allows us to define ourselves in contradistinction. Distinguishing ourselves by disgust is just as effective if not more so than defining ourselves by who we adulate.
Celebrities are the nodes of a mass culture that is built to fasten a huge, heterogeneous, urbanized country. This national iconography isn’t meant to unify us; far from it. It means to placate us with internecine conflict, to insulate our dissatisfactions and have us aim them at each other. Consumerism pacifies us by allowing us to define ourselves by the things we consume to elevate ourselves, but it also encourages us to self-define in relation, and contradistinction, to an “other.”
Black Bodies, Virtualized
Because of the emptiness that abstention from consumerism implies in comparison to the excessive fullness it seems to offer, the cogency of our beings appears to depend on our belief in the simplicity of others, to love or hate. That can mean hating certain celebrities, or certain groups of people. We covet the feeling of being certain, that is, certainly good, and for us to be certainly good, someone else has to be certainly bad.
Definition by negation is the basic psychological “benefit” that racism offers our psyche. Racism is sustained by the simplified belief in the “other,” a binary opposition to our own primary status. One of the most obvious forms of racism is stereotyping. A “stereotype” is the flattening of a human being into an iteration of a kind, or “type.” Stereotype combines the Greek stereós, meaning solid or three-dimensional, with type, meaning kind, category, classification. A stereotype takes a three-dimensional subject and converts it into a onefold symbol, devoid of depth or humanity. Like a celebrity, a stereotype is a simplified idea of a person—except it serves to embody an entire group of people.
No one has been stereotyped more in American history than black people. The National Museum of African American History and Culture lists the “Popular and Pervasive Stereotypes of African Americans” on its website. They are polar in their valences; either tranquil and placid or bellicose and violent. The “Mammy” stereotype was a matronly, peaceable woman, while the “Sapphire” caricature was a boisterous and quarrelsome female. The “Uncle Tom” was an docile and avuncular black man, while the “Mandingo” was a brute, aggressive and prodigiously sexual. The website explains: “many of these stereotypes developed during the height of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and were used to reinforce the commoditization of Black bodies and particularly aspects of enslavement.”
The question we should ask is whether or not this is by design, or natural? We are all unafraid of the unknown, of being nobody—but why has this particular way of self-security by hatred toward black people been so prevalent in white America? Is it because the dark skin of the black person is frightful and strange to them? The only way racism could be a conclusion naturally arrived at and not a useful tool for somebody’s benefit is if we believe that those cosmetic differences were enough to inspire 300 years of brutality and enslavement, and not the more reasonable alternative: that it justified profiting off of another person’s immense suffering.
Historian Howard Zinn writes in his work The People’s History of the United States about the two factors that distinguished American slavery from other historical examples of slavery as the cruelest form in human history. First was “the frenzy for limitless profit that comes from capitalistic agriculture,” and second was “the reduction of the slave to less than human status by the use of racial hatred, with that relentless clarity based on color, where white was master, black was slave.”
Zinn discredits racism as a natural impulse that arose in the white mind upon first setting eyes on African skin. He explains how the white ruling class of the early colonies encouraged the growth of ideological racism with the legislative powers at their disposal, in order to secure their own unquestionable economic and social power. Zinn writes instead that racism originated in “that class exploitation which has made poor whites desperate for small gifts of status, and has prevented that unity of black and white necessary for joint rebellion and reconstruction.” Racism is one of consumer capitalism’s most useful tools, and it’s incentivized by the primary profiteers of its system. Zinn writes that “only one fear was greater than the fear of black rebellion in the new American colonies. That was the fear that discontented whites would join black slaves to overthrow the existing order.”
In a system of consumer capitalism, our identity is our value, and that value is constituted by our worth in comparison to another. All it takes is a little economic incentive—“small gifts of status”—to ingrain a deep need for racism in order to secure one’s identity. Racism diverts the attention of the white consumerist masses from the system itself, and keeps it focused on self-definition.
Capitalism, while perhaps not “run” by a cabal of oligarchs who meet annual at a secret pedophilic island (though it doesn’t seem so farfetched) has knowingly inculcated racism in the lower classes for centuries. Our simplification—of ourselves and of each other—directly benefits the system of capitalism, and the result is worse for some than it is for others.
The Netflix television show “Black Mirror,” often features characters who have committed moral indiscretions, and the disturbing, technological punishment. Often, characters wind up trapped in a virtual purgatory. Their consciousnesses, digitally rendered and everlasting, are trapped in objects or in virtual worlds, where they live forever. In the Season 2 premier episode “Be Right Back,” a young woman brings her boyfriend back to life by uploading a coded approximation of his personality into an android.
The episodes also showcase another universal nightmare—having an audience witness your unending penitence for a terrible crime. In Season 2’s “White Bear,” a woman repeatedly has her memory wiped and is placed inside a park, where attendees can record her as she fumbles around in a terrifying world, only to discover that it’s a ruse; a punishment designed for her, after she was convicted of brutally murdering a small child (she doesn’t remember). The 2014 special episode “White Christmas” features a man whose digital consciousness is trapped in a cabin, snowed-in alone, for millions of years for a terrible crime he committed.
Of course, none of those personalities are truly the offenders, save perhaps the woman from “White Bear,” although she has no memory of her crime. The entity being punished is an exact copy, so close that it has leapt the uncanny valley and except for not having a physical body is indiscernible from a full human being.
In Season 4’s “Black Museum,” a young woman named Nish who is driving cross-country stops to recharge her solar car sometime in the not-too-distant future. She sees a building with a sign on top: “Rolo Haynes’ Black Museum.” She wanders in, meeting the proprietor, a smooth-talking, middle-aged white man. He introduces himself as Rolo Haynes in the flesh, and proceeds to show her the technological artifacts that constitute the museum, sharing the chilling tales that accompany each item. He tells her that he was in med-tech. He worked at San Juniper hospital in the R & D department—as he puts it, the perfect balance of business and healthcare. Juniper/Junipero is a recurring title used in Black Mirror, likely a reference to the juniper tree, an evergreen, like the amber-encased virtual person, which stems from the Latin junio, for youth, a la rejuvenate, and parere for producing. Junipero refers to the permanent youth of digital consciousness. Most of the items were experimental devices with monkey’s paw vibes. He explains that they were beta-tested on unwitting patients (and doctors), using human beings as guinea-pigs for potentially lucrative medical technology.
Eventually, he leads Nish to his best exhibit. Crouching in a simulated prison cell with a glass wall is a virtualized version of Clayton Leigh, a black man who, some years back was convicted of murdering a white television news reporter named Denise Stockley. Rolo explains how he obtained Leigh’s consciousness. Back when Leigh was on death row, Haynes approached him with a proposition: if Leigh licensed out a copy of his consciousness to Haynes as a public attraction, Haynes would give the lion’s share of the profits to his family. Leigh, wanting to take care of his family after he’s gone, agrees. His wife pleads with him not to do it. “Jesus Christ, Clay, it’s your soul,” she weeps from behind the glass window. “Ain’t no such thing,” Clayton says. “It’s just a computer simulation or somethin.’” “Then why does he need your permission?” She asks.
Haynes uploads Clayton’s copy into the cell, virtualizing him in ghostly form. Clayton’s consciousness, suddenly re-animated, is wide-eyed and confused. Haynes presses a button, and suddenly Clayton is strapped in a virtual electric chair. “See, I knew just seeing the guy walking around captive, that was good, but that wasn’t much of a draw,” Haynes tells Nish. “But pulling the lever yourself? Now, that’s an attraction.” He even sadistically simulates for Clay’s proxy the pain of the electric chair, which is anachronistically present in the near-future world, an indication of the inverse correlation between technology and empathy. “A perfect re-creation of exactly how the agony of electrocution feels,” Haynes proudly says. “Every volt simulated for real.”
Nish asks: “But wasn’t there some doubt? You know, that documentary?” To which Haynes responds with an undisguised allusion: “Fake news!” He nods with satisfaction. “There’s no doubt about it. The day he got the chair was a great day for justice.” With his set-up, Clayton would experience the real agony of the electric chair hundreds of times a day. The creepy montage shows small white children pulling the lever on the pleading prisoner. What’s even worse is that with each pull of the lever, Clayton’s consciousness is replicated again, but trapped in the peak moment of his electrocution. “Every time you finished juicing him, out pops a conscious sentient snapshot of Clayton, not a recording, a true copy of his mind perpetually experiencing that beautiful pain. Stuck forever in that one perfect moment of agony. Always on. Always suffering.” It’s reminiscent of the belief held by various indigenous tribes like the Kayapo people of Brazil, and apocryphally Lakota Indian leader Crazy Horse, that a having your photograph taken steals your soul.
It’s explained that an online campaign publicizing the posthumous executions destroyed the Black Museum’s attendance, leading Haynes to seek other ways to make money. This meant allowing rich white supremacists to fry Clayton’s consciousness for excessive periods of time, ultimately turning him into a lobotomized, slack-jawed creature. In the end, Nish, who is secretly Clayton’s daughter, kills Haynes, but just before his death, transfers his consciousness into the virtual electric chair and informs him that he is about to become a keychain souvenir. Always on. Always suffering. He screams and pleads, despite the fact that it won’t actually be his consciousness trapped in the plastic amulet, but another replica.
It’s all very blurry, as to the question of originality of consciousness, the humanity of that which is approximately human—about as proximal to a resurrection as you can get—and to whom that commodified, codified consciousness belongs. It’s a metaphor for the mediated, objectified black man. Clayton Leigh, a southern black man wrongfully accused of murdering a pure, helpless white woman and executed for it, is a composite of all the black men who were murdered by the state for crimes they didn’t commit, or killed in extrajudicial lynch-mobs. He is George Stinney Jr., the 14-year-old boy who was wrongfully convicted and executed in 1944 for the murders of two young white girls in Alcolu, South Carolina. He is Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black boy lynched and thrown into a river in Mississippi for nothing at all. He is the 405 black men executed out of 455 total executions (89%) for the crime of rape that took place in America between 1930 and 1972. He was the Scottsboro boys, 9 black teens in Alabama who were falsely accused of raping two white women in 1931. He represents countless more—wrongfully executed, incarcerated, or otherwise swindled out of their own identity by white proprietors. He also represents the rightfully accused, whose lives and images were pilfered and profited from, whose humanity was stolen from them—whether before they ever committed a crime, or after.
White people have always used black people. Flattened them, turned them into objects to preserve authority. They’ve used media of all kinds to virtualize them as criminals and miscreants, rapers and robbers, languorous and stupid and depraved. They’ve caricaturized them in drawings, played them in minstrel shows, put them on display in human zoos euphemized as “ethnological exhibitions.” Clayton Lee recalls Willie Horton, whose ragged, bearded and afroed-image was used in a campaign ad for George H.W. Bush in 1988. The ad, which helped swing the election for Bush, states: “Bush supports the death penalty for first-degree murderers. Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty; he allowed first-degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison. One was Willie Horton who murdered a boy in a robbery, stabbing him 19 times. Despite a life sentence, Horton received 10 weekend passes from prison. Horton fled, kidnapped a young couple, stabbing the man and repeatedly raping his girlfriend. Weekend prison passes. Dukakis on crime.” For millions of people, Willie Horton the man did not exist. But Willie Horton’s image, his evil, vicious face entered their living room, more real than real.
Shut Up And Dribble
The same way we imagine ourselves onstage, rocking out, moonwalking and commanding the crowd, we do the same to the athlete, whose movements are more elegant and superhuman than our comparative clumsiness. In David Foster Wallace’s ode to tennis player Roger Federer written in his essay “Roger Federer as Religious Experience,” written for the New York Times in 2006, he writes in a footnote:
“There’s a great deal that’s bad about having a body. If this is not so obviously true that no one needs examples, we can just quickly mention pain, sores, odors, nausea, aging, gravity, sepsis, clumsiness, illness, limits — every last schism between our physical wills and our actual capacities… great athletes seem to catalyze our awareness of how glorious it is to touch and perceive, move through space, interact with matter. Granted, what great athletes can do with their bodies are things that the rest of us can only dream of. But these dreams are important — they make up for a lot.”
Athletes literally embody how we wish to move. They’re the closest thing to real life superheroes. We celebrate them for their superhuman physical abilities. We fantasize about inhabiting their bodies, soaring above the rim or spinning away from defenders, or slicing a forehand so it glides down the baseline past the opposing player. We literally embody them in virtual facsimile in video games. Because we revere them so, we cling to them, and eventually feel so attached to their image that we feel we own them. When they speak up, and deviate from poster-childishness, they cease to be hollow, neuter objects onto which we can project ourselves. We feel that our fanatic worship of these athletes gives us a partial-stake in their existence. Thus, their demonstrations of free will are often met with hatred and fury.
LeBron James and Kevin Durant have both been the subjects of heavy criticism for their decisions made to leave one team for another after their contracts have lapsed, and they became what is known in the sports world as “free agents.” In 2010, LeBron left his home-state team the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat, and in 2016 Durant departed the Oklahoma City Thunder to join the Golden State Warriors. Both of their decisions were widely criticized. But also, both men were assailed with harsh criticisms of their characters. They were called cowards and “soft.”
The term “free agent” is awkwardly antithetical to what we want our athletes to be; we want them to be dogged but mindless competitors, heroes mastered by the masses, champions willing to sacrifice everything for us. We can’t simply allow them to do what they want to do. When an athlete deviates from our social tenets in his or her personal life, the public can sometimes be forgiving. We can tolerate certain indiscretions that indicate human imperfection, should they undergo the ritual of public apology and penance – a la Tiger Woods, who confessed to having extramarital affairs in 2010. Other men can still look at Tiger Woods post-scandal and be enraptured by the fantasy of being him (perhaps even more so).
The gravest sin an athlete can commit is not to cheat on his wife, or take steroids, or even to operate an illegal dog-fighting ring, as NFL QB Michael Vick was convicted of doing in 2007 yet resumed his career in 2011. The worst thing an athlete can do is to make a political statement. In their representation of the peak of bodily, kinesthetic intelligence, athletes are valued purely for this variety of intelligence, and no other kind.
After LeBron James and Kevin Durant criticized President Donald Trump on James’ HBO show “Uninterrupted,” Fox News pundit Laura Ingraham said on her show that “someone who gets paid $100 million a year to bounce a ball” has no right to talk politics. “Must they run their mouths like that?” she says. “Keep the political commentary to yourself, or as someone once said: shut up and dribble.”
Kevin Durant, the other player in the car with LeBron James in the “Uninterrupted” segment, later said of Ingraham’s remarks: “To me, it was racist… Ignorance is something I try to ignore. That was definitely an ignorant comment. I do play basketball, but I am a civilian and I am a citizen of the United States, so my voice is just as loud as hers, I think—or even louder.”
To many white fans, the black basketball player who gets paid millions of dollars to bounce or throw or bat a ball has nothing to complain about. By becoming rich and famous, athletes seem to relinquish their right to make political statements—especially statements about the mistreatment of black people in America—because of their transcendence of race, their admittance to the white world. The implication is they should consider themselves lucky, and leave it at that.
The fact that athletes “make the big bucks” makes unrelenting criticism of them fair game for many fans. That’s especially true when the athlete is black, and the fan—who fancies himself “part owner” of the athlete—is white. He feels that the political-racial statement from the athlete—whose salary they “pay” by purchasing a ticket—is a direct criticism of him, which therefore makes the athlete “ungrateful” for the fan’s years of patronage. He feels that he has done well to forgive their blackness and revere their talent objectively. How could these athletes therefore imply that he is racist?
In Spike Lee’s 1994 movie Do The Right Thing, Lee’s character Mookie says to the racist Pino, played by John Turturro: “sounds funny to me. As much as you say n*gger this and n*gger-that, all your favorite people are ‘n*ggers.’” To which Dino replies “It’s different. Magic [Johnson], Eddie [Murphy], and Prince are not n*ggers. I mean, are not Black. I mean they’re Black, but not really Black. They’re more than Black. It’s different.” O.J. Simpson once told New York Times sports reporter Robert Lipsyte: “I was at a wedding, my wife and a few friends were the only Negroes there, and I overheard a lady say, ‘Look, there’s O.J. Simpson and some n*ggers.’” Lipsyte reported that Simpson beamed with pride, recalling the deracialized distinction he had received. “I knew right then he was fucked,” Lipsyte says in the documentary O.J.: Made In America.
The unbeatable standard to which great NBA players are held—Michael Jordan’s ghost—was everything these players aren’t. Jordan was loyal to his first team, psychotically hard-working and dedicated to his craft, and, perhaps most of all, he was totally apolitical as a basketball player and a businessman. A famous, though apocryphal quote often attributed to MJ explaining his unwillingness to take a strong political stance throughout his career: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” Jordan’s abstention from social, racial or political commentary made him the perfect athletic icon. Everyone wanted to be “like Mike,” and as Spike Lee and MJ’s commercials told us with their cute reverse-psychology – “it’s gotta be the shoes.” No political statements ever got in the way of MJ’s value as an icon.
The sense of ownership over celebrities, a result of our vicarious embodiment of them, is especially hideous when applied to black sports stars, beloved almost solely for their physical qualities. As Durant mentioned, there is an unavoidable racist implication in telling prominent black athletes to “shut up and dribble,” when being a black person in America is an unavoidably political existence. Since the days of slavery it has been good business to keep black men and women docile.
No basketball player has been more criticized, and with more rancor, than has LeBron James since he came into the NBA directly from high school in 2003. James was called a quitter, a choker, a whiner, a cry-baby in his days playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers. He was vilified after his move to Miami in 2010. Some cavaliers fans burned his jersey. The owner of the Cavaliers wrote an open letter to Cavaliers fans, saying: “You simply don’t deserve this kind of cowardly betrayal… This shocking act of disloyalty from our home grown ‘chosen one’ sends the exact opposite lesson of what we would want our children to learn. And ‘who’ we would want them to grow-up to become.”
Before, he was a vessel that we could use to contain our hopeful adoration—we want our kids to be like him. One misstep, however, and we use him in the exact opposite fashion: god forbid our children ever turn out like him. Their sense of entitlement cannot be extricated from his race. A black athlete’s appropriation by a fanbase is that much easier, because the feeling is that the successful black person owes a debt to white society. The insinuation of entitlement to these athletes is also inherently scarier when the athlete is black, because historically when a black man has deviated from societal expectations in such an incendiary way, mob hatred like the kind LeBron experienced has ended with real violence, real lynching. White people didn’t just burn the jerseys of black men.
Mark Johnson, who wrote Basketball Slave: The Andy Johnson Harlem Globetrotter/NBA Story, told Ebony.com: “While they were all upset, I was jumping up and down. Not because he was going to Miami, but because after 50 years, a Black player not only had a choice of playing in the league but was now able to choose the team he was going to. What he did was unheard of.”
When the Miami Heat lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA finals in 2011, many people rejoiced at his failure. When he was asked if this bothered him. He responded: “Absolutely not, cause at the end of the day, all the people who are rooting for me to fail, at the end of the day, they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today, they got the same personal problems they had, today…they gotta get back to the real world at some point.” James points out that the world in which thousands if not millions of people were flinging criticism at someone they don’t know personally at all is a fantasy—that they’re scorning an image of a real human being in order to make themselves feel better. It’s that much more satisfying when you feel taller than a guy who’s 6-foot-8.
To fail to acknowledge the racial component of all that is simply to ignore context. It is true that we simplify and criticize both black and white athletes profligately and without empathy. But only with black athletes do we demand that they be stripped of the racial component of their identities in order to make us comfortable. That they de-racialize themselves.
Of course, to suggest that all the media attention that players receive hurts them is wrong. Players receive benefits from their status as an image; shoe deals, advertisements and endorsements (LeBron James made $52 million from endorsements in 2018). Michael Jordan smartly rode his social simplification all the way to the bank. For black athletes in America—a country in which the median white family owns 10 times more wealth than the median black family (Pew Research), it’s quite understandable to avoid being political. Just look at how Colin Kaepernick’s career has been impacted by his act of protest.
In 2017, Bob McNair, the owner of the Houston Texans, made a bit of a gaffe during a meeting between NFL players and owners to discuss the kneel-down protests in 2017. McNair said that we: “can’t have the inmates running the prison.” McNair sounded not a small amount like a slave owner afraid that his property might revolt. NBA player Draymond Green responded, suggesting a few different ways to change the dynamic between the front office of an organization and its players.
“For starters, let’s stop using the word owner and maybe use the word Chairman,” Green wrote in an Instagram post. “To be owned by someone just sets a bad precedent to start. It sets the wrong tone. It gives one the wrong mindset.”
Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, responded to Green’s comments in an ESPN interview: “We own equity. We don’t own people… And there’s a big difference. This is a country where we have corporations, and you put up your money and buy equity. E-Q-U-I-T-Y…don’t try to suggest that because we have a team and the nomenclature is ‘owners’ because we own shares of stock, own equity, that it’s analogous to slavery. That’s just as bad [as McNair’s comment]. It’s just as bad.”
In a final self-defensive sweep, Cuban says: “Ask anybody who’s ever played for me. Ask anybody who’s ever worked for me. I’m far from perfect, but that’s certainly not a connotation that you’re going to hear from anybody that I’ve ever been associated with…”
In the end, Cuban’s argument is rooted in defensiveness, and it’s surprising how incapable he is to cast aside his feelings of personal offense to listen to a valid criticism. His self-defense keeps him from trying to understand Green’s perspective as a black person in American society, instead fighting to delegitimize a gripe which is based in Green’s subjective experience as a black American, something that’s pretty inarguable.
Green responded to the paternalistic spiel from Cuban, when he was a keynote speaker at Harvard University. “When you look at Mark Cuban, for instance, with the whole equity thing, we all can own equity and that’s fine. But Mark Cuban will never know or understand how it feels for me, a young black African-American, to turn on the TV and see what happened in Charlottesville. He’ll never have that feeling… So, when I say, ‘Hey maybe we shouldn’t use that word,’ to be honest, I really don’t expect him to understand…”
Perhaps it’s a big ask—given the system that encourages us at every end to invest fully in fanaticism for athletes, celebrities, icons—but we, as individuals, should strive to approach public figures as image rather than actuality. In a hyper-mediated world, in which people in the public eye are constantly thing-ified, turned into products for public consumption, being able to maintain our critical distance is vitally important, so that we can remember that athletes are human beings, with real lives that are not duty-bound to what we want. We need that critical distance, not just so we don’t hurt their feelings, but so we don’t become so absorbed in our idolatry and masochism that we wake up one morning and find that we don’t have a real self, or that our identities are based on loving—or hating—someone we’ve never met.
Disneyfying The Dead
While our entertainment figures are ostracized for making political statements, our real political figures—political in the sense of dissenting, countercultural and often (and especially) anti-capitalist—are transformed into simple, inoffensive entertainment figures. In its sophistication, capitalism has found a way to whisk away those who would encourage criticality in the consumer masses, giving them the old Vaudeville Hook and replacing them with a dancing, smiling marionettes.
Most nefariously, they even monetize them. Just look at Che Guevara—an anti-capitalist revolutionary figure if ever there was one—whose visage has been reproduced ad-infinitum on T-shirts and coffee mugs and iPhone cases sold at tourist shops across the world. While it’s up for debate as to who has historically been silenced by an actual assassination by powerful puppeteers, it’s an indisputable fact that many figures of revolution have successfully been silenced by a smiley simplification, replacing them with dopey, depoliticized likenesses. Instead of trying to suppress them, our culture comes to falsely-celebrate these figures for their admirable buy apolitical qualities—courage, fortitude, wisdom, perseverance, blah blah blah—affixing these platitudinous qualities to their mechanistically reproduced image they’re simply meaningless icons.
This process has been sometimes referred to as the “Disneyfication” or “Disneyisation.” One of the first uses of the term comes from Andre Kehoe’s book from 1991, Christian Contradictions and the World Revolution: “This bogus culture imposed hour after hour on the people by the media is a serious interference with free thinking and therefore free action. It is part of what Peter K. Fallon of New York University, in an admirable phrase, calls the Disneyisation of society.”
The Disney Company has a history of using racist caricatures in its cartoons. Their most famous and regrettable racist character is probably the infamous Uncle Remus from the 1946 film Song of the South. Remus was a simple and contentedly subjugated “Uncle Tom” figure who lived in a romanticized version of the Antebellum south. When it was initially released, the NAACP criticized the film for “the impression it gives of an idyllic master-slave relationship.”
The whistling, Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dahing Uncle Remus, played by James Baskett, was kindly and docile. He was the original Disneyfied black man. To Disneyfy black people is to pigeonhole them into roles of docility in order to preserve the status quo. After all, the term “status quo” is a shortening of the Latin “in statu quo res erant ante bellum,” meaning “the state of things before the war.”
No major revolutionary figure in America has been more Disneyfied than the civil rights leader, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In popular mass culture, Martin Luther King has been transformed from a fiercely political figure, into an image of passive “anti-racist” figure, an advocate of pacifism and love. The “anti-racism” with which he is now associated invokes a understanding of racism as being pure heuristic, superficial, surface level, which does not implicate the “system.” He represents the push to eradicate the sort of racism that kept black people in the back of the bus or outside of white swimming pools, bathrooms and schools—surely a good fight, but one more related to the manifestation of racism than its real causes.
In reality, King was a radical thinker who recognized the evils of capitalism and militarism and their relationship to the situation of black people in America. While the pseudo-liberal disposition of the US public in the 21st century permits something as obvious as literal segregation to be abjured, it cannot oblige criticism of systemic racism and capitalism, which King spoke against more and more in the years leading up to his death.
“We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together… you can’t really get rid of one without getting rid of the others… the whole structure of American life must be changed. America is a hypocritical nation and [we] must put [our] own house in order,” King wrote in a Report to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Staff in 1967. In a 1967 speech to the SCLC in Atlanta, King said “[O]ne day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America? And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society…” He concluded: “We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing‐ oriented’ society to a ‘person‐oriented’ society.”
In tragic irony, Dr. King himself has since been “thing-ified,” virtualized, capitalized upon and incorporated by a racist system as a token black character in its lexicon. Disneyfied.
The Disneyfication of Martin Luther King, Jr. can be witnessed in its full effect each year on January 21—Martin Luther King Jr. Day in America—as conservative politicians and the Twitter accounts for various monolithic government agencies issue PR statements declaring their respect for the Reverend. In 2018, The US Marine Corps Twitter account tweeted: “Today, we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — a man whose fight for equality strengthened our nation.” They tweeted a picture of King gesticulating onstage, with the quotation: “A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.” The USAF tweeted another quote from King, a vague statement denouncing injustice (who isn’t against injustice, right?). King spoke against America’s militarism frequently. The NRA tweeted “Today, the men and women of the @NRA honor the profound life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King applied for a concealed carry permit in a ‘may issue’ state and was denied. We will never stop fighting for every law-abiding citizen’s right to self-defense. #MLKDay.”
The NFL, who has been criticized for essentially blackballing former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick from the league because of his famous national anthem-kneeldown in protest of shootings of unarmed black people in America—a non-violent political protest reminiscent of, hmm, someone—tweeted: “Today we join players around the league in celebrating the life, legacy and lasting impact of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. #MLKDay.”
The Twitter account for Yum! Brands, the conglomerate that owns KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, WingStreet and more, tweeted another MLK quote, devoid of context so as to become insipidly inspirational: “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve,” ostensibly equating its restaurant’s servers, the exploited underlings that allowed the massive corporation to accrue $5.68 billion in 2018, with Dr. King. That one was pretty shameless.
But arguably the worst tweet came on MLK day 2017, the F.B.I. tweeted: “Today, the F.B.I. honors the Rev. Martin L. King Jr. and his incredible career fighting for civil rights. #MLKDAY,” and a picture of the quotation: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Coming from the same F.B.I. that had wiretapped him, blackmailed him, and even wrote him a letter urging him to kill himself, the sentiment seems a little disingenuous.
The Disneyfication of Martin Luther King Jr. has been an act of deliberate pushback to black progress in America. As opposed to the radical change he really preached in his lifetime, he has become an icon of slow change, a path which white people prefer, and which MLK perceived as the greatest impediment to black progress, as he wrote from a Birmingham jail cell in 1963:
First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
Disneyfication allows us to accept Martin Luther King Jr. for his banal, universalized qualities, but not for his truly hortatory message. Members of a “liberal” society in the 21st century can almost all agree to oppose the simple, standalone form of racism, whereby people are judged by the color of their skin and not the content of their character. The Disneyfied Reverend Doctor has been mechanistically reproduced as a defense mechanism for white people to wield, a figure whom they can purport to revere (a proverbial, perennial “black friend”) and thereby avoid confronting the systemic racism that might actually implicate or require something of them—or take away the modicum of superiority over black people that the system appears to offer them, the identification by contradistinction that feels threatened when a black man suggests that the wealth of the powerful white men ought to be redistributed.
So has been simplified and posthumously defanged one of America’s greatest revolutionary figures, used to perpetuate the same system he fought against.
Disneyfication is a process that not only posthumously strips revolutionary icons, but an all-encompassing process that befogs American life, estranges it from reality by cartoonizing it, depoliticizing and therefore de-realizing, i.e. simplifying it. Whereas the Internet is the truly perfect amorphous representation of Baudrillard’s concept of “hyperreality,” Disneyland is its perfect physical embodiment. It is a place of characters and caricatures, a world that condenses complicated truth into something not only simpler, but far sweeter, richer and more satisfying. It is the land of ageless, changeless, immortality. The status quo physicalized; a world preserved in sweet, treacly amber.
Baudrillard writes of the happiest place on Earth in his book Simulacra and Simulation: “[E]verywhere in Disneyland the objective profile of America, down to the morphology of individuals and of the crowd, is drawn. All its values are exalted by the miniature and the comic strip. Embalmed and pacified.” Baudrillard calls the Magic Kingdom the objective profile of America; the perception of America, fabricated and realized in a world of simple, objective logic. It is an embalmed, meaning dead but preserved, nostalgic retrospection embodied—the time before the world. The people are all characters, with broader smiles, smoother skin, eternal lives. Disneyland is the dead, yet hyper-alive version of reality, where everything is cherub-cheeked and doe-eyed (except for those swarthy, Orientalized villains that stalk in the background, who are vile but ultimately harmless). It is immortal, manicheistic and downright euphoric.
Baudrillard writes of the horrific experience of leaving Disneyland and walking through the parking lot, a shocking return to the barrenness of the real world. “The contrast with the absolute solitude of the parking lot—a veritable concentration camp—is total… Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the ‘real’ country, all of ‘real’ America, which is Disneyland.”
We prefer to remain pretend-denizens of the magic king. If we could sign our souls away to Michael Eisner and the cryogenized ghost of Walt Disney to simply become one of the animatronic automatons chanting “it’s a small world after all,” or one of the characters—not just the actors playing them, but the characters themselves—and stay forever young, forever simple, we would. The very fullness of that world of make-believe inspires a hatred for the “real” world. The fear of returning to that bleak world away from the glittering pretend arcadia keeps us coming back.
Disneyland is the ultimate—or most literal—purveyor of the “magical” effect consumer capitalism has on us, the one that overwhelms us and swathes us like a warm blanket. Once we’ve been admitted, we never want to leave. Consumerism and media have us convinced that Disneyland is an accurate representation of the real world, and that the boring, empty wasteland outside its friendly confines is the real fraud. When the park closes and we’re forced to leave, we have to return to the horrors of the “real” world. Sparser, colder, vaster and emptier. So we spend our time in constant, covetous pursuit of the Disneyfied world. A place out of time, a land of immortality.
Rerun, Reboot, Recycle
Our addiction to emotional comfort, and its identification with pop cultural images, is great for producers. Recycling images with prefabricated clout is easy, and we eat it up because we already know it and love it. Like Coca-Cola’s ancient slogan from the 1950’s says, the images of the past are “dependable as sunshine.” What better emotional comfort to vest ourselves in than nostalgia? What’s more comforting than our old favorites? The songs and movies that we loved as kids, that remind us of “simpler times.” The state of things before the war.
When Robin Williams died in 2015, he bequeathed the rights to his name, signature, photograph and likeness to a charitable organization that his legal representatives created. Some have speculated that it was a decision made to avoid legal disputes with IRS regarding the posthumous evaluation of his name and rights to his image, similar to the suit in which Michael Jackson’s estate is currently involved. As the New York Post explains, the provision in Williams’ will protects his family “from incurring estate penalties due to his posthumous earnings.” But he might also have been thinking of the possibility of being capitalized on after death, becoming another trapped spirit in the haunted mansion.
It also might go back to a feud between Williams and Disney from the early ‘90s. following the release of the acclaimed animated film Aladdin in 1992. In a 1993 interview, Williams spoke on his disagreement with entertainment titan. “The one thing I said was I will do the voice. I’m doing it basically because I want to be part of this animation tradition. I want something for my children. One deal is, I just don’t want to sell anything–as in Burger King, as in toys, as in stuff… Then all of a sudden, they release an advertisement–one part was the movie, the second part was where they used the movie to sell stuff. Not only did they use my voice, they took a character I did and overdubbed it to sell stuff. That was the one thing I said: ‘I don’t do that.’ That was the one thing where they crossed the line.”
Perhaps Williams took the grudge to his grave. In 2015, with the concept of an Aladdin reboot being discussed, an anonymous Disney executive told the New York Post that Disney owned enough excess material from Williams’ original recordings as the genie to furnish a whole new movie. But, thanks to the clause in his will, Disney was legally not allowed to use the recordings. “When he was on form, the hyperactive motormouth we love from ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ and ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’ was making 30 jokes a minute,” the unnamed executive told the NY Post. “Now, because he insisted on a final say on such material, [the jokes] will remain in the vaults.”
The reboot of Aladdin, officially announced in 2016 and released in 2019, features Will Smith as the genie character that Williams once played. Throughout the 2010s, the culture of reboots, revamps and remakes has grown stronger as Hollywood has begun to re-capitalize on film franchises whose bodies are barely cold. The benefit of reanimation is that there is no need to familiarize people with new characters and plots, better to simply use those tried and true stories of yesteryear.
Movie reboots and remakes have been rampant in Hollywood in the last 10 years. These uncreative, recycled storylines represent the blatant, artless consumerism of today—the ultimate, pure patronization of consumers. That we still patronize the studios by buying tickets demonstrates either our obliviousness or our indifference. In the last decade, Hollywood has rebooted popular films and film franchises, from Star Wars, to Halloween, Tron, Blade Runner, Top Gun, Terminator, Ghostbusters, Mad Max, to Mary Poppins, Aladdin, Lion King, Dumbo, and a host of other Disney Films which have been reshot as live-action films.
The same willingness of tech companies to dredge up the dead in holography allows Hollywood execs to revive film series’ that have run their course, shoot unnecessary sequels, shot-for-shot recreations, or exhume the images of deceased movie stars to be pasted into films and commercials, as has been done to Paul Walker, Oliver Reed, Marlon Brando, Audrey Hepburn, Bruce Lee, Louis Armstrong, James Cagney, Gene Kelly, Cary Grant and more.
It shows the flagrant capitalism of the entertainment industry, their allegiance to the dollar and little else. There are no qualms had in dredging up the dead to make money—whether it’s a dead story, or a dead person. It’s no wonder that Marty McFly, in the far-flung year of 2015, was attacked by a holographic advertisement for “Jaws 19” (now, how long until we reprise Back To The Future?)
The creepiest thing about these these uncreative, recycled products, is that there is death, literally and figuratively, built into them, and that their mordancy passes through the screen and into us. The immortality with which we associate celebrities, and crave for ourselves, is the death of vital experience. Without the perspective that we are not absolute, that we are not objects, but subjects, our lived experience is dead.
When we consume the same things over and over, we identify with those immortal, infinite images, and if they cannot die, we reckon that neither can we. We become slaves to the deathless, juvenescent icons of Marilyn, Audrey, Sinatra and Crosby. If we admire them, we embody them, and so we dream that we too can live in on in eternal celluloid, even as our physical shells age and disintegrate. Ernest Becker writes in The Denial of Death that through the identification with symbols, “man’s natural yearning for organismic activity, the pleasures of incorporation and expansion, can be fed limitlessly in the domain of symbols and so into immortality. The single organism can expand into dimensions of worlds and times without moving a physical limb; it can take eternity into itself even as it gaspingly dies.” To truly live is to be aware of death, to know that you are just a human being. It is a humbler existence, and it is deeply personal; cherishable because it is perishable. I believe that our mortal salience is a gift, not a curse. The ageless celebrity represents the opposite of the memento mori, the reminder of death—it obviates our mortal salience.
The HBO documentary Leaving Neverland made major waves in 2019, when it explicitly detailed the allegations of two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck who both claimed that Michael Jackson sexually abused them as children. The documentary, by nature, compels the viewer to form an opinion on whether you believe these two men—whose stories are shocking and disturbing and tragic—or you believe that Michael Jackson was really the harmless, gentle creature that he portrayed himself to be, cartoonish and strange but harmless. Either way, the viewer is forced to confront the idea that, whether he was a predator or purely a victim, Michael Jackson was deeply warped, and quite possibly very dangerous.
In Leaving Neverland, the viewer comes face to face with these two men, each telling their stories of how Michael Jackson manipulated them into performing sexual acts at very young ages. We’ve known about these allegations, or allegations like them, for years. In a 2004 Comedy Central special called “For What It’s Worth,” Dave Chappelle spoke on the allegations against Michael Jackson:
“Maybe he did it. Who knows? Who knows?! That’s the thing, that’s what I wanted to say, who knows? Who the fuck knows? Mike, God, and this little boy know… And the only reason I can talk about Mike is because… he is a freak…That’s why people let you talk about him. Because if I brought up Catholic priests fucking kids, it’d get quiet as shit.” At this, the room falls silent, and Chappelle offers a knowing look. The crowd laughs uncomfortably. “But when Michael Jackson does it, it’s okay, because he’s a freak. His face is all… cut up. And just remember, when you look at that thing that he calls his face, that he did that for YOU somehow.”
Chappelle points to the fact that a systemic, or deep-seated institutional evil—especially something as sacred as the Catholic Church—is taboo to talk about. Institutional evil is frighteningly unassailable, and its persistence makes us complicit. But an individual is much simpler to denounce and dismiss as a lone aberration, a “freak.” One can criticize Michael Jackson because he’s a freak, without having to say anything critical about where that freakishness comes from.
Yet, we’ve long known that Jackson was a product wrought by a brutal consumerist machine that had exploited him since his youth, an institute that we patronize consistently. We knew that he had been distorted by a machinery that was designed to entertain us.
If there was anyone truly emblematic of “the American dream,” it was Michael Jackson. He came from a poor black family in Gary, Indiana, and made it to superstardom. He achieved the ultimate dream—and as the result, became an icon in pure distillation. He didn’t just lose his agency or a dimension of identity; he was, from the start, deprived of the chance to organically form one. Everything Jackson became was molded by the machine that capitalized on him.
Jackson’s idealized grasp for a childhood in his adult years—alleged and proven—is an attempt to replenish this impoverishment. “People wonder why I always have children around,” Michael said in a 1993 interview with Oprah Winfrey. “It’s because I find the thing that I never had through them. Disneyland, amusement parks, arcade games — I adore all that stuff because when I was little, it was always work, work, work.”
But it’s also an attempt to hold onto the eternality with which he’s been associated his entire life. As a pure icon, he’s meant to be inhuman, ageless, immortal—forever young, like his self-claimed animated analog Peter Pan. His whole identity is rooted in the image, rather than the reality, and his life represents a desperate attempt to live up to the immortality that defines him. To be the imperishable image that he believes himself to be.
Michael Jackson was the purest human result of a mechanized, exploitative machine, one that had its claws into him since the age of six. His commoditization has been the most thorough and continuous of any celebrity we can think of. Everything about Michael Jackson was influenced by the interests of the consumerist machine. All things conventionally human about Jackson passed through the sieve of celebrity and came out warped and deviant on the other side, from his aesthetic tastes to his alleged sexual proclivities.
In a 2003 TV-documentary called “Living with Michael Jackson,” Martin Bashir interviewed Jackson over the course of 8 months, traveling with Jackson and gaining insight into Jackson’s every day life. In one scene from the documentary, Jackson and Bashir ride in a limousine in Las Vegas. Bashir asks Michael Jackson what he thinks he’s worth. Michael demurs and says “c’mon Martin,” but when Bashir suggests a billion dollars, Jackson nods, seemingly pleased, and says “it’s over there.”
Forbes magazine estimated that Jackson earned nearly $2 billion during his solo career, from 1979 until his death in 2009. Even dead—perhaps especially dead—Jackson is a source of tremendous revenue. As of 2014, Forbes estimated that Jackson had earned over $700 million since his death in 2009. In 2012, Jackson’s silhouette appeared on a billion Pepsi cans. From 2011-2014, Cirque du Soleil produced “Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour,” selling 3.7 million tickets in 27 countries and earning $371 million in revenue. Michael Jackson is consumer capitalism’s gift that keeps on giving, a well that never runs dry. He, like Prince, saw his public perception as commodity, an image, but his distillation was altogether purer. Whereas Prince suffered the confusion of which ego was the alter—Prince the artist, or Prince Rogers Nelson the person—Michael’s iconization was too intractable. There was no Michael Jackson underneath. He was hollow.
When Pulse Evolution conjured the hologram of Jackson for the performance at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards, more than a few articles were written re: the eeriness of the conjuring. Sarah L. Kaufman wrote for the Washington Post: “Is it bad to be reminded of a great entertainer after his death? Well, no. Is it creepy to project a known perfectionist as a hologram, in a performance before millions, enshrined in Internet eternity, and over which he had no control? Um, yes.” Creepy? Perhaps. But desecrative? Not when it comes to MJ. While it could rightly be suggested that some celebrities—perhaps even most—would detest the thought of their posthumous hologramification, Jackson would likely not be among them. Unlike Amy Winehouse, Robin Williams, or Prince, to be immortalized thusly was perfectly in line with Jackson’s greatest dreams. A perfectionist—perfected. Forever and ever.
In one scene from “Living with Michael Jackson,” Jackson’s limo ferries Jackson and Bashir to the Venetian shopping mall, one of Michael’s favorites places (along with Disneyland, which he recreated in microcosm with his Neverland Ranch). As they climb in the escalators—fans swarming below—Jackson talks about how he loves the mall’s decor, which is wall-papered with Renaissance paintings and trimmed in gold, a Faux-Sistine chapel in the middle of the desert. Bashir asks him if he doesn’t think it’s a bit tacky, and Michael laughs. Tackiness, gaudiness, elaborate, over-the-top opulence is Michael’s taste. He loves the ornate, the Aurelian, the overdressed, because it’s regal, timeless, ancient but preserved: ageless.
MJ steers Bashir and the cameras toward an Egyptian-themed store where Michael says he has purchased a “tomb.” He points to a brilliant gold sarcophagus, a replica of “the anthropod coffin of King Tutankhamun. “Isn’t it gorgeous?” MJ says. “Look at the face.” Bashir asks: “would you like to be buried in something like this?” Michael giggles and says “No.” Then: “I don’t ever want to be buried.” Bashir asks: “what would you like to happen to you?” Michael answers earnestly: “I would like to live forever.”
According to many, Michael Jackson was obsessed with immortality. In a 2007 interview with Ebony magazine, Jackson talks about his desire to live forever:
Everyone wants immortality. Everyone wants what you create to live on, whether it be sculpture or painting, music or composition. Like Michelangelo said: “I know the creator will go but his works survives. That is why to escape death I attempt to bind my soul to my work” and that’s how I feel.
Fine, a poetic sentiment about his art living on past his body. But Jackson’s fixation is on transcending death is more literal. In “The Michael Jackson Tapes,” Jackson tells Rabbi Schmuley Boteach: “I think growing old is the ugliest, the most, the ugliest thing. When the body breaks down and you start to wrinkle, I think it’s so bad…that’s something I don’t understand, Schmuley. And I never want to look in the mirror and see that.” There have also been reports that Jackson was obsessed with the idea of cloning himself in order to preserve his body.
The sort of immortality that Jackson sought—and avidly, surgically pursued while still alive—is a self-Disneyfication. He wanted to live on as a perfect, innocent cartoon image. Baudrillard writes in Simulacra and Simulations: “By an extraordinary coincidence (one that undoubtedly belongs to the peculiar enchantment of this universe), this deep-frozen infantile world happens to have been conceived and realized by a man who is himself now cryogenized; Walt Disney, who awaits his resurrection at minus 180 degrees centigrade.” Like the progenitor of the characters that Jackson loved and clung to, even sought to embody, Michael Jackson wanted to live on, non-biodegradably, for eternity.
Michael Jackson died in 2009. He was buried at the Holly Terrace Grand Mausoleum at Glendale Forest Lawn Memorial Park, nearby the graves of Bette Davis, Lucille Ball, Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable. He was reportedly buried in full concert-regalia and several items from his performing career. The casket chosen as his final resting place is a gold-plated caskey made by the Batesville Casket Company called “The Promethean,” an appropriate name for Jackson’s sarcophagus. Like the demigod Prometheus who molded the first human beings clay, Michael Jackson created himself from scratch, self-chiseling an inorganic face so bizarre that it hardly resembled a human being. He was a pure product of the consumerist engine, which uses dead images for profit and mass-pacification. Psychologist Erich Fromm writes in The Sane Society:
Conceptually the instruments of mechanization five thousand years ago were already detached from other human functions and purposes than the constant increase of order, power, predictability, and above all, control. With this protoscientific ideology went a corresponding regimentation and degradation of once autonomous human activities: “mass culture” and “mass control” made their first appearance. With mordant symbolism, the ultimate products of the megamachine in Egypt were colossal tombs, inhabited by mummified corpses…
Jackson’s love for all things Egyptian, his desire for immortality, his pursuit of a smooth, unwrinkled, plastic and perennially juvenescent face, even his alleged sexual fetishization of young males – they all can be seen as the results of a system that used him from birth to death, commoditizing him so thoroughly that his own self-image was inseparable from his public one.
When Michael Jackson died in 2009, fans began to pour into The Field Museum in Chicago to gaze at a bust of an Egyptian that appeared to resemble the deceased pop star, which was complete with a nose that had been so eroded through the centuries that it looked strikingly similar to the King of Pop’s. While the image he left behind resembled the Egyptian masks that persist to this day, Michael Jackson’s life less favors his pharoahic character from “Remember the Time,” and more like the zombie from “Thriller.”
After Leaving Neverland came out, social media roiled with stark opinionated takes. For those who had ever considered themselves fans of Michael Jackson, it became necessary to form a strong, definite opinion about Michael Jackson. I felt compelled, too. Actress Amber Tamblyn tweeted this: “As a former child actress, I can’t help but watch this documentary and think about how wrong it is for children to be put in the position of performing for the soul purpose of pleasing adults. It’s such a slippery, dangerous, often abusive slope.” Her tweet could be in reference to Robson and Safechuck, both dancers whose careers Jackson promised to help. But it could also be in reference to Jackson himself.
When I was younger, I often defended Michael Jackson against his allegations. I think it was an exercise in demonstrative empathy, a stand made against collective persecution. Here was someone who was, since a young age, exploited by people who should have known better. He was our fault; the least we could do is sympathize with him.
After watching the documentary, I realized that, perhaps while absolutely vilifying Michael Jackson was wrong, I shouldn’t defend him absolutely, either. That isn’t to say that Michael Jackson shouldn’t have to answer for his crimes, if he is a sexual abuser of children. Nor am I suggesting I would turn a blind eye, or not sympathize with these men—who I believe. But perhaps my criticism would more importantly be directed at the system that allowed such a thing to happen, and my own participation in it.
A 2009 study from Pelin Kesebir and Chi-Yue Chiu of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that obsession with celebrities helps reduce our fears of death. “What we found is that the universal fascination with celebrities can be explained by this desire for immortality,” Kesebir said in an interview with the New York Daily News. “Famous people are perceived as immortal in the symbolic sense, and their perceived imperishability serves as a buffer against our fear of the nothingness that comes after death.” Psychology Today explained how the study showed that people even believed that a plane was less likely to crash if a celebrity was aboard. “It can make us believe in the possibility of a meaningful existence in the face of death,” Kesebir said to Psychology Today. “We all need these buffers,” Kesebir says. “Famous people can serve as inspirational figures. They can provide the kind of existential stamina. They can show that you yourself can become immortal. So they’re in a way what’s best about a culture. They can serve as compasses. I don’t think that’s unhealthy.”
I disagree. I think there is a precariousness to celebrity worship and identification with icons that, in the context of capitalism, induce us to close ourselves off, to shut our personal borders, to self-celebrate and dig ourselves in, subconsciously believing that our lives depend on that certainty. It’s bad for us, sure, but worse for those that are victimized to our intractability. The process by which we identify ourselves with immortal icons leaves us lacking a critical capacity for empathy, and that can be dangerous. Just ask Wade Robson and James Safechuck.
The most salient truth of simplification is that the more we view human beings as simple objects, the more we see ourselves the same way. Whether by identification with or contradistinction to, we objectify ourselves—harden ourselves—by the consumption of human icons.
Some people might suggest that celebrity totems are materials as good as any in building a self. As Kesebir suggested, we all need buffers, inspirational figures, heroes. If we don’t need them, they’re still inevitable—after all, icons and symbols are everywhere, and we’re consistently coaxed into consuming them. That can be OK, so long as it’s viewed as something silly, and there is a healthy amount of critical distance between the subject and object of affection.
The truth is, if you found your church on images of the dead, you will soon find yourself inhabiting a haunted mansion. The ghosts will never leave you alone. Invariably it will become their house. Investing in the dead icons of consumerism ensures that your life does not belong to you. The specters of dead icons will cling to you so tightly that you cannot distinguish between yourself and them. They will haunt you, prohibit you from having your own dreams. And as Prince said: when you stop a man from dreaming, he becomes a slave.
The integration of media into the everyday American’s life—especially through social media—has breached the televisual Great Wall that made children ask their parents what planet the TV-people lived on. We have difficulty resisting the seductive certification that media offers us—especially social media, which puts us onscreen, alongside the real celebs. Seeing ourselves up there in perfect, plastic pixilation appeals to our desire in immortality. We invest in our avatars, our online analogs, curating content for our “personal brand,” emulating an “aesthetic” rather than understanding ourselves as complex, constantly changing human beings. We abandon our depth, our own agency, because our reification in the virtual landscape seems to offer something sweeter than subjectivity, it grants us objectivity, a belief in our immortality. Social media allows us to verify ourselves, to more fully embody the images of the celebrity that we idolize. As Ari Stillman writes:
More than a public sphere experienced as private, Facebook’s affordance might better be understood as potentially rendering its users into public figures through the publication, circulation, and discussion of private information…everyone now can attain celebrity status through the internet and Facebook especially.
As we understand the big others that, like omnipresent ghosts, show up on our televisions, movie screens, radios, computer screens and phones as objects and entities, so we understand ourselves. And our simple little selves propagate the same objectifying gaze that consumerism has cultivated in us—which presents a greater danger than our own simple calcification. Because going forth into life with this perspective threatens to exploit or literally harm others.
As It Should Be
The hologram is the ultimate manifestation of the technological capitalization on a human being. It is the highest form of slavery; highest, not in the sense of its abjectness and cruelty, for in that sense it doesn’t compare to the original form of slavery. It is highest in that it is the most remote, the most putatively harmless, the ultimate manifestation of an inhuman conception of human beings, something that can be recreated and therefore should be. Fans were surely thrilled to see Tupac onstage, as they likely were to witness Michael Jackson reborn. Where’s the harm in all this, one might ask?
The harm is that we don’t question the morality of a technology simply because it produces an entertaining and cool effect. As Jeff Goldblum’s character says in Jurassic Park: “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” We lose the critical capacity to wonder whether things ought to be simply because they can. We simply consider them inevitable.
We become complacent in a capitalist society in which every avenue is explored and ultimately exhausted in pursuit of profit. But much of the technologies that result far from benign. We praise ourselves for our own industriousness, our great works, without stopping to consider if these works are really for the betterment of the world and not potentially hazardous for our health. Prince told Guitar World “everything is as it is, and it should be,” especially where death is concerned. “If I was meant to jam with Duke Ellington, we would have lived in the same age.” Hologram technology represents the unmitigated belief that there is no “should be,” no sense of morality that ought to temper our pursuit of profit. Why accept absence when we can have beautiful, uninterrupted presence?
That sense of fatalistic entitlement does not trifle with the scruples of real interactions with other human beings. And therein lies the danger.
Because it’s the same attitude that sanctioned chattel slavery, and the conquest of the Indians: manifest destiny, the idea that if we can do something, it’s our right, and in fact our destiny. As a result of this attitude, there is no accountability on human beings to think about the real impact on human lives. It is uncriticality, plain and simple. If it makes us feel better, if it appears to serve us emotionally in some way—even if it’s a cheap, insalubrious, ultimately sadistic pleasure that it offers—we see no good reason to resist.
To paraphrase Marquis de Sade, the eponymous hero of sadism: “my ability to do a thing confirms my right to do it.” By swallowing this idea, we become complacent as a culture and unsympathetic. We too readily accept the oppression and cruelties visited upon other people as coming with the territory; we too easily swallow the narratives that require the least of us.
The new human image synthesis technique known as the deepfake makes it possible to paste people’s faces onto other people’s bodies convincingly on videos. Already, fake porno films with celebrity’s faces have hit the Internet. We readily accept this creepy new technology because it creates a perfect storm of pleasure, an irresistible chemical confluence, by combining sexual pleasure with the pure consumption of the cheap, holy image of female celebrities. But we forget how deepfakes leave us vulnerable to a similar fate; how, in a world of overabundant information, a world of fake news and photoshopped images, the bastions of truth are quickly depleting, and soon, nihilism will be our cultural disposition.
While it might not sound terribly unpleasant to concede to meaninglessness and consent to be opiated by media, to become objects unto ourselves and therefore evade the difficulties of moral decision-making, without this individual resistance, not only do we lose a crucial part of our existence, but we become complicit in the endangerment of those groups of people whose existences are not particularly valuable to the machine. When we start to see things as inevitable and look at them uncritically, entire groups of “other people” become dispensable. That’s the danger.