On America’s Necromarket

Audrey Hepburn was dead when she did this commercial

I see that Kanye West gave his wife Kim Kardashian a hologram of her late father as a 40th birthday present. Kardashian described it as “a gift from heaven” and “so lifelike!” My feelings on the matter differ significantly: since the time Kim Kardashian was born, we’ve used technology to create a platform for dead celebrity content. It’s ghoulish.

In 1982, country legends Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves appeared together on a duet, which charted at #54 on the Country Singles chart. The accomplishment was all the more extraordinary because both singers had died in separate plane crashes some twenty years before. Using the isolated vocals from two different performances sung a semitone apart, producer Owen Bradley matched the pitch, then added new orchestration and backing tracks. The resulting single was “I Fall to Pieces” — a morbid title, given the context.

This manufactured collaboration kicked off a veritable necromarket, especially after the success of two artists’ early 90s duets with their dead fathers: Natalie and Nat “King” Cole’s version of “Unforgettable,” and Hank Williams’ (Junior and Senior) “There’s a Tear in My Beer.” Frank Sinatra, who released an album of ho-hum duets in his lifetime (the collaborators sang along to Ol’ Blue Eyes’ previously recorded vocals), has continued the tradition from beyond the grave with Celine Dion, Robbie Williams, and Alicia Keys. But it’s Tupac Shakur who’s had the most successful post-life career: 8 posthumous albums certified platinum, most of which consist of duets with living rappers, as well as one “collaboration” with Notorious B.I.G., something which could only have happened over someone’s dead body.

Recording technology has always been a kind of embalming method. It’s wonderful to hear Claude Debussy perform one of his own compositions (recently recorded from a 1913 piano roll), or have access to Robert Johnson’s limited output, especially when his life as an itinerant black Southern musician in the 1930s was so little valued. We will never hear Bach’s pipe organ technique, or Buddy Bolden’s cornet improvisations — instrumental as they were in the creation of jazz. Capturing such transience is a kind of miracle, as it gives us access to these people beyond their earthly term. We can learn from their work, and build upon it.

“Everything is as it is, and [as] it should be,” pop superstar Prince said in a 1998 interview. “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.” Prince died in 2016.

Twenty years later, Justin Timberlake’s Super Bowl Halftime performance included a tribute to, but not a hologram of, Prince — despite rumors to the contrary. Regardless, dead celebrity holograms and digital recreations have sprouted like mushrooms around a rotting stump. Tupac Shakur, Billie Holiday, Audrey Hepburn, and Orville Redenbacher are out there still, performing at Coachella, flogging chocolate and popcorn, or giving us an anodyne history of The Apollo Theater.

Tupac was dead when he did this duet

As a culture, we’ve decided that this is okay. It’s okay to animate the dead to feed our fascination or sell us soap. It’s okay to perform these ghoulish duets.

But, listen: Do not be a demon. Don’t duet with the dead. They are deaf to your interpretation, as evidenced in the slight but telling timing differences in the Cline and Reeves pastiche; it’s something neither artist would have let slide had they actually worked together.

Do not raise the dead to do your commercial bidding: their consent is reliant upon the vagaries of inheritance. I’m pretty sure Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald (who collaborated wonderfully with each other) would not have let Kenny G. or Rod Stewart sit in with them. Like, at all. But they couldn’t raise a hand in protest, and it happened anyway.

Don’t duet with the dead. You can neither break their heart nor refresh their soul. They won’t latch on to the groove or blow a take or walk out on the session. They can’t, with their empty mouths, address your daddy issues.

There are contradictory lessons to be learned from this. The first is do it: the technology is there. It’s a wonderful “tribute” to the decedent and suggests their approval of the project, no matter how much it might outrage their former selves. It’s easey money. We can have Tupac and Billie and Audrey and Orville round forever, at a fraction of the cost: Most of the intellectual property rights issues are already settled, with studios and record labels contractually owning an artist’s likeness and recorded output in perpetuity. Regardless of whether we want him, we can even have Robert Kardashian, who in my opinion already gained immortality by vigorously defending a terrible man — if not an outright murderer — thereby securing infamy sufficient for his progeny to continue tormenting us.

Reflected in this cultural thinking is the fairytale belief that fame is key to immortality, and therefore both are to be devoutly desired. Lurking on a deeper level is the feeling that our celebrities belong to us; that the individual is subservient to the brand; that persona trumps person. At its rotten core is the need for an artist to drop dead in the bloom of youth and peak of their creative expression, so that we may animate them as we see fit, free from temperament and contradiction. Cue Kurt Cobain sitting in with Mumford & Sons. (Don’t bother looking. It hasn’t happened. Yet.)

The real lesson to be learned from this requires a radical re-evaluation. Let the dead bury their dead. Let us appreciate ourselves, and value the artists of our time, as the true (if temporary) inheritors of this earth. Let us have the dignity of not exhuming our past idols for entertainment. Let us have the courage of our own voices, and stop appropriating others’. This is our time, and we are surrounded by talented and unique artists, as we always are. We will all be shuffled off this stage soon enough.

In some ways, the digital age has diminished us. Recordings are now infinitely reproducible, and thus have no inherent value. Musicians have likewise been devalued — it was far easier to make money playing in a cover band pre-pandemic. It’s up to us to declare what is important and proper, beyond market value, or be forever owned.

Tom‘s work has appeared in Longreads, The Oxford American, Bitter Southerner, Slate, Salon, and Southern Cultures, among others. He usually writes about music.

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