Reactions to last night Billboard Music Awards performance has been mixed-and what an interesting mixture it is! While the media continues to spin this as one of the highlights of last night’s show, the reaction from the fan community has been quite a different story. Part of the problem for myself, and I suspect for many others, is simply that this event had been so overhyped prior to the show. Let’s go back to those press blurbs that had so many of us anxiously awaiting what we thought was going to be some miraculous resurrection of Michael from the grave. In particular, this story from the “Las Vegas Sun” and the details leaked by Robin Leach were what really set fans’ hearts and pulses into over drive:
Billboard Awards preview: Michael Jackson imagery is ‘as if he’s still alive’
Saturday, May 17, 2014 | 1:58 p.m.
A “real-life” Michael Jackson will appear halfway through the 2014 Billboard Music Awards on Sunday at MGM Grand Garden Arena despite last-minute lawsuits and court filings to block the spectacle.“It’s as if he’s still alive. He’s totally real. It’s absolutely uncanny. People who have seen just a little of it have become so emotional, they have tears running down their face. They are sobbing because it’s as if he didn’t die,” I was told.
Late Friday, federal judge Kent Dawson ruled here that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to prove that patents on previous hologram 3D images held by two companies and an individual had been violated. The emergency lawsuit had been filed against the King of Pop’s estate and its trustees John Branca and Howard Weitzman by Hologram USA Inc., Musion Das Hologram Ltd and businessman Alki David, who says that he control rights to hologram technology. A veil of secrecy has been lowered over the Billboard extravaganza. The only official word from ABC and Dick Clark Productions is that “it will be a history-making performance.” My original story about the imagery was posted at Vegas Deluxe when Michael’s new album “Xscape” was released. But I learned exclusively Friday night that Michael’s image to be unveiled about halfway in the three-hour ABC telecast is brand new technology. “It was two years in development and took an additional six months to create for this network premiere,” I was told. “This is way, way beyond a hologram. It is way, way beyond what you know as 3D. This isn’t even digital. It is far more advanced and a totally new process.” “This lawsuit to attempt to stop the broadcast was just a stunt. It was ludicrous,” snapped L.A. attorney Howard Weitzman, who represented Michael’s estate and Dick Clark Productions, who is staging the BBMAs for ABC. “The court’s decision is not surprising.” I also exclusively learned that Michael will be seen dancing with a cast of dancers. He will be seen moonwalking back and forth the entire MGM Grand Garden Arena stage. He also will be seen dancing up and down stairs. “This is the most emotional piece of television we have ever produced in our 40-year TV careers,” two Dick Clark Productions execs told me. “A few people have seen it, a tiny portion of it, already in the arena and have been crying — it’s that powerful. Incredibly, it plays even better on the TV screen, so imagine how viewers will react at home. “They will be in a state of disbelief. It’s as if he’s still alive at the height of his career.” I learned that Michael’s estate trustees came across undiscovered L.A. Reid recorded footage of Michael that they didn’t know existed. The lawsuit says the music will be a new song, “Slave to the Rhythm.” “They didn’t know what they originally wanted to do with it or make with it except just wanting to capture him alive forever. That became the background format for this new technology. It might have gone to Cirque du Soleil. They might have found a way to complete the This Is It tour. “This has never been done before. It is 100 steps beyond anything anybody has ever thought you’d experienced as a hologram. It is so real, it is so lifelike, there is no way an audience would know the artist is not there in front of them. So real an artist would actually never have to go out on tour again or need makeup for an appearance. The artist is there without being there. You cannot tell the difference. “That will be proven Sunday night with Michael Jackson, just like he’s done before time and time again as a pioneer with music-technology breakthroughs.” A few key major city radio DJs were given a 30-second sneak preview of the spectacle after signing secrecy agreements. Under strict promises of remaining anonymous, I was told: “Within 10 seconds, I was shaking. Then I started sobbing. Michael was alive. I had goose bumps. He was as real as the day I last saw him alive. “I cannot tell you what he does, but his fans from this point on will never believe that he died. It will be four minutes they will remember forever.” No plans for its future use have yet been revealed, but I am told that plans will be forthcoming and will be expanded to include other song material later. Meantime, another lawsuit has yet to be determined. Cirque and MGM Resorts International have until next Friday to answer a case in Los Angeles Federal Court filed by Hologram USA claiming unlicensed use of the digital rendition used in Cirque’s “Michael Jackson One” at Mandalay Bay.
Wow, sounds almost too good to be true, right? Well, as it turned out, that seems to have been exactly the case. But caught up in the excitement and hype of Xscape’s success; swept along with the rising tide of MJ mania and all of the wonderful things that seemed to be happening, perhaps it became too easy to believe that anything might be possible. Even miracles. Granted, the hologram (or “holographic”) technology that made last night’s performance possible has been responsible for some pretty amazing things, such as the “resurrection” of Tupac Shakur at Coachella in 2012. And the reaction to that Tupac Shakur performance in 2012 was said to have been eerily similar to the reaction of last night’s Billboard audience, who seemed actually too stunned by what they were seeing to even cheer . But we were promised something that was supposed to make that Tupac hologram look like “a 1980’s video game. ” These were supposedly the direct words from the Michael Jackson estate, as quoted in The Daily Mail.
The anticipation, fed by these blurbs, continued to build to fever pitch throughout the day on Sunday, as fans tweeted about the event and the usual battles raged between those supporting it and those opposed. I was as caught up in that fever as anyone. The anticipation, for a few brief hours-reminded me of all the nervous anticipation and hysteria that used to precede any Michael Jackson event, whether it was a televised performance or a new video premier. It also reminded me that this is exactly the momentum that drives, and will always drive, such events. We want Michael to be here, among us again. We grasp at whatever straws are thrown, I sometimes believe, in a desperate attempt to suspend belief and have him among us again. I think we were all played a pretty trick last night in being fooled, even for a minute, into thinking that this could be possible; that a “virtual” Michael-through the miracle of modern technology-could somehow make this happen. This was a message I posted on social media before the broadcast:
What with all this hype over the Michael Jackson experience promised for tomorrow night’s Billboard Music Awards; people saying that it makes those who have previewed it break down in tears and so on, I had a thought. We know, of course, that this virtual image-no matter how great it is-is not Michael alive again and performing. It is what it is-an image. So with that being the case, what would make this any different from simply having a really great MJ impersonator on the stage-you know, one of those that looks almost exactly like him and has his moves, voice, etc down pat? That is an interesting question, but clearly, if these early reports are to be believed, it is NOT the same thing. With an MJ impersonator, you know it is not him but if they are really good at what they do, they can almost create that illusion, at least for a little while. But obviously, the reaction this virtual experience is invoking in people is something totally different. So the whole hype has indeed got me very curious. Clearly, there must be something very unique about this experience; something that totally supercedes any other past or familiar experience we have known, including watching some of his greatest impersonators and even the hologram of the Cirque du Soleil “One” show. I guess we will have to wait until Sunday night to get those answers.
The question that had been raised in my mind was exactly this: What is so special about hologram technology, when there is nothing a hologram can do that a good tribute artist can’t do just as well? (Either way, the audience must suspend their belief; in either case, what is being seen is only an illusion). I think the major difference is that somehow, with a virtual or hologram image, it becomes easier to accept that what we are seeing is-if not the real thing, at least a closer approximation to it than simply knowing that is a guy up there wearing clothes like Michael and copying his moves. At least, that is the idea in theory. There is a reason why most holograms look eerily like apparitions (in fact, the technology that produced the Tupac hologram is called “Pepper’s Ghost”). If you had a chance to see a Michael Jackson tribute artist vs. Michael’s actual ghost, which one would feel more authentic to you? Well, you get the idea, sort of. But the way this thing had been hyped, I was really almost expecting a fully three dimensional, flesh and blood Michael to pop out of my TV screen, one who would look and perform almost as realistically as the live performers who were there. I was, honestly, almost expecting to see something that would not even resemble a virtual image. And, for sure, I was expecting to at least see an image whose face and body LOOKED like Michael. At first, I was excited to see the Dangerous-esque set and the hot pose of “Virtual Mike” on his throne, leg draped seductively over the side. Wow, it sure did look promising to be one, hot number for about two seconds. But then, as “Virtual Mike” started to sing and move, the whole thing just felt very off to me. It didn’t help that the entire first few segments of the illusion was ruined by that annoying wavy effect. Of course, this was live TV and holography is like any technology-things can go wrong. I heard that this was most likely an effect produced by the air current when the curtains were drawn back. Possibly, but nevertheless, it ruined some of the experience as it was quite distracting and only served to emphasize the fact that what we were seeing was an image; thus, much of the intended illusion was marred from the outset. Still, this minor flaw could have been forgiven had the rest of the performance lived up to the hype.
I wanted to be on the edge of my seat, squealing in sheer delight and excitement. Instead, I was just kind of sitting there, arms folded, thinking, “That doesn’t even look like him; it looks like an impersonator.” And, frankly, not a very good one, at that. I knew instantly, from the sinking feeling in my own gut, what was going to ensue as soon as I checked the reactions of other fans on social media. Now I am hearing reports that the hologram wasn’t even completed on time, and that a stand-in had been used to complete the dance moves. Christopher Gaspar, a Michael Jackson tribute artist, had posted this on his Facebook page, which some took as “confirmation” of the rumor:
However, while Gaspar admits to having once been used as a body double stand-in, he has sworn in a more recent statement that he had nothing to do with the hologram used for the Billboard Awards:
I just wake up. It’s 7am and everybody are sending me messages or friend request…. An hologram’ couldn’t be me because it’s a projection, anyway. They used me one time live on stage not for the billboard performance. I’m disappointed as you all because they said that is MJ and it was not MJ at all. When they used me for the performance they called my name to introduce me. Regards.-Christopher Gaspar
On a segment of Good Morning America this morning there was continued insistence that this was a project over two years in the making. I do love what a positive clip this is. “He was a dancing machine!”
“Michael Magic” might indeed be a good way to explain it. But I think a lot of us this morning are asking the same question. How and why on earth did something supposedly two years in the making come across as looking so haphazardly and lazily thrown together? Honestly, this bore about as much resemblance to Michael-and to his dance moves-as the graphic that is used in the Experience video game-and was just about as impressive. Sure, I “get” that what we were witnessing was cutting edge technology that, a decade ago, would not have been possible. I suppose that perhaps, even a few years ago, we might have been wowed simply by the possibility of having a virtual image Michael who could sing and dance in front of our eyes on a live stage. Perhaps, in a way, it is indicative of our now jaded relationship with technology. We live in a society that has become harder and harder to “wow.” Perhaps we have simply lost some of our ability to truly marvel when we witness something magic. But Michael Jackson fans, in particular, are way too savvy to be fooled. While there is no doubt a certain amount of paranoia from some factions of the fan base, who will zealously scan every note on a new track searching for any sign of “fakery” rather than just enjoying what we have, I do feel that those of us who came away from last night’s performance feeling less than thrilled were justified in our letdown. After all, we had been led to believe that this was going to be something extraordinary; something that had supposedly moved grown men to tears. Perhaps I can echo the sentiment of many in saying, simply, if my expectations had not been so high, I might not have felt half so let down. Perhaps, had my adrenalin not been so pumped up from all the positive press over Xscape and its sales, I might have tuned in with more realistic expectations, and been thrilled just to see Michael being honored.
In short, everything connected to MJ had suddenly started to feel “Invincible” again. Michael Jackson, after all, was the man who had made television history time and again. We all wanted to believe it could be true; that he could still do it one more time, even from the grave.
In a curious way, he both did and didn’t. Many of us certainly got what we were hoping for. Within minutes of the performance, it was a hot trending topic on social media everywhere, and the number one trending topic in the United States. And the media has certainly been abuzz about it all morning, most of it very positive, with headlines such as “Billboard Music Awards 2014: Michael Jackson Hologram Steals the Show,” “Jackson Hologram Steals Billboard Show” and now with the confirmation that the Billboard Awards show not only won in the ratings but boasted its largest ratings in thirteen years, thanks in no small part to the hype generated by the Michael Jackson Experience.
Well, that’s all fine and good, and many are saying we should be grateful for all the positive attention and accolades. But I’m of two minds on this. Yes, a part of me is happy to see it. As most of you know, I have been very supportive of the album (which is fantastic) and proud of its commercial success. But maybe, sometimes, we do have to know when/where to draw the line. That is, the line between what is tasteful and appropriate now that Michael is gone, and that which crosses the line into simply exploiting the wishful need to have him here again-both as an idol and as a commodity. Or, to put it more bluntly, just because Michael once played a zombie on TV doesn’t mean he wants to be one in real life.
It’s great if the media wants to spin last night’s performance into some sort of triumph (the media actually “building Michael up” again; who would’ve ever thunk it, right?). But it still leaves me with an unsettling feeling. These are people who, for the most part, don’t really know Michael; who wouldn’t know a wooden moonwalk from a great one; who probably couldn’t even tell you which song the anti-gravity lean is associated with; people who would think the hologram “looked just like him” and moved “just like him” because their own memories have dulled with the passage of time. CNN’s Alan Duke put it best when he said that the hologram would be bound to most impress those who haven’t spent every hour obsessing over every detail of Michael’s face and body. I suppose that is true: I certainly wouldn’t argue it. But it does hit home an obvious point. Michael, just like Elvis and Marilyn Monroe and other icons before him, has now passed into the realm of caricature. These days, you can take most any overweight guy, stick him in a sequined jumpsuit, put a guitar in his hands, and people will say, “He looks just like Elvis.” You could take most any attractive young woman, put her in a white poodle dress and blonde wig, and have instant Marilyn. And so, too, are we beginning to see the caricaturation of Michael Jackson. Everything about him, from his iconic moves and dance steps, to the way he walked, to his style of dress, and even down to his facial features from each era has now entered the realm of caricature in the public consciousness. Sadly, as Michael Jackson the Icon becomes more accepted as a mere caricature of the public domain, the less we may come to appreciate over time just how dazzlingly original and magical he was. I couldn’t help but feel, in some ways, that what I was witnessing Sunday night was a caricature-a finely tuned and performing puppet, doing its schtick; one dressed to look like Michael; and to dance like him a little, but a puppet nonetheless. Instead of experiencing the magic of Michael Jackson-or even being able to just let go and enjoy the illusion-I was acutely aware that I was watching something robotozized ; something that could sing and dance, yes. But never something that could feel, or emote, or actually bring us any measure of soul.
In short, I was missing Michael Jackson the human being. Michael’s earnest ability to connect emotively with his audience is something that can never be replicated in any virtual or artificial form. I knew this, of course. It’s just that I think it took this experience to really drive the point home.
We cannot, of course, fault the estate just because a Virtual Michael can never recreate what we all miss so much, and wish could be again. I don’t think anyone was expecting perfection, but I do think that, given all the hype, we were entitled to expect more than what we got. If that strikes some fans as if I am sounding ungrateful, I urge you to go back and read the terrific review that I lavished on Xscape.
Would I be singing a different tune if last night’s performance had turned out to be the extraordinary event of my fantasies? Perhaps. For sure, I was certainly mentally psyched to write what I hoped would be a very different post today. I was hoping that Sunday night’s performance would leave me blown away and in tears, as it had reportedly done to so many. I was hoping I would be able to post what a wonderful experience it was; how even if no hologram could ever come close to being Michael, it could easily be the next best thing.
But maybe I needed last night’s eye opener. Maybe a lot of us did, if truth be told. If we need reminding, let’s go back and look at some of Michael Jackson’s greatest TV performances. Let’s be reminded of what this man could really do to a live audience, as well as the effect he could have on millions of viewers watching on TV.
In short, I suppose the best way to sum this up is that I’m not opposed to the technology. I guess I’m just disappointed with the quality of last night’s performance, and feel that Michael deserves so much better. I know exactly how Michael would feel about this whole hologram and “making TV history” hype. He would probably be all for it, but he would also say don’t even think about doing it until you can do it right; until you can make it the biggest and the best it can be. If it doesn’t leave them in absolute awe, it’s not worth doing.
However, there is another line of reasoning as well. Maybe it is time to simply let him go, and stop trying to play God. We had Michael with us for fifty years. We have enough video images of the real deal to last us forever. And I have already seen that even one glimpse of Michael’s real image, projected onto a screen, can still generate more excitement, magic, and awe than all of the holograms put together. After all, “that” is real. And those images will always be there for us.
I am all for keeping Michael’s legacy alive through his music. I fully support Xscape, and hope there will be more posthumous releases if all of them can maintain the quality of Xscape. I think projects like Cirque du Soleil are wonderful. But maybe it is time to think about drawing some lines. Michael can continue to live through his music, but maybe we need to accept the fact that seeing and experiencing the magic of Michael Jackson live onstage is something that died with him. In fact, to go one further, maybe we should remember that he died trying to make that happen for us. How insulting is it, then, if we allow his image and legacy to be tarnished by second-rate, animated, performances that are simply relying on every cliche’ from his repertoire, especially when they are putting them on knowing full well that they don’t even have all of the bugs worked out of the technology? Maybe from a purely technological standpoint, it was pretty impressive (I suspect that most of the media hype and trending of the performance is for this reason alone) but, for me, it just emphasized all of the things I miss about Michael. His energy. His soul. His passion. His imagination. His ability to move an audience with just one lift of his finger.
Three Classic, Iconic MJ TV Performances. Just Compare Any One Of These To Last Night’s Billboard Performance To Appreciate The Enormity Of What We’ve Lost-And Will Never Have Again.
Motown 25, 1983:
Grammy Awards, 1988:
VMA Awards, 1995:
I suspect we have not seen the end of Virtual Mike, but I just don’t know if I will have it in me to muster the same enthusiasm for an encore performance. For sure, if it happens, I hope some vast improvements are made. Simply making it look like him, for starters, would be a plus.
Sorry to be so negative today. I wanted to be positive about this; I really did. One only has to go to my Twitter TL to see how hyped and excited I was about this. But even with all the great press hype and spins this has garnered, I have to keep it real. I was quite underwhelmed, and honestly, I think that went for most of the Billboard audience as well. I saw what I honestly thought could never happen after a Michael Jackson performance. People actually looked bored; certainly less than shocked or awed. To reiterate, that is certainly not the reaction that a real Michael Jackson performance would have received. It’s certainly not the reaction that a TV history defining moment should have received. If one doubts, just go back and look at how those audiences reacted to Michael’s performances in each of the clips I posted. You can feel the energy he created in those rooms when he performed; you can see the genuine awe in the faces of the standing crowd. Certainly you didn’t have people looking bored, or mugging stupidly at the cameras. Every eye was transfixed on that stage.
Is it fair to place unrealistic expectations on Virtual Mike? Of course it is. I have already been reading many comments to the effect that they could even revive the This Is It tour with Virtual Mike. Sure, why not? I’m sure they could wind Virtual Mike up; get him to sing and dance and do most anything, without ever a complaint; with no need to ever worry about him being late for rehearsal; with no need to fear that he will ever up and die on them. He will be perfectly compliant; heck, they might even figure a way for him to generate perfect, digital tears during “She’s Out Of My Life.”
But he’ll never feel the pain of those tears, and he will never have a heart that connects to ours.
I suppose if you just want to experience something that is a technical wonder, then by all means enjoy Virtual Mike. I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of him. But if you want to experience Michael Jackson, turn off the TV and put on the music.
He’ll be right there. Waiting for you. Reliable as always.
ETA: I probably should note here that, according to reports that have come out today, the term “hologram” is a misnomer, since Virtual Michael was not a hologram proper, but rather, an avatar. The word “avatar” itself has an interesting history. In Hinduism the word avatar was used to refer to a deity who had taken a terrestrial form on earth. Very intriguing definition when you consider it in the context of what we saw on the Billboard Awards.
UPDATE 5/24/2014: I am posting here an interesting new article that appeared in USA Today and accompanying videos on “how they did it.”
Jackson mirage heralds future of posthumous shows
Pulse Evolution, the digital firm that orchestrated Michael Jackson’s “appearance” at the Billboard Music Awards, exclusively invited USA TODAY to its studios for a look at how the illusion was created. USA TODAY
Marco della Cava, USA TODAY 9:44 p.m. EDT May 22, 2014
(Photo: Martin E. Klimek, USA TODAY)
SAN RAFAEL, Calif. — When a 1991 version of Michael Jackson got the crowd on its feet at last Sunday’s Billboard Music Awards, the computer wizards at Pulse Evolution knew they’d done more than just satisfied the Jackson estate’s brief.
With that winking, grimacing, moonwalking Jackson illusion, Pulse has taken a giant leap toward creating an entire new industry. Call it the Late Legends tour.
“We’re hearing from a lot of estates and promoters saying, ‘We’re ready for a concert,’ ” says Pulse Executive Chairman John Textor, whose Florida-based company has its computer-generated image headquarters just north of San Francisco in George Lucas’ old haunts.
Textor won’t reveal who’s been in touch, but notes that obvious candidates for a posthumous show include Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Bob Marley. Destinations clamoring for such spectacle “include big casino cities, like Vegas and Macau.”
The former head of Digital Domain (an Oscar winner for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) says he’s willing to entertain the notion of creating a multisong show for an estate, but cautions that “if we’re going to bring a Michael or an Elvis back into this form of stage entertainment, it must be story-based. You can’t have Elvis sitting on a stool singing 20 songs. That won’t work.”
The first time Textor and his Digital Domain team made a splash was when they presented the late Tupac Shakur rapping alongside Snoop Dogg at 2012’s Coachella music festival. After that, full-concert talk was inevitable, says Ian Drew, entertainment director at Us Weekly.
“Who’s to say it’s a bad thing, considering all the lip-syncing in shows today?” says Drew. “What’s the difference between Britney Spears and a hologram, anyway?”
Drew, who saw Jackson’s awards show performance of Slave to the Rhythm on television, felt the digital re-creation was impressive, but seemed a bit too much “like a very good Vegas impersonator.” But he adds that utter perfection isn’t what would draw fans to an all-digital concert.
“Some people go to shows to see a live celebrity, but I’d argue that for most it’s more about the communal experience of sharing that person’s music,” he says. “That was the reaction of the people at the Billboard show. They just wanted to rock out to Michael.”
But that sort of live action-plus-images love fest could be accomplished in a simpler way, says Gary Bongiovanni, editor of Pollstar, which reports on the concert industry.
“For a four-minute surprise in a longer show, this works great, but I can’t see this (technology) sustaining an hour-long show just yet,” he says. To get people together to celebrate the music of a deceased icon, “you’d probably do just fine playing his music and having videos and photos and a light show.”
There may be other obstacles beyond broad acceptance. The eight months of work that went into the Jackson spectacle was so painstaking, it begs the question as to whether a 90-minute concert is realistic.
Once the computer framework for a digital Michael was created, Pulse visual effects supervisor Stephen Rosenbaum used videos as well as feedback from Jackson collaborators, including Rich + Tone Talauega, who choreographed the 1996-97 HIStory Tour, and Jamie King, the writer/director behind Jackson’s Cirque du Soleil show One.
“What makes you believe that’s really Michael are the subtleties of human expression that are found in his eyes, mouth and those iconic gestures,” says Rosenbaum. “We had to worry about how light responds to skin tones in order to capture the essence of his persona.”
He offers an example of the level of detail that went into the project. After making sure that Jackson’s eyes are always “focused somewhere very specific, so they’re not just drifting,” Rosenbaum excitedly showed the result to Jackson intimates.
“They shook their heads,” he says. “They said, ‘Michael would never have been looking off to the right at that point of the dance, we know he’d be looking right at the audience.’ So we changed it. But it was that kind of work.”
Rosenbaum fires up a video monitor and plays a sequence of Jackson spitting out the lyrics to Slave, then freezes the frame.
“Look closely at his neck and how so many different ligaments are firing as he sings,” he says. “Jackson had so many wide-ranging expressions with his mouth and jaw, which made this truly the most difficult part of the process. He drives his performances with his mouth. It almost doesn’t matter what his body is doing.”
Nailing these illusion-selling close-ups “means this doesn’t stop with the Billboard show,” says Pulse chairman Textor.
Beyond holding conversations with various estates (“I stress to them that they need to bring their analog asset into the digital world, and protect those rights,” says Textor), he has fielded at times offbeat requests for his company’s services.
“A friend in the Republican Party asked me if we would create a digital President Obama and have him introduce Mitt Romney at the last (GOP) convention,” says Textor, laughing. “I’m a Republican, but even I wasn’t going to touch that one. But I’d say the possibilities of this technology are many.”
Perhaps the biggest magic trick of all here is that, even in death, Michael Jackson managed to both cause a stir and move the state of entertainment art forward.