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Hologram Tupac: What's so live about live performance anyway?

The 2Pac hologram performs at the Coachella festival.

You'd think we'd have seen it all online, but the Internet's collective mind was decidedly blown on Sunday night as Snoop Dogg performed with a hologram of deceased rapper Tupac Shakur at the Coachella festival in California.

First, there was jubilation. Katy Perry tweeted that she "might have cried," while Rihanna emitted a string of dumbfounded hashtags: "#TupacBACK #unbelievable #IWASTHERE #STORY4myGrandKidz."

But then came the creeped-out, sober second thoughts. Are we really living in a brave new world where the 1980s kids cartoon Jem and the Holograms can be accurately described as prescient?

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As one commenter who popped up on my Facebook feed put it, succinctly summing up the anti-holo-concert camp, there's something "dumb" about "paying to go wait in the desert in the beaming hot sun to see dead cats on a screen."

The dirty truth, however, is that as impressively executed as Tupac's missed-Easter-by-a-week resurrection was, there's nothing new about his scene-stealing appearance – aside from a clever use of bleeding-edge holographic projection.

We – the lovers of live music of the world – have already paid top dollar to see dead cats on a screen, and have been for a very long time.

Georgia Institute of Technology professor Philip Auslander first floated the idea that live and mediated performances weren't really all that different in his 1999 book, Liveness.

As the performance scholar pointed out, the very idea of "live performance" came about only when recording technologies created Coachella-style confusion by making the two indistinguishable.

The Oxford English Dictionary's first example of the word "live" being used in relation to performance came only in 1934, when it had become impossible for a radio listener to tell if a broadcast was live or recorded.

Flash-forward four score years, and it's pretty easy to distinguish the recorded Tupac hologram and the actual body of Snoop Dogg, right?

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Not so fast. While noted stoner Snoop was actually present in Coachella (physically, at least – I would never hazard a guess as to his mental whereabouts), for the vast majority of the people who saw his "live" duet with Tupac, he appeared only as a moving image on a screen.

And I'm not just talking about the hundreds of thousands of people who watched footage of the concert on YouTube; even among those who were actually in the giant crowd at Coachella, most would have seen Snoop on a giant screen. That's just a fact of modern concert-going: Thom Yorke's or Taylor Swift's corporeal self is a tiny speck that we "connect" with only through close-up video projections.

If seeing a performer's actual body had anything to do with why people go to live concerts, Deadmau5 could never have sold out the Air Canada Centre. (That could be anyone under that giant mouse helmet.)

Okay, but Snoop Dogg was rapping live, while Tupac's vocals were recorded. Big difference, no?

Perhaps, but how is R2D2pac's performance that far off from, say, Madonna lip-syncing her way through the Super Bowl halftime show? And at least Hologram Tupac got the name of the venue right, giving a shoutout to Coachella, while the still-living (as of press time) Britney Spears can't always be relied upon to be as geographically cognizant.

If anyone still has a problem with lip syncing and I, for one, will take it over Auto-Tuned "live" singing any day – they're now firmly in the minority. And, a few prominent tsk-tskers aside, they have been for decades.

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Take Michael Jackson's appearance on the 1983 television special Motown 25. It's remembered as one of the most famous live performances of all time, the one where he introduced the mime-inspired Moonwalk. No one seems to recall – or care – that Jackson was just moving his mouth to a recording of Billie Jean at the time.

Today, of course, Jackson can neither sing nor dance, but he continues to be one of world's top-grossing live performers.

Since it launched last fall, Michael Jackson: The Immortal Tour – in which recorded video and audio of Jackson is mixed in with a live band, dancers and Cirque du Soleil performers – has regularly pulled in more than $2-million (U.S.) a night, according to figures from trade publication Pollstar. It regularly trumped even the combined living powers of Kanye West and Jay-Z on their Watch the Throne tour.

Disembodied performance may unsettle us when we stop and think about it, but as Auslander has noted, it has been the norm in popular music since the popularization of the phonograph began in the 1890s.

Perhaps that is why not-dead-yet pop stars have regularly been dogged by rumours that they have died (Paul McCartney, Gordon Lightfoot), while pop stars' deaths are frequently disbelieved (Elvis, Tupac).

Is it any wonder people get confused? When it comes to our musical heroes, there's no real difference between dead or alive.

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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