Proceeds from the singer’s hologram tour will go to the Amy Winehouse Foundation. Composite: AFP/Getty/Guardian Design Team
The decision to turn the artist into a virtual reality experience has divided fans. Is she being vividly celebrated, or ghoulishly pushed back on stage without her consent?
It is difficult to say which image of Amy Winehouse has lingered loudest and longest – wild-eyed and desperate on a street corner in Camden; scuffling with a fan on stage at Glastonbury in 2008; or perhaps as she was portrayed in Asif Kapadia’s 2015 documentary, heaved on to a plane unconscious in the summer of 2011 to play what would be her final show in Belgrade. Maybe it is better to remember her performance at the Mercury prize in 2007 singing Love Is a Losing Game: her face gentle, her voice burnished, looking quite overwhelmed as the evening’s host, Jools Holland, told the rapturous crowd: “I’ve worked with a lot of people and I’m telling you, she has one of the best voices of anybody of all time.”
It has been announced that Winehouse will return to the stage once again in 2019, touring the world in hologram form. Winehouse is not the first artist to receive the hologram treatment – there have already been such incarnations of Tupac Shakur, Maria Callas, Michael Jackson and more. But the decision to turn Winehouse into a hologram, seven years after her death from alcohol poisoning, has divided many. For some this is a celebration of a great and much-missed musician. Others argue that an artist who loathed touring and hated fame should be allowed to rest.
The Roy Orbison Hologram UK tour, 2018. Photograph: Tabatha Fireman/Getty Images for Base Holograms
There is certainly an appetite for holographic performances – Roy Orbison played arenas in 10 UK cities earlier this year – and the improvements in digital technology have meant that an artist’s career can continue long after their death, sustaining both their legacy and income for their estate.
In the case of Winehouse, proceeds from the tour will be channelled into the Amy Winehouse Foundation, the charity established after her death to aid vulnerable and disadvantaged young people, particularly those coping with substance abuse and emotional problems. The singer’s father, Mitch Winehouse, is the executor of Winehouse’s estate and chair of the foundation, and was intimately involved in negotiations for the hologram tour. It was just a couple of years after her death that he was first approached with the idea. “It was way too early,” says Mitch. “At that time, I could barely watch a video of Amy, never mind a hologram. I completely dismissed it out of hand.”
He did, however, agree to view the technology, but was unimpressed. Then 18 months ago, the foundation was approached again, this time by the entertainment company Base Hologram, and the technology had improved dramatically. “They had people standing next to the holograms and you couldn’t tell the difference between them,” Mitch says. Last summer, he was invited to see Base’s Orbison show at Hammersmith Apollo. He watched the hologram rise up from the ground and speaks of the weirdness of the first five minutes of the performance. But he noticed two things: how quickly you forgot that this was a hologram; and that the Orbison fans around him were going wild.
A holographic image of Michael Jackson performing at the 2014 Billboard music awards. Photograph: Kevin Winter/Billboard Awards 20/Getty Images for DCP
Mitch spoke to Base again. “I said: ‘If we were going to even contemplate Amy doing this, she can’t just come up out of the ground and stand still like Roy Orbison.’” The company invited him back to its studio to view a virtual ballerina who jumped and pirouetted around the room. Amy, they told him, would be “walking all over the place – moving, interacting with the audience,” and she would be accompanied by a live band and backing singers. Still Mitch was reluctant. It would be difficult for those who knew and loved his daughter to see her spring to life again that way. But he thought of the Orbison fans at the Apollo, and of the fans who still clamour for more Winehouse – for insights, videos, unheard music, of which there is none. “The time was never going to be right,” he says, “but the time was better.”
He thought, too, of how a lucrative hologram tour could benefit the foundation. “But I don’t want you to think that this is all about money,” he adds. “It’s about letting people know what made her tick. Here is a chance to show the real Amy, through a hologram.” He is aware, of course, that some disapprove. “But if I listened to people, well-meaning people, who say this is ghoulish, nothing will ever get done. We’ve got to do what’s best for the family, for Amy and for the foundation.”
“Amy Winehouse has all the elements of being a great show,” says Brian Becker, CEO of Base. “Her music and her life are being celebrated in multiple mediums. She’s iconic, she’s contemporary, yet her music appeals to all generations. She was beautiful and she was charismatic. And her life was dramatic.”
But as we enter what will surely be a new wave of hologram tours, it is important to consider the legal and ethical questions that such virtual images bring. When a star dies, likeness and copyright protections govern how their name, image and voice may be used; different countries, and even different areas within those countries, may have different laws. All likenesses need to be individually negotiated, with an artist either giving their consent to image use before their death or their estate being entrusted with that decision. So on the one hand, you have Audrey Hepburn’s estate allowing her, without her specific consent, to be resurrected for a Galaxy chocolate ad in 2013; and on the other, Robin Williams using his will to forbid the use of his likeness for 25 years after his death.
“Consent for holograms is going to be a hot topic,” says Catherine Allen, founder of the arts venue virtual reality platform Limina Immersive and an expert on VR and its ethics. “As long as the person has consented it’s fine. And this is where it gets tricky with Amy.” There is also, she says, a key ethical difference with immersive media rather than representative media, such as books or films. “It is about simulating experiences to audiences as if they were real, rather than representing things through symbols. An audience member ‘does’ an augmented reality or a virtual reality experience rather than watches it.
Audrey Hepburn was resurrected in 2013 for a Galaxy chocolate ad. Photograph: NC1/Supplied by WENN.com
“It is important to think about ethics at this early stage of the development of the immersive sector, because it is still relatively new, it is still being shaped,” she continues. “The norms that we create now will set the standard for the future.” She tells of going to a technology exhibition that offered to give visitors virtual images of themselves. Initially intrigued, she decided not to participate when the company in question could not confirm who would own the files created or what would happen to them. She also points to the growing trend for ‘deepfakes’ – fake videos and audio that are increasingly difficult to spot, used by the porn industry, where there is a huge market for 3D models of celebrities. “It can be deeply traumatising and violating to find out it’s happened to you,” she says.
However, Allen also argues that if such augmented reality versions of celebrities could be used in their lifetime then it might lessen some of the huge pressures on them. “Stars are often worked very, very hard these days touring – partly because that is where the revenue opportunities are for the music industry,” she says. “Amy was, of course, no exception. If this hologram technology existed when she was alive, she could have recorded her gig, and it could be broadcast ‘live’ to millions of people in stadiums across the world. This would certainly help with the issues that arise from the kind of relentless touring schedules many stars have.”
Becker is less convinced that there is a market for hologram tours of living artists. “Fans are going to want to see them on stage,” he says. “The best use of the technology is going to be to celebrate icons and create things that have never happened before. Can you imagine Aretha Franklin and Amy Winehouseperforming a duet?”
How we remember Winehouse – or any artist – is an interesting matter. Alongside next year’s hologram tour, there will be a new film about her life, made by Alison Owens, and Mitch Winehouse, who has been critical of Kapadia’s documentary, hopes that it will offer a more tender portrait of the singer. “Alison is the mum of Lily Allen, who herself has had struggles,” he says. “It couldn’t be in more considerate and caring hands.” Mitch also has absolute approval from Base over his daughter’s virtual image. There will be no drinking on stage, he tells me. “Amy will be portrayed at her best.”
Some might argue that this is not the same Amy Winehouse the world fell in love with – that she wrote such troubled, heart-wrenched songs precisely because of the difficulties in her life. She was never polished or perfect, and that is why we loved her.
Amy Winehouse performs at Glastonbury, 2007. Photograph: Rune Hellestad/Corbis via Getty Images
Over the past couple of years, Amy has come alive for Mitch in a quite different way. These days, he finds that he can watch her videos, listen to her music, re-engage with her world. “When she was up and coming, you’re in the swirl of that. When she was sick, you’re in the swirl of that. You don’t have time to sit back and watch a video of Amy,” he says. “I’ve been listening to her songs, reading her interviews.
I’m still finding things out about her. I’ve only just begun to realise how brilliant she is.” Not so long ago, he cleared out the final belongings of a lock-up she had in north London, and found a cardboard box full of her notebooks they thought had been lost. They were full of sketches for songs, lyrics that would find their way to being Back to Black, scribbled notes declaring her love for Jamie Oliver or threatening to punch Mark Ronson in the face. There was no fancy technology, no stage lights or choreography, but reading them was another way to feel close to his daughter. “As I was doing it, I was either crying or laughing,” he says.
And perhaps this, too, is the point. An artist such as Winehouse should be allowed to become more than the drama that engulfed her, more than a series of paparazzi shots and the sadness of her death. She should be seen as a three-dimensional human being, a woman, a daughter, one of our greatest musicians. However one might feel about the age of hologram tours, their ghoulishness or their grandeur, the great triumph could be that they lead us back to the music.