Hologram at 2014 Billboard Music Awards NOT Michael Jackson, but an impersonator!

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“Just because you read it in a magazine or see it on a TV screen don’t make it factual.” Those are the prophetic words of Michael Jackson, taken from his song ‘Tabloid Junkie’. And those very words could not be more appropriately applied to a situation than they can be to the events of the past week. 

All week we’d been hearing about what was supposed to be the late King of Pop’s triumphant return to the stage via newly-developed hologram technology at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards on Sunday, May 18.

The elaborate production, directed by Jamie King, choreographed by Rich and Tone Talauega and backed by The Estate of Michael Jackson, was officially promoted as presenting “Michael Jackson like you’ve never seen him before.” The King of Pop was to perform “Slave to the Rhythm” from the recently released ‘XSCAPE’ album with a stage full of dancers, pyrotechnics and special effects.

In the week leading up to the performance it was hyped beyond belief, being referred to as a history-making, once-in-a-lifetime event. Vegas-based reporter Robin Leach was given exclusive testimony from unnamed insiders who had seen a sneak peek of the Jackson experience during rehearsals. Leach shared some of these insights in an article published on LasVegasSun.com. They are as quoted below:

“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.” Leach was told.

“[The technology used] was two years in development and took an additional six months to create for this network premiere. 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 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.”

Sounds pretty amazing, right? I thought so, too. And although I was extremely skeptical about the idea of a hologram (as a fan you get used to being skeptical when it comes to Estate-organised Michael Jackson stuff), I had hope in my heart that this brand new technology would somehow make possible the projection of the authentic singing and dancing image of the artist I, and millions of fans around the world, love so much.

“And now we are all going to witness television history being made,” announced Ludacris, host of the awards ceremony, when introducing the spectacle. “With an original performance of ‘Slave to the Rhythm’ this magic is something that you have to see for yourself. As you’ve never seen him before, live from the MGM Grand; Michael Jackson!”

And then, after a brief suspense-building military sequence executed by dancers in front of a closed curtain, the hologram appeared. But there was a problem. For me personally, and for many fans around the world, it was a BIG problem.

The image that appeared onstage via fancy (and ultra expensive) projection technology was NOT Michael Jackson at all. Instead, it was the holographic image of a Michael Jackson impersonator prancing around the stage in an attempt to replicate the iconic dance moves and mannerisms of the legendary artist. Sources involved in the creation of this performance, all of whom signed strict non-disclosure agreements and therefor must remain unnamed, have confirmed this for me.

Now let’s get something straight. Michael Jackson is perhaps the greatest performer in the history of live entertainment. Since he was in elementary school he had been dazzling audiences with performances that could be matched by none – not even by his most talented peers. He danced with flawless precision; with the electricity of a lightning bolt and the smoothness of silk; with the power of a heavyweight boxer and the grace of a ballerina. Yet at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards, in front of the entire world, Michael Jackson, with the permission of his Estate, was reduced to a mere imitation of himself. As the old saying goes: “No one moves like Michael Jackson.”

This is not the first time The Estate of Michael Jackson has been accused of using impersonators in official products and events. In 2009 an impersonator was said to have been employed to create the silhouette image used on The Estate and AEG Live’s ‘This Is It’ promotional materials and CD/DVD covers.

In 2010 thousands of MJ fans from all around the world, along with Michael Jackson’s entire family, many of his former producers, engineers, musicians and closest friends charged that a vocal impersonator, not Jackson himself, was singing on twelve songs sold to Sony Music by Eddie Cascio and James Porte. Three of those twelve songs (“Breaking News”, “Monster” and “Keep Your Head Up” – infamously known as the ‘Cascio tracks’) were officially released on the ‘Michael’ album in December 2010 causing outrage in the fan community. Many fans have still not moved on from that debacle.

In January 2012, when discussing Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Immortal’ touring show with Solvej Schou of the Los Angeles Times, John Branca, co-executor of The Estate of Michael Jackson, stated that the use of impersonators in the production was unimaginable.

“We wanted to have a live show, because, as Berry Gordy said, ‘Michael was the greatest entertainer that ever lived.’ We couldn’t ever imagine having an impersonator, or a tribute show, because no one’s Michael. That would just be unthinkable,” said Branca.

However just over a year later, in May 2013, Cirque du Soleil launched a second MJ-themed show called ‘Michael Jackson ONE’; a residency theatre production based out of Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. Despite Branca previously stating that it would be “unthinkable” to go down the impersonator route, one was in fact used (as is the case with the Billboard Music Awards) to create a holographic performance that featured within the show. It should be noted that director of the Billboard performance, Jamie King, is also the director of ‘Michael Jackson ONE’.

Back to the catastrophe that was the hologram on the Billboard Awards.

It almost never happened at all when Hologram USA Inc., Musion Das Hologram Ltd., and Alki David filed an emergency lawsuit against The Estate of Michael Jackson during the week, claiming that they control rights to the technology that was to be used. Estate attorney Howard Weitzman successfully argued otherwise in court, and the show was allowed to go on.

As revealed in court, The Estate did not refer to their planned Billboard stunt as a “hologram”, but rather as “Virtual Michael”. Perhaps by using the word ‘virtual’ they were attempting to dodge questions about whether or not they ever actually promised Michael Jackson at all, or just a “nearly as described” version of him.

1. almost or nearly as described, but not completely or according to strict definition. “the virtual absence of border controls”
2. not physically existing as such but made by software to appear to do so. “virtual images”

It was also revealed that the contract between the company that created the new projection/illusion technology and The Estate of Michael Jackson included a possible music video. Presumably this would be assessed based on the reaction of the public following the Billboard performance.

One thing is for sure; they haven’t fooled many, if any fans into believing that their Billboard presentation was the authentic Michael Jackson. However the general public, casual music fans and the media alike have, for the most part, bought right into it. ‘Virtual Michael’ made evening news headlines across the globe accompanied by mostly-positive reports.

In November 2010 The Estate was forced to make a statement regarding previously noted accusations that a vocal impersonator appeared on several songs they planned to release on an official Michael Jackson album. That statement included the following excerpt:

“We take all fan comments very seriously… There is nothing more important to the Estate than Michael’s music, his legacy and his fans.”

In that particular case, there clearly was something more important to the Estate than Michael’s music, his legacy and his fans, because they went ahead and released the songs in question anyway.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens next. I personally hope The Estate have learned their lesson once and for all, and that we can get back to enjoying authentic Michael Jackson with no lies, illusions, deception or cheap (yet oh-so-expensive) gimmicks.

Michael Jackson’s legacy is the body of work he created during his life. It is the duty of the Estate to protect and preserve that legacy. There is a lot that could be done with the legitimate work he left.

For example, they could spend money converting all his groundbreaking short films to HD and transitioning his official DVDs to Blu-ray disc. One of Michael’s most popular releases in life, ‘The Making of Thriller’, has never even been re-released on DVD. And ‘Ghosts’, considered by many fans to be a one of Jackson’s greatest masterpieces, has been largely forgotten since its VHS release in the 1990s.

But rather than promoting the work Michael poured his soul into during his life, they bury it, instead giving the likes of Jamie King the chance to imagine things Michael never did and then hire imitators, acrobats, stunt people and dancers to bring those ideas to fruition amidst a plethora of explosions and special effects, which no matter how plentiful can never recapture or recreate the magic Michael Jackson himself was able to conjure.

Comments suggesting fans won’t be able to tell the difference between the greatest performer of all time, and a hologram of an impersonator, are reductive and demeaning; they suggest Michael wasn’t actually all that great or special after all and that a bit of pyro and a lookalike are just as good. Better, even, than the work Michael himself left behind. Or else why refuse to release it, while spending millions creating computer graphics of tribute acts?

In closing, I’ll leave you with yet another prophetic quote from the King of Pop:

“They forget that it’s the artist who make the company, not the company who make the artist. Without the talent the company would be nothing but just hardware.”

Follow Damien Shields on Facebook and Twitter to stay up-to-date with Michael Jackson-related news.

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