I am conflicted about many things, but I never thought an old Swedish pop band would be one of them. Nonetheless, ABBA is about to hold a concert—based on its first new studio album in forty years—with digital avatars.
For whatever reason (vanity? Old hurts? Good sense?) the four members of ABBA did not want to take the stage as aging pop-rockers desperate to prove they still had enough energy and charisma to pull off a live performance. I respect them for that. Mick Jagger can still pull it off, and Chuck Berry was still agile, playful, and sexy in his eighties. Others, not so much, and the pathos can be painful.
Every time I want to require all performers to retire gracefully and just a little too soon, though, one of them continues in a way that feels brave and true. Granted, people do keep asking Google, “Who is the old guy Lady Gaga performs with?”—but she and Tony Bennett are perfect foils for each other. Theirs is a different sort of chemistry: not youth’s raw energy or the fame and confidence of midlife, but a warm, well-earned respect. Knowing Bennett’s struggles, his presence onstage with Lady Gaga is a reminder of how much we can do to sustain dignity and joy for one another. Their live performance is deeply human.
ABBA’s concert is not.
A special venue is being built in London for the Voyage concert, which is expected to usher in a new era of immersive entertainment. At first, I assumed the performers would be holograms. Tupac was resurrected as a hologram, after all, and Whitney Houston has a regular show in Las Vegas. (“Let her rest,” her cousin Dionne Warwick begged to no effect. “Leave her alone.”) But holograms are recorded with a laser, and the, er, ABBA-tars receive their bodily form from three-D visual data projected onto a thin film. Now, when one of these electrical beings tries to instruct me online or join me on Zoom, I will know the difference.
But will I know how to interact with them?
Anybody knows a live performance is immeasurably better than a recorded one, if only for the rush that comes when that many people are held in a single trance. But is this a “live” concert? Can a performance be live yet prerecorded, every sound and movement predetermined? And do we clap? We would only be applauding out of habit, or for one another, to summon that group ecstasy. Soon we will begin to feel silly, clapping for a computer. Really, we would be clapping for the music, but that is the problem with technology—it distances, even as it brings close.
The avatars do not care if we clap. I doubt anyone will mob the stage to reach them, grab a scrap of their clothing, touch their airy hand. None of them will get sweaty, experience a wardrobe malfunction, blurt a wildly inappropriate remark, or show a little fear and vulnerability, their voice catching on unexpected emotion at the applause. (On the bright side, no one will be trampled. Maybe humans can no longer handle real life safely.)
Someday, when musicians pop out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and interact with us, we might gain a better sense—in limited, superficial ways—of who these people were. But just as Las Vegas is somebody else’s idea of our fantasies, the way these avatars respond to our questions will be somebody else’s idea of their thoughts, based on what archival database was created to give their AI options. What we hear will either be a canned repetition or a . . . generation . . . assembled from the past.
At least we can be sure the new ABBA lyrics are human; no self-respecting AI would be so sappy. “Through joy and the sorrow, we have a story, and it survived.” Seriously? We all know about the divorces; that was four decades ago. We also know now, thanks to the publicity blizzard, that Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad were dubious about this reunion. We are grateful that once “there was a union of heart and mind, the likes of which are rare.” But it would be easier for me to welcome a digital-avatar performance if the music had a little edge, too. The sound should be chilly, precise, intriguing, slightly eerie. “I have learned to cope, and love and hope is why I am here now”? This is like giving Peter, Paul, and Mary a heavy metal mosh pit.
What really triggered this project? For four decades, ABBA steadily refused to re-form, even when offered $1 billion in cash. Benny Andersson is frank about “not competing with Drake and all these other guys. We can’t do that because I don’t understand what the ingredients in the songs that work today are, so it’s impossible to emulate.” ABBA needed a way to stay ABBA without exhausting themselves touring under bright lights and trying to summon, in their seventies, a magic people remembered as lithe and blond, clad in spread collars, rust pantsuits, ribbed turtlenecks.
Personally, I would rather watch old recordings than new avatars, but I wonder if I will change my mind as the technology smooths into something less obviously cyber. Julia Walker, associate professor of English and drama at Washington University, explores the way ideas are embodied and shaped during performance. She does not think that queasy “uncanny valley” feeling will go away with more naturalistic representation; she thinks it will hold for “anything that looks like us but is not us, no matter how well done.” Why? Because “the quality of human interactions simply cannot be reproduced technologically,” she says simply. We have a hard time defining what is human, but we recognize it instinctively—and no matter how elaborately technology tries to fake us, that ineffable sense of the human will be missing.
In her new book, Performance & Modernity: Enacting Change on the Globalizing Stage, Walker notes that the early, crudely pixelated avatars were easier to use—not a whiff of creepiness about them—because they were not trying too hard to look human. In their abstraction, they pointed to some fundamental essence of what it means to be human without pretending to be human.
Digital avatars do pretend. “Is it the lie that bothers me?” I ask Walker.
“It’s the lie that we are being encouraged to take for truth,” she says. “Even though we know it’s not real, we are encouraged to adapt our habits as if it were.” Show up, hum along, clap at the end, all because it is easier that way, or lucrative for someone else.
A realization jolted me the other day: I am not as bothered by the almost-human appearance of a robot as I am by the artificiality of its communication. And I am equally creeped out by humans who are stiff and rigid and roll right over emotional protests or gray-area speculations. My problem is with robotic behavior, however it originates. Similarly, what depresses me about reading passages written by GPT-3, the latest AI “content provider,” is not that the words were computer-generated, but that so many humans write with the same lack of substance, specificity, honesty, deep thought, and strong feeling. What we are creating is the worst of ourselves, mechanized and bloodless, and the presence of all these avatars, fast becoming inextricable from our world, will heighten those traits in us.
“When you see this show, it is not four people pretending to be ABBA, it is actually them,” producer Ludvig Andersson (Benny’s son) insists. He believes this because for five weeks, the four musicians performed “in front of 160 cameras and almost as many VFX geniuses,” and motion capture technology scanned every gesture and movement, and almost one thousand digital artists combined that data with archival video footage of ABBA performing four decades ago. An undeniable coup. But Ludwig’s definition of “actually” gives me pause—as does his definition of “people.” I love the irony in what he says next, warning us not to spend too much time comparing Voyage to ABBA’s live gigs back in the day: “I mean, it will be incredibly close—it will be as close as it’s possible to get. But . . . I don’t think you will come and feel you’re getting close to something. You’ll feel like you’re going past something and out into space.”
So they did this to give us their young selves as performers, yet the point is not to turn the clock back. By summoning the past, they are shooing us into the future, taking us somewhere new.
Which would be a neat trick, except that the new place is made only of data. Music of ABBA’s sort is made by, and with, the body.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.