The Hologram Invasion

First came Tupac. A short story about the horrifying future of the music industry.

Music critics would later agree that July 8, 2130, was the climax of Hologramania. The concert, produced by record label ExxonGoogle, featured Elton John and Beethoven on dueling pianos, Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman on guitar, Yo-Yo Ma on cello, Louis Armstrong on trumpet, John Coltrane on sax, John Bonham and Ringo Starr headlining a slew of drummers. Lead singers James Brown, Freddy Mercury, K.J. Yesudas, Aretha Franklin and Frank Sinatra were backed up on vocals by a chorus including Michael Jackson, Luciano Pavarotti, Ella Fitzgerald, Whitney Houston and both young and bloated Elvis Presley. The intermission was Billy Joel’s “Only The Good Die Young,” featuring Joel on piano, along with dozens of musicians who never saw their thirtieth birthday: Hank Williams, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Justin Bieber and an Amy Winehouse-Notorious B.I.G. duet. The second set brought to the stage Led Zeppelin and Bon Jovi, followed by a Celine Dion-Quiet Riot extended playlist that proved the most memorable moment of the evening. Sadly, the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, U2 and many other artists were not featured as their hologram rights were owned by competing music labels. No one owned the rights to Bob Dylan; as such his music and legacy disappeared long ago.

Since all the musicians were holograms, the concert took place globally in 164 cities along with Neptunopolis, the manmade float-nation adrift off the coast of Greece, and Asteroid 2096 XS, the space-mining colony. Moments after the show ended, the reviews were blasted worldwide. The numbers were preposterous: millions of T-shirts and injectable beers had been sold, along with a shitload of lighters; smoking had been outlawed in 2048, one cigarette coming with felony attempted murder chargers and a five- to 15-year prison stint (depending on how many people were affected by the second-hand smoke) so the only purpose of lighters was to wave them at concerts. Hologram artistry had become the backbone of a powerful music industry, which was about to be jolted by a teenage boy and his antique guitar.

Lenny Gunz, Music Executive

Lenny Gunz had not bothered to watch the concert. He’d seen bits and pieces of it for months, working with the programmers to replicate the artists’ voices and gyrations perfectly. Nothing could be off. Every detail, every subtle motion and body movement had to match directly the musicians while they were alive. And now that the show was flawless, Lenny had no interest in watching it for real.

The following morning, Darcie Clifton, his full-time assistant and part-time oral sex partner, clicked a button that splashed the hologram news around his office so that the two appeared to be inside the day’s headlines. The innovative thing about hologram news was that everything was recorded. So even if it was not news that day, one could always rewind and scan for another day to watch a particular event. They both recognized Darcie’s blunder instantly; she had forgotten his coffee again.

“I know, I know. I was just so excited. The reviews are in and they’re spectacular.”

With all the advances in technology, it surprised Lenny how much he still depended on his morning caffeine. It was also surprising how a sexual tryst affected an employee’s ability to prioritize simple tasks. “But you walk past the shop to get here.”

“They’re better than spectacular. Reviewers are saying there’s never been anything like this in the history of music.”

“That’s because there hasn’t been.” Lenny grabbed an empty coffee cup from his desk and sniffed. “We’ve removed all possible human error. No guitarists with heroin addictions who can’t keep pace. No lead singers with raspy voices because they were out drinking and screwing the night prior, forgetting most of the words. No idiots trying to rush the stage, or drummers losing their sticks, or sound technicians who can’t figure out the arena’s acoustics. We’ve gone back in time, filtered out all the crap, and created rock and roll perfection.”

Darcie leaned across the desk. “We’re going to win a Grammy!”

“I’m going to win a Grammy. I’m going to win all of them this year.” And then I’m going to find an assistant who knows how to fetch coffee.

“I have to buy a dress. You’ll have to make a speech.”

“I’ll do no such thing,” Lenny said. It tickled him that Darcie thought he would take her to the Grammys. “Have the programmers get to work on a hologram Lenny Gunz speech. It’s the only way I intend to speak in public.” Lenny already had the programmers working on a hologram assistant; the idea had come from a clever analyst. If the hologram was programmed to read him the news, he could save the $350,000 in salary a year he paid Darcie.

When it came to hologram music, Lenny Gunz was Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers and Steve Jobs all rolled into one. Hologram music had been around for over 100 years, although it hadn't become truly popular until the late 21st century. Lenny did not invent the algorithm that combined voice, music and body language of long-deceased musicians, but he did run the music label that perfected it. Nor was it his idea to combine different artists and styles across generations to produce super duets that never could have existed — Eric Clapton backed by Chopin, Janis Joplin and Neil Young with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, the Eminem-Woody Guthrie-Mozart performance, which became the bestselling hip-hop album of all time.

Dead musicians were worth much more than they were while alive; no longer having the burden to pay musicians, Lenny and ExxonGoogle had transformed music into an enormously profitable industry. Rather than concentrate efforts on supporting emerging artists, they simply programmed hologram artists out of hybrids — Jay Z-Johnny Cash, Madonna-Bob Marley, Prince-Etta James, Guns N Roses-Rush. And the new artists could take on any appearance — amalgamations of what the original artists looked like, or in the case of the Def Leppard-Tchaikovsky-Tupac-Lady Gaga hybrid, a 20-year-old Audrey Hepburn lookalike, whom the planet fell in love with instantly.

The music of long-dead artists in their prime, even in hybrid holographic form, was preferred to new artists. New artists reacted the only way they could — by finding proper jobs when the concept of “starving artist” meant actually starving to death waiting for a break that would never arrive from behind the illuminated shadows of Ray Charles, Van Halen and BB King. Companies that built musical instruments had gone out of business decades ago. Instruments that still existed occupied attics, warehouses and antique stores turned into kitschy objects to be hung on walls as decoration. Music itself was something to collect and enjoy; few knew how to write or play anymore.

And Lenny was much of the reason. What should have been a happy occasion was derailed by an image in the lower corner of his hologram news. It was a slight story, certainly not headline material, but something about it sent Lenny’s right hand forward, projectiling the empty coffee cup into the floor.

“What’s the matter, Lenny?”

“That,” he said. “Over there, under the sports scores. I thought I told you to tell me if that happened again.”

Darcie crouched toward the news. “I was going to tell you, but I—”

“Forgot?” This is why I prefer holograms.

It was a police report about a teenage boy who had been arrested for the second time in as many weeks for public performance. Large crowds had gathered on a landing stop, making it difficult for AirBuses to pick up commuters. While platform performances were permitted, this boy was different; he had a real guitar and harmonica, popular musical instruments from the 21st century, objects some of the younger onlookers had only seen in photographs. There were few performing musicians and none who wrote their own songs, whereas this kid was doing both. He was acceptable, if one was into crooked rhythm and off-key singing, and his short concerts were irritating to people in the music business. People like Lenny.

Something about the kid irked him, and Lenny knew he had to put a stop to it. Maybe he’d pay a visit to that clever analyst who always seemed to know the answers.

Ray Davis, Retired Auto Mechanic

Ray Davis hated hologram newspapers. He liked it the old-fashioned way, when the living room window or refrigerator — any flat space really — doubled as a monitor, and you could read your news two-dimensionally. With hologram newspapers, the subjects of the stories often acted out the event in question, a hologram anchor commentating what you were seeing, a bunch of hologram statistics climbing the walls and furniture and drapes. Sometimes, depending on what you were watching, several of the stories began talking at once, so that last night’s baseball game, a recent storm and the stock market report wrestled over the space in his small kitchen. The nice thing about hologram news was that all the news was included, and could be updated as the story developed, rather than in a subsequent report. And if Ray missed anything, he could just go back to the previous days and scan for what he needed.

He was only interested in one story really, that of his grandson, Levon. The boy had been arrested again, this time for a public disturbance — playing his guitar at a local landing stop. It was not even Levon who had caused the ruckus. It was all the passersby, gawking and elbowing and wrestling for an eyeful, trying to understand how he slapped the wooden artifact so quickly. What harm was he doing, really? At the least, it kept him out of trouble. Ever since he started with the guitar, his grades had improved. Besides, they needed the money. At 17, Levon was too young to work; at 75, by law Ray was five years too old. With the population as large as it was, there were only so many jobs available, so the young and the old had to make do as best they could. They relied on Levon’s tips to get by.

Levon’s mother was dead; he never knew his father. By 2100, most people had stopped using sexual intercourse as a means of reproduction; it was much too messy and far less reliable than hiring a semen specialist to provide the necessary ingredients — including the option to purchase the DNA of long-dead celebrities. In the case of Ray’s daughter, Anna, an aspiring musician, she adored a crooner who died in 2029 and went by the name, Bob Dylan; Ray had ExxonGoogled him to learn more about his phantom son-in-law. It wasn’t Ray’s type of music, although he pretended to like it when his daughter played it during Sunday supper.

When Anna got sick, she’d made Ray promise that Levon would get a proper job — a nanotechnology engineer, or a robot repairman — and not waste his life the way she had, trying to make it as a working musician. Ray had kept his promise. He had not actually put the guitar in the boy’s hands. He might have had it cleaned and repaired. And placed it on an obvious shelf in the attic. And left the attic door slightly ajar for a curious teenage boy to discover. But he had not actually put the guitar into his hands. Or the harmonica, for that matter.

“Hey, Grandpop” Levon said, entering the kitchen.
The old man did not speak, just glared at the spot on the kitchen floor where the hologram news performed.

“I know,” Levon said. “I’m sorry.”

“I told you, boy. Got to be careful.”

“It’s just … I was playing quietly like you said, just waiting for the AirBus. Then some people gathered, so I played a little louder. Then some more, a little louder. Before I knew it, the entire stop was rocking and shouting and I couldn’t help myself.”

“Arrested again.”

“I know Grandpop.”

“That makes two — one more time, it’s the clink for 30 days.”

“I won’t let it happen again.”

“Stay away from the landing stops. When you perform, go find a park, or a field.” He pulled his grandson close, kissed his head, then smacked him in the same spot he kissed. “Get out of here. You’ll be late for school.”

The boy was good. It had taken him months to get the feel of the instrument. There was no one to teach him how to play, but he picked it up quickly. After a year, he added the harmonica and lyrics, turning their apartment into a nightly romp. Ray hated holograms and only tolerated the old music everyone seemed to enjoy. But that all changed when he heard his grandson play, the guitar’s twang, the harmonica’s whine, the way the room shook as his grandson tapped his foot into their tiny kitchen floor.

But was he too good? There was no future for a live musician, not anymore. To be a success, you had to be 100 years dead. And the record labels were vicious, going to war over the rights to particular artists, often hunting down and strong-arming next of kin that held sway over the long-dead musicians. Levon was small potatoes. But as Ray watched the hologram news on his kitchen floor, he saw the crowd grow eerily large, the hologram fans hollering and wrestling in his living room to get a look at the boy guitarist. Something about that image scared the old man.

Kip Perkins, Beef Analyst

Kip Perkins was a genius. The cost of college having skyrocketed, he did not have the funds to pursue a prestigious career. Instead he had been hired as a programming apprentice at ExxonGoogle and eventually promoted to Beef Analyst, where he was responsible for inventing rivalries between hologram musicians.

Everyone knew the holograms were not real. Still, it made music more interesting to read about the hologram artists vacationing, or their sexual trysts, both of which were handled by various ExxonGoogle analysts, and especially disputes the holograms were apparently having with each other. Kip was a 21st century American music history buff and loved reading about the real beefs from a hundred years earlier. He often stole historic feuds and replicated them with the holograms, sometimes skyrocketing sales of a hologram artist just by insinuating a dispute.

But it was thankless work. Once the public grew tired of the storyline and sales leveled off, the feuds petered out and Kip invented fresh tales. Kip wanted the beefs to end in bloodshed, bullet holes in the face, loved ones crying in the street, mass violence — the way they did in the good old days. Unfortunately, hologram musicians never died.

Kip had a headache. He always got headaches when he saw Lenny Gunz approaching his cubicle. Like millions of humans, Kip suffered from the rare disease Engorgitis, in which his neurons and ganglia became so engorged with digital information that the head eventually exploded. His father had died from an exploding head. His grandfather and uncle and sister and Aunt Pat and Cousin Joe — all died when their heads exploded from too much information. Each year Kip and his cousins and brothers walked in the Engorge-a-Thon, the annual event that raised money to find a cure to a disease that was as startling as it was sudden.

Kip knew that one day, he would be sitting at ExxonGoogle inventing a beef between Hologram Elton John and Hologram Axl Rose, and just like that his head would explode.

“How goes it, Kip?”

“Got a headache.”

“Sorry to hear it. Take a break.”

“I’m on break.”

“That’s good. Say, let me ask your advice about something.”

Kip hated giving Lenny advice. He sometimes gave him stupid advice, just to see what Lenny would do with it. He had told him to fire his assistant — a gorgeous 25-year-old whose only fault seemed to be she could not remember Lenny’s coffee — and have the programmers build him a hologram assistant instead, which Lenny had done, much to Kip’s delight. This time, he needed advice about the kid everyone was talking about. He had been playing on landing stops, drawing large crowds and making the morning news. Kip had heard him a few times. He was good, not the caliber of music that ExxonGoogle produced, but different. The crowds had gotten larger; Kip knew what was on Lenny’s mind before he even broached it.

“He’s dangerous,” Kip told him preemptively, enjoying Lenny’s reaction.
“But he’s just a kid.”

“Very unique kid though.”

“It’s only one guitar.”

“Not true. He plays in the parks some nights. Other day I wandered past, couple other musicians were jamming with him.”

“With real instruments? But where are they getting them?”

“They’re around if you know where to look.”

Kip hit a button and up popped the hologram news. He rewound it a few days and showed Lenny the concert. There was the boy, strumming away on his guitar, along with a half-dozen musicians doing the same. The others did not have the musical abilities of the boy, nor did they have any training, but they were doing their best to keep pace. Some of the instruments did not even work. The musicians instead were just pretending to play, miming through what an actual musician would look like. The crowds appreciated the show nevertheless, dancing and singing along to the music.

It was things like that — hologram news — that were filling Kip’s neurons with digital information, overloading his synapses with senseless nonsense that would eventually end in a brain volcano. He rubbed his forehead. He just wanted Lenny to go away.

“But why?” Lenny asked. “Why do they like this crap?”

“Because they don’t know it. It’s different, just like hologram music was 40 years ago. Who knows, maybe folks will go back to liking music the way it was in the old days?”

“So what do we do?”

Kip shrugged, his head pounding. “I don’t know, Lenny. Kill him why don’t you.”

“What for?”

“Ever heard of John Lennon?” Kip knew well that Lenny had. John Lennon was his most coveted hologram, controlled by a competing label that refused to sell him. If Lenny never obtained John Lennon under his label, he would consider his career a failure.

“Best way for a musician to reach immortality is not through music. It’s through being assassinated. John Lennon showed us that recipe.”

“It’ll never work.”

“Dead musicians are worth more than living ones.” Kip shrugged again. “First make him famous, then make him dead.”

Lenny was not above killing someone. But with hologram news, there were cameras everywhere. Eventually killing the kid would find its way back to Lenny’s world.

“How do you I suggest I do that?”

“I don’t know, Lenny. Talk to your friends.”

“I don’t have friends like that.”

“Yes, you do. You’re not that smart. You didn’t get to where you are without friends like that.”

Part II will be posted tomorrow, 7/24.

Jon Methven is the author of the very fine novel This Is Your Captain Speaking. You can find his last story for FWD, about the aftermath of an apocalyptic hack, here.


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