“How does it feel to have seen the future?”
So asked the woman behind the cash register as I was choosing a Abba trip commemorative t-shirt. “This is the future of entertainment,” she said of the show I’d just seen, her face all mystical and awestruck. “I guess so,” I replied as I handed over my card. He was probably right, but I felt less ecstatic than sad.
Do not get me wrong: Abba trip, the live event in the arena that currently occupies Pudding Mill Lane in London’s east end, is nothing short of a miracle. In a dazzling technological regeneration, the Swedish supergroup was revived, returned to 1977, and reborn as extraordinary “Abba-tars”. As a magic trick, the whole show is completely dazzling. And though the figures have the occasional wince syncopation of the Sims characters (and the band’s voices and physical gestures are modeled after the band members now in their 70s), the ride is an eye-rubbing wonder.
Joining the audience in a spirited rendition of “Fernando” on a damp Monday evening, I felt overwhelmed with happiness and nostalgia. I embraced the energy of bachelorette night, danced the aisles, and channeled my inner Agnetha. My daughter, an Abba superfan, got hoarse from belting out singing. Driving home on the Docklands Light Railway, I wondered if she might be overdosing on serotonin.
Have I seen the future of entertainment, anyway? I rather hope not. Apparently music executives around the world are now planning holographic extravaganzas, and at more than £100 a ticket, the Abba trip the business model will create a wild addiction. I can only imagine the 40 million Licks we could see from the Rolling Stones in the future. Not unlike the 3D craze that possessed filmmakers nearly 10 years ago, the concept of live performance is about to enter a new era.
As with so much in our lives now, this is the age of deep-fake entertainment. After the film industry’s acquiescence in the Marvel universe and the ubiquity of gaming aesthetics, it was only a matter of time before live performances became the subject of techno manipulation as well. Who needs real bodies on stage when you can build a convincing simulacrum? Why bother destroying your vocal chords during a punitive residency when you can just play along to a recording?
Harder to replicate though will be the mood of euphoria that only an Abba fan brings. I imagine the excitement over musical holograms will probably burn brightly, but quickly fall out of favor. What remains more permanent, however, is how blurry our cultural reality is becoming. We are wary of how truthful our reports may be (as evidenced by the misreporting of this week’s rocket attack in Poland). But deep-fake entertainment has now floundered into every facet of culture.
Whether it’s CGI, bluescreen, holographic, or just plain fabrication, the lines between what’s real or imagined are blurring in the chopped salad of entertainment. It is especially harmful in programs that present events as historical fact. The 90th series of The crown arrived last week along with a barrage of complaints about the series’ wildly fictional diversions. Former Prime Minister John Major has vehemently denied meeting King Charles to discuss the then-Prince’s frustrations of succession. (He seemed far less concerned about the casting of Jonny Lee Miller, who lent the drabest of political leaders a disconcertingly sexy charisma). At this point in the Netflix drama, it seems rather pointless to bleat over the misrepresentation. But it is disconcerting to realize that audiences care less and less about the truth in their narrative.
We seem to be trapped in a cycle that places tremendous value on making things “feel” authentic. Whether it’s Dominic West dressing in the right kind of tweed or Abba being lasered, as long as everything looks right, we seem less interested in substance. On TikTok, I watch compare and contrast videos where you can watch the dramatic footage of The crown (and other “true stories”) alongside videos of contemporary live footage. The knockoffs, wardrobes and pitch are so good you barely know which one is the real thing. Entertainment has become a bizarre hybrid where the gap between the virtual and the real has narrowed to a whisker.
But while many are now exploring the limits of what can be done to bend public perception, there is also a growing contingent that still yearns for the corporeal and the real.
As I write this, I’m sitting in the pre-sale queue hoping to secure a ticket for Blur, who are reuniting for a single concert at Wembley Stadium next summer. The band last played a full set together in 2015, and for years a reunion seemed unimaginable. Pulp have also announced a string of dates after nearly a decade without playing together. The fact that the bands suddenly announced dates for next year set a million Brit-pop pulses ticking. Seeing Damon, Alex, Graham and Dave on stage again? It would truly be a miracle.