Is ABBA Voyage Crossing A Worrying Line?

It's erasing the 'live' element of live performance...

Naturally when ABBA announced a comeback, everyone went mad for it. Since disbanding in the 80s, the band’s legacy only seemed to grow and grow, from ‘ABBA Gold’ CDs in family cars worldwide, to Cher’s appearance in Mamma Mia 2 and now the ever-viral nature of their songs place in TikTok culture. Gaining new fan bases in each subsequent generation since the birth of their fame, there’s no band quite as enduring in hearts as ABBA. So when a band like that starts to tease a return, you can almost hear piggy banks around the world being smashed in anticipation, ready to fork out whatever it would cost to be catch a glimpse of the band. But does glimpsing at shiny little light particles instead have the same effect?

Despite being very much alive and well-enough to record a new album, the original ABBA members won’t be stepping on stage at their ABBA Voyage shows. Instead, what they’re offering is an futuristic experience including holograms of the band, seemingly in their spritely 70s days. Beyond the strangeness of seemingly immortalising their younger selves, trapping their revival firmly in their past, the hologram tour seems to dance on the line of worrying as it sways a little too close to Black Mirror territory. Reminiscent of Miley Cyrus’ Ashley O episode which climaxes with a hologram of Ashley performing while the actual person lies in a coma, it pushes close to questioning the need for actual human performers if the live industry is able to go on without them.

If ABBA don’t even need to be in the venue or even the country to put on a show, it calls into question everything we know and love about live music in this conflict between an original art form and scary new technology.

– – –

– – –

It also makes you wonder about all the ways massive stars can use technology to an unfair level. Call it lazy at best and money-grabbing exploitation of fans at worst, something about the thought of Benny and Bjorn relaxing at home rubbing their hands together as their hologram selves rake in a serious amount of income from ticket sales feels wrong.

Adding to their already huge fortunes as royalties from their music and Mamma Mia give the band members individual net-worths that are in the hundred-millions, their newest income now doesn’t even require them to clock in to earn. While they’re able to reunite to record a new album, it begs the question of why they couldn’t just get up and perform themselves? And the default answer feels like laziness, cashing in on their insane new TikTok popularity without having to put in the man-hours thanks to their hologram selves.

Beyond ABBA Voyage and the disappointment of not seeing our life-long party soundtrack providers in the flash, this first step into replacing living people with digital versions opens a worrying gate. Sure, holograms are nothing new – after his death, a hologram of Michael Jackson took to the stage to perform hits, even Kim Kardashian had a hologram of her late father give her a pep talk – but replacing living people still seems odd. It may seem melodramatic, but ABBA's use of technology to make themselves redundant on their own tour almost seems to threaten the need for humanity in live music, risking losing the whole experience to digital alternative.

It’s already started thanks to the pandemic as more major stars are willing to test out virtual options, such as Ariana Grande’s recent Fornite gig or the many many livestream shows we’ve paid to watch from our own living rooms. If ABBA are proving that fans will still pay £60 to see only a projection of an artist, it's a matter of time before other acts follow suit, deciding to skip the costly procedure of actually appearing IRL.

What’s next? Taylor Swift doing an entire world tour as her hologram appears in 2000 venues in one night? An experience in which Britney’s virtual self is performing 24/7 in Vegas, regardless of whether the real person wants to get up on a stage ever again? A world in which Morrissey will never die, instead leaving a digital twin sweating on a stage night after night forever?

Maybe we’ll never see a real life pop-star again. Perhaps music is only live in that the audience are there counting down till someone presses ‘play’ on a VHS…

Calling into question the future of actual live music, it also demands answers about why we love the experience. As one of the most universal experiences, uniting every end of every spectrum, love of live music seems like a borderless thing. But what exactly is it that we love? If the answer is seeing our favourite artists in the flesh, having that split second of euphoria when you release they’re actually real people, sure ABBA Voyage won’t offer that as the band sit it out. If the answer is as simple as feeling a real drum beat in your chest, it’s sad to think that their session musicians will never get the credit for carrying the experience alone.

Similar to the debate around auto-tune or artists that lip-sync, and the arguments around just how much an act should charge for an online show, ABBA’s holograms have (possibly unintentionally) levelled up the debate around what constitutes real live music. Teetering on an invisible line drawn around the unwritten contract made between artist and fan, living people swapping themselves out for holograms so they can do more shows and get more money without being there at all tests the moral boundaries of the whole thing and no doubt Charlie Brooker is watching closely ready to take notes for next season.

– – –

– – –

ABBA Voyage kicks off on May 27th.

Words: Lucy Harbron

– – –

Join the Clash mailing list for up to the minute music, fashion and film news.