Justin Timberlake, Prince’s Hologram, and the Tensions of Fandom

Also, what does a tribute to the Purple One have to do with Star Trek?
Justin Timberlake, Prince, Super Bowl LII

Seems like Justin Timberlake’s Super Bowl halftime performances are destined to be fraught with controversy. There was, of course, the infamous “wardrobe malfunction” in Super Bowl XXXVII’s halftime show (which, hard to believe, was fourteen years ago). Timberlake’s halftime show for Super Bowl LII faced an entirely different sort of controversy, however — one that revolved around beloved artists and their legacies.

The beloved artist in this scenario? Prince, who was famously very protective of his music, his brand, his persona, and his legacy. So when rumors surfaced that Justin Timberlake would be performing alongside a hologram of Prince during Super Bowl LII’s halftime show — which immediately brought to mind Coachella 2012’s Tupac “hologram” — criticisms quickly followed that such a move would be disrespectful of Prince considering his views on such tributes.

In an October 1998 interview with Guitar World, Prince was asked if he’d ever take advantage of technology to “jam with any artist from the past.” His reply:

Certainly not. That’s the most demonic thing imaginable. Everything is as it is, and it should be. If I was meant to jam with Duke Ellington, we would have lived in the same age. That whole virtual reality thing… it really is demonic. And I am not a demon. Also, what they did with that Beatles song [“Free As a Bird”], manipulating John Lennon’s voice to have him singing from across the grave… that’ll never happen to me. To prevent that kind of thing from happening is another reason why I want artistic control.

Prince’s thoughts on the matter are pretty clear. Collaborations with dead artists aren’t just a bad idea; they’re evil. Not surprisingly, reactions to Timberlake’s “jam” with Prince — which, to be clear, did not feature a hologram but rather, a large projection of Prince performing Purple Rain’s “I Would Die 4 U” — were all across the board. (Interestingly enough, Prince’s family gave it their approval.)

This whole situation is fascinating for a couple of reasons. First, there was the actual method and presentation of the halftime show performance, which you can watch below.

The performance certainly has the appearance of Timberlake and Prince collaborating and jamming together, albeit in a fairly abstract way due to the projection’s style and editing. However, what if a collage or slideshow of random Prince photos had played while Timberlake sang “I Would Die 4 U” unaccompanied?

That probably would’ve been far less interesting as an overall performance. But would it have been more acceptable to Prince’s sentiments (as expressed in the Guitar World interview) since it wouldn’t have had the same performative aspect? Obviously, we may never know for sure, given Prince’s death. But considering technological advances that allow the “resurrection” of deceased artists and celebrities (e.g., Leia and Tarkin’s cameos in Rogue One), it’s worth asking what bringing them back from the dead fully entails from an artistic (and maybe even an ethical) perspective.

Second, the Timberlake/Prince controversy has some parallels to the tension that can exist between fandom and the creators and owners of the works that are beloved by said fandom.

On the one hand, you have fans who legitimately love a certain work, whose lives have been positively impacted by it, and who want to express their gratitude and see that work flourish, become more appreciated, and acquire new fans.

On the other hand, you have the artists, authors, producers, directors, labels, and studios who have a legitimate interest in protecting that work and controlling how it’s portrayed and disseminated in the culture. After all, they’ve invested time and energy into its creation and existence, it puts money in their pockets and feeds their families and/or it may have lots of personal, emotional significance (to name but a few reasons).

Most of the time, all of these interests and desires probably coexist fairly well because of the near-symbiotic relationship between fans and artists. But there are those times when the fans’ desired way of expressing their love bumps up against the control that artists want to have over their art — again, see Prince’s Guitar World comments — and in those cases, who wins?

Most of the time, I’ll side with the artists because if it wasn’t for their art, there’d be no fandom to begin with. And fandom, generally speaking, requires little of fans when compared to the artists et al., who often pay very hefty spiritual, physical, psychological, and material costs to bring their art into existence. In other words, artists have a lot more skin in the game than fans do.

But sometimes, an artist’s attempts to protect their art become the very definition of biting the hand that feeds you, and can even become disrespectful of fans who have provided them with so much support, materially or otherwise.

For a geekier example of this, consider the lawsuit that CBS and Paramount filed against the production of Axanar, a Star Trek fan film. There’s no denying that CBS and Paramount have perfectly legitimate interests in protecting the Star Trek franchise, and one could also argue that the Axanar producers didn’t follow the wisest course of action by relying on fair use to protect their work.

And yet… it’s hard to sympathize with CBS and Paramount, even though they may be 100% legally correct. They went after fans of one of their most iconic and beloved properties, and Star Trek fans are some of the most loyal and passionate fans out there. (A good case could be made that Trekkies, with their fanzines, marches, and fan conventions, quite literally saved Star Trek from fading away into obscurity after The Original Series ended in 1969.)

That antagonism seems doubly wrongheaded considering how poorly CBS and Paramount have promoted the franchise as of late. (For example, barely recognizing its 50th anniversary.) Or, as Katharine Trendacosta wrote, “CBS and Paramount [went] after fans of one of their largest properties, right around when they should have been celebrating the franchise’s 50th birthday.”

To be clear, I’m not trying to compare Prince’s actions and sentiments with CBS/Paramount’s lawsuit, or say they’re at all equivalent. I personally think Prince was far more justified (not to mention far less restrictive and punitive) in his desire for his art to be understood and presented on his terms, and to not have his legacy be otherwise diminished.

But both of these cases do provide interesting examples of fan appreciation bumping up against artistic intent. And as technology continues to increase a) the ability for fans and artists to connect and relate directly, b) the channels through which fans can express their appreciation for artistic works, and c) the number of ways in which artistic works can be repurposed, reshaped, and re-presented to the culture at large by fans (and others), don’t be surprised if more examples appear in the near future.

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