Freddie Mercury awaits us in the near future

Freddie Mercury died 25 years ago today. He will soon be resurrected as one of the first digital rock stars in virtual reality. You will once again be able to attend a Queen concert, and you’ll be able to stand onstage beside Mercury to gaze out at an ocean of fans. It will fundamentally change your notions of life, death and Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Mercury has been on a fantastic journey since his death. He has been digitalized, and he has been canonized. How quickly we have forgotten that Queen was once an expression of the bad taste of the masses. International bestselling Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård reminds us of this in his autobiographic novel, My Struggle.

Knausgård draws on stories about Queen and Mercury a number of times. He describes, for instance, an occasion when he has just told a friend that he and his brother like Queen. The friend laughs and says: What is it with you two? Is it genetic or were you just unfortunate to be stuck out there on the island Tromøya? Queen! Such a mocking attitude was typical of the times and fits in well with Knausgård’s theme of being contrary to the right attitudes and tastes. Knausgård tells how he admires his brother for not rejecting Queen: He has liked Queen since he was little and has always acknowledged that, and he was ready to defend them at every turn. He still expected the world would come to its senses and give Queen what Queen rightfully deserved.

Now Queen has gotten what they deserve. They get artistic recognition from all sides, while remaining one of the best-selling bands of all time. What’s interesting is how the majority of their music has been sold after Mercury’s death. They would likely have achieved all this without digitalization, but Mercury’s death coincided with the world being introduced to the Internet. That’s why his death and digital resurrection give us the story of how we – in 25 years – have created technology that brings the dead back to life in sound and images – and soon, to a parallel virtual universe.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Freddie Mercury will be one of the first to greet us in virtual reality. The surviving members of Queen have always been involved in the development of new technology, one reason why Queen was the first band ever to release an entire album featuring their late vocalist. Made In Heaven was released in 1996, four years after Mercury died of an AIDS-related lung infection. Made In Heaven is composed of bits of songs that were stored in Queen’s archives compiled from 23 years of recording music while Mercury was still alive. Guitarist Brian May has said the music on the album is constructed to sound like “the good old days,” when all four members of Queen were alive and collectively creating music, but it was just an illusion. It was an illusion technology made possible in 1996.

Since then, there has been a continual flow of new technologies and media to give voices back to the dead and make them a part of our lives. As an example, in 1999 you could see the premiere of a concert video with David Bowie and Freddie Mercury. They were never filmed together, but back in 1981 they recorded “Under Pressure” as a duet. Eight years after Mercury’s death, they performed side by side. Today you are more or less able to follow Mercury and Bowie on Facebook and to receive status updates from the deceased rock stars via Twitter. Rock stars are kept alive by digital media and technology. This is a development about to take its next step: virtual reality. What awaits us just around the corner are things like sex with robots, digitally reliving the memorable moments of life and the resurrection of the dead. There may not be a lot of Rock ‘n’ Roll in this type of future, but without a shadow of a doubt: it will be fascinating.

Brian May will play a central role in the development of the virtual rock star. May is more than simply Queen’s guitarist; he also happens to have a PhD in astrophysics and is the founder of London Stereoscopic Company, an enterprise that develops eyewear for enabling virtual reality experiences through a smart phone. Earlier this year acting on behalf of Queen, May entered a partnership with Google Play to create the world’s first virtual music video. The video is entitled, “The Bohemian Rhapsody Experience” and will be billed as a journey into Mercury’s subconscious. Queen perform as animated figures. You can stand onstage with them and move around in a pretty exciting psychedelic universe.

The partnership between Queen and Google Play has been laid out as a developmental project and neither of the partners tries to hide the fact that there will be more on the way. This, despite the fact that May is not blind to the darker side of technology. “Ultimately VR will change the world, because you’ll be able to build everything that you love and cherish in the virtual world. You’ll feel like you can touch and hear and interact with them. VR could advance to the point where you feel a tug, a sort of nostalgia, a feeling that you’ve lost something, because you’ve fallen in love with the virtual world. Eventually, I think people won’t want to come out.”

Imagine a virtual world you won’t want to leave. You can get an education in New York or enjoy the view from the peak of Kilimanjaro without leaving your own living room. You can attend a concert, and just like rest of the audience, you will have the best seat in the house, because nobody is physically there. Everyone views it individually, and from afar.

It is not difficult to realize the attraction of this virtual life, nor is it difficult to see how it will influence our perceptions of what is real. Even though things will occur in a fabricated reality, we will experience them as if we really had seen the view from Kilimanjaro or attended a concert. In the future, we might never talk about what is real, but rather about experiences in various realities defined by the experience itself and not science. As an example, science will tell us we cannot travel through time, but virtual reality repeals true reality when we experience how we can attend a Queen concert held 40 years ago.

It would have been fun to explain the notion of experiences in different realities to Mercury before he died. In fact, he presumably had never even heard about the Internet. And he would probably have a hard time grasping the fact that he would rise again in a new reality 25 years after his death. During his lifetime, people imagined a completely different future. The general assumption was that it would be easier to separate the real and the human from the unreal and technological. This is an assumption bogged down in the past, but one that was valid for generations. George Orwell’s 1984 surely had quite a bit to do with it.

The futuristic novel 1984 was written in 1948. It describes a world governed by totalitarian states that controlled their populations and limited an individual’s freedom. Orwell posed a situation in which the states of 1984 would have at their fingertips a frightening technology he called “telesceens” the “thought police” used to prevent crimes. Citizens were under constant surveillance. In this future vision of a dystopian world, there was no place for real life. Sex, intimacy and friendship were prohibited, as they would muddle emotions and loyalty to the state. Threatening influences from the outside justified oppression. The threat of a cataclysmic war made totalitarianism and surveillance necessary.

One simply cannot underestimate what 1984 has meant for our perceptions of technology and the future. At the dawn of the ‘80s, anxiety flourished as we approached the countdown to the magic year, 1984. The situation in the contemporary real world did not make things any better as it seemed Orwell’s doomsday prophesy would become a reality. Millions of Eastern Europeans lived under surveillance and in poverty. The Cold War pitted East against West and represented the impending threat of total annihilation of the human race. Fear of war influenced pop culture in a way we had not seen before or since. Hit lists contained songs with lyrics such as “When two tribes go to war/A point is all you can score” and “I hope the Russians love their children, too”.

In 1984 Queen released the album, The Works, with songs about oppressive machines and Cold War anxiety. And it was with this album the band returned to their signature sound after popping off on a short tangent with a synthesizer-driven album a couple of years earlier. The music on The Works is an expression of the human and the real, implying that when music is made by machines, it makes us less human. “We hardly need to use our ears/How music changes through the years”, Mercury sings on “Radio Ga Ga”. This is a sentimental tribute to radio, which at the time was feeling the squeeze of new media like the music video and MTV. Visualization was leading us away from music itself and what was genuine, as we began to see music instead of listen to it. The song “Machines (or Back To Humans)” is literally a battle between Mercury’s human voice and guitars in the one camp, versus a synthetic voice and synthesizers in the other. Mercury warned: “When the machines take over/It ain’t no place for rock and roll”.

Queen was taking a look at the world in 1984 and it appeared to be exactly as Orwell had described it in the fiction of 1984. Even today, “1984” is often used in debates about surveillance and as a warning about a society we do not want. The truth is, however, these expectations remained in the fog of the past. Technology has given us not only weapons of destruction and tools for oppression and surveillance; we got a lot more and something other than just a nightmare. We also got an internet and a dream world that entertains and fascinates. Ironically enough, it would appear the nightmare created the circumstances and that the dream world will cause us to hunker down into ourselves.

Virtual reality might make Orwell’s and Queen’s concerns more prevailing than ever before, as we lose something inherently human when death is not an end. Or we may discover it as meaningful and, after a period of time: real; when we can turn on a computer and surround ourselves with dead people, musicians or family members we miss. Without any doubt, virtual reality will change our perceptions on death, and as a result, our attitudes toward existing in the now as something special that can never be recreated.

Mercury apparently had a fatalistic attitude toward death and said he did not care what people would think of him after he was dead. “When I’m dead, who will worry about it – I won’t”. Living in the now was not a cliché for him. It was something he practiced, and that was what he offered his audience to take part in. With this as the objective, he developed stadium rock, which was for him a means of interacting with a large audience to create a feeling of togetherness and integrity. Togetherness and the now were the objectives of Queen concerts of the ‘80s. Several of their songs were written so the band could interact with the audience, and members of the audience with one another.

 

For a fleeting moment in history, it looked as if the rock show was the cohesive force that could mobilize the masses in a collective spirit and common hopes. It is not because rock in itself is more human than other types of music; it is the genre’s ability to create a collective spirit that makes it human.

Especially one individual understood the value of rock’s cohesive force in the ‘80s. Bob Geldorf took the initiative in 1985 to stage the greatest concert that had ever been held. The goal was to provide aid to alleviate starvation in Ethiopia by uniting the whole world for a specific period of time. All of the top bands in the world participated in the concert and every one in five persons on the face of the earth watched it on TV. Geldorf believed he could gain the greatest momentum if everybody understood that Live Aid would never be replayed in sound or pictures. Both the concert and the aid were enveloped in an atmosphere of “now or never”. Queen stole the show from all the other superstars who played Live Aid. The 20 minutes Queen played have again and again been heralded as the 20 best minutes of rock history. Queen had the advantage of experience in mobilizing the masses. Mercury’s talent for creating a feeling of living a unique moment in which we could all become better versions of ourselves seemed to mesh perfectly with the objective of Live Aid.

Today every concert gets recorded by an ocean of mobile phones, and the broader audience watches the concert via the screen of a telephone. Fairly soon we will no longer need to stand beside others in a crowd. We will be able to attend a concert alone, but still experience it as if we were with a lot of others. When that moment comes, we may have become less human.

Maybe now – 25 years after his death – we should remember Mercury for the humanity his rock persona also represents. And even though the collective dream will be supplanted by the individual’s dream in virtual reality, it really is a tempting dream world that is on the verge of being created for us. I have to admit I am looking forward to the day when I can watch Mercury and Queen live onstage once again. I’ll be one of the first up there onstage with them.

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