Arriving a symbolic and symmetric 27 years after he died at the age of 27, a “new” Nirvana song has been released. What makes “Drowned In The Sun” very different to “‘You Know You’re Right” – the last track Nirvana recorded in 1994 but which was not released until 2002 – is that Kurt Cobain did not write it and no members of Nirvana played on it.
The track in question was created using artificial intelligence (AI) software that analyzed a number of Nirvana tracks in order to mimic their writing, recording and lyrical styles – drawing on vocals by Eric Hogan, lead singer in Nevermind, a Nirvana tribute act. Such digital necromancy comes with a whole host of moral, ethical and musical concerns, but in this case it is part of the Lost Tapes Of The 27 Club project raising awareness of mental health issues in music.
The 27 Club refers to that mythologized grouping of musicians who all died at the age of 27. This project uses AI to imagine the music they could have made had their lives not been cut short. Other artists getting an AI resurrection here include Jimi Hendrix (“You’re Gonna Kill Me”), Jim Morrison (“The Roads Are Alive”) and Amy Winehouse (“Man, I Know”). The project says that dying young has been dangerously romanticized and often ignores the mental health and addiction issues behind such deaths. ‘Through this album, we’re encouraging more music industry insiders to get the mental health support they need, so they can continue making the music we all love for years to come,’ it says.
The posthumous completion of rough sketches of tracks is nothing new in the record business. Buddy Holly’s producer Norman Petty over-dubbed guitars onto the track “Down The Line” before it was released in 1965, six years after Holly’s death; “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” was completed and rush-released in early 1968, a mere month after Otis Redding’s death; “Free As A Bird” and “Real Love” began as John Lennon demos in the 1970s but were added to by Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr for release as Beatles singles in, respectively, 1995 and 1996; and Pop Smoke’s recent Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon album was finished by others in the months after his murder.
Musicians have also returned from the dead in holographic form, a trend that started with Tupac, who died in 1996, “appearing” on stage with Snoop Dogg and Dr Dre at Coachella in 2012. This has evolved into full holographic touring for acts such as Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Maria Callas, Whitney Houston, Frank Zappa and Ronnie James Dio, where thousands of fans per show pay to watch projections of dead stars grinding their way through the hits. A planned Amy Winehouse hologram in 2019, however, was postponed after outcry over its perceived lack of sensitivity. It may eventually go on tour as the further away from her death it is the less controversial it becomes.
There are parallels here with what Nile Rogers, who of course is very much still alive, has done recently with the School Of Digital Arts in Manchester, UK to create a “voice-interactive portrait” where he pre-recorded answers to 350 questions. This means that a digital version of him can respond to unique human interaction. This, in turn, was based on the New Dimensions In Testimony project, created by University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies and the Shoah Foundation, where Holocaust survivors were filmed answering thousands of questions about their experiences so that they and their stories could live on in virtual form after they die.
The Lost Tapes Of The 27 Club has most in common, however, with developments in South Korea at the end of 2020 where TV show One More Time saw a holographic version of Turtleman from South Korean hip-hop group Turtles perform “Start Over” by Gaho. This was a track that was originally released in 2018, a decade after Turtleman’s death.
Yes, there is an important point to what The Lost Tapes Of The 27 Club is attempting to do, but it can also be taken as the thin end of a worrying wedge where others, who are less circumspect, treat it as a green light and start to use AI to expand a dead musician’s discography.
The biggest ethical concern here is not so much the completion of unfinished music or even dead stars on stage as holograms singing their old songs, but rather the fact that words are, figuratively and literally, being put in their mouths.
We have seen deceased actors – from Audrey Hepburn and James Dean to Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher – reappear in virtual form in TV commercials and movies, delivering lines that were written long after their deaths. This is less of a concern as an actor’s job is to speak words that were often written by others.
For someone like Kurt Cobain, however, his appeal and why he has resonated so powerfully down the decades, is because his lyrics are inextricably linked to him as a person, where his art reflects his life. The biggest cause of fan discomfort here is that the emotions and the feelings expressed in a musician’s words and delivery become seen as infinitely replicable.
As such, singular artists risk being reduced to nothing more than their own tribute acts.