Pop Star Avatars
In the last 30 years of popular music, there has been an influx of hits that feature guest artists. Although joint songwriting and production has always existed, the way in which these collaborations are represented in music videos feels particularly new. Featured artists are now portrayed as avatars. While their collaborators appear in the flesh, guest musicians materialize via holograms, projections, and video monitors. The result is a world of online sound and image haunted by musical spectres. With each spirit that is summoned, questions emerge around the cultural forces that have shaped this trend and the implications of relegating human presence to the realm of technology.
“Avatars,” or images of human figures relayed through digital means, exist in music videos by way of common tropes. The most prominent is the use of holograms. As shown in visuals featuring Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, Logic, and Quavo, a glitchy apparition will often emanate from some form of projection device.
Antique televisions also make a recurring appearance. In videos with Jay Z, Ty Dolla $ign, 2 Chainz, Anderson .Paak, and Nate Reuss, for instance, the nostalgic glow of a tiny screen becomes a focal point or a transitional element between scenes.
Variations on these two themes range from the use of CCTV monitors and magic paintings, to peep boxes, dashboard interfaces, and projection screens. The possibilities for display are endless, and so too are opportunities for handling. Avatars are picked up, carried over a shoulder, turned on and off, and conjured at a moment’s notice.
These gestures are complicated by the added dimension of race. Guest artists are mostly Black and their musical counterparts are white. A racial hierarchy exists in the divide between those who are granted personhood and those who are not. It is in this distinction that a banal pop cliché could be seen as rearticulating the violence of chattel slavery in a new technological formation. The visuals and sounds of Black featured performers are commodified while the artists themselves are without bodily autonomy, without bodies at all.
And yet, the ubiquity of this trend also asks viewers to think beyond a framework of exploitation and dehumanization. Given the number of collaborations between Black artists, the stature of many Black featured performers, and the careful image-control that they exercise, the premise that pop star avatars are without agency does not hold up. An alternate reading suggests that by embodying virtual personas, featured artists can find liberation in playing with identity and circumventing the prescribed limits of the body.
The Sanskrit etymology of the term “avatar” describes the ethereal descent of a deity in human form. This sacred imagery provides an entry point into thinking through the varied symbolism of featured-artist-as-avatar. In a text considering the popularity of digital personas in music, Ken McLeod suggests that performers “are often worshipped as literal spirits. They manifest a virtual co-presence with and a visual and aural trace of a larger creative power.” The question then becomes, who wields this power?
For a start, power dynamics are implied at the level of who gets to look at who. In the trope of featured-artist-as-avatar, the white gaze becomes a plot point. The act of staring is narrativized. As a Black artist performs their guest verse, one also sees their white collaborator surveying the scene or interacting with their mediated image. Facial expressions range from sadness and disgust to wonder and curiosity. Of particular note are Bhad Bhabie’s videos for “Gucci Flip Flops” (2018) and “Geek’d Up” (2018). In these visuals, a police van full of cops and a nuclear family ogle at rappers Lil Yachty and Lil Baby as they perform their respective verses. The same dynamic can be seen in Coldplay’s video for “Hymn for the Weekend” (2016), where lead singer Chris Martin contemplates a projected image of guest artist, Beyoncé.
These encounters concretize the words of theorist and academic Tina M. Campt, who describes a culture in which Blackness is seen but not felt. “Much too often,” she writes, “Black life is rendered in ways that allow it to be engaged at a safe distance or viewed at arm’s length…a temporary point of connection.” For many white artists in 21st century music videos, connection comes by way of screens and holograms. Their Black collaborators are surrogates, always in service to some form of spectatorship.
The featured-artist-as-avatar offers a distilled portrait of the ways that Black people are memed, remixed, and resurrected through visual culture at large. At the same time, these videos speak to realities that are specific to the music industry. Record labels and media companies have been incredibly effective in their ability to mine Black culture of its social value and mechanize guest appearances as a form of sonic gold. These objectives came into focus in the 1980s as the language of the “feature” emerged in tandem with the rise of rap and R&B. Hip hop rituals like sampling, DJing, the cypher, and the posse cut encouraged industry to develop vocabulary around referential and community-based creative processes. Features were also prioritized because of the potential for a “crossover” hit. If a label could reach audiences across colour lines, they could make more money. One method of accomplishing this was by fortifying a white pop song with a Black artist on the bridge or chorus. This saw the beginnings of the most common formats of present-day collaboration: the featured rapper, and the hook singer.
Despite the language of creative attribution becoming formalized, there is still a constant erasure of Black creators across genres. Much of this happens in the fine print of intellectual property rights, which have proven to be incompatible with improvisational and decentralized cultural traditions. There is also a legacy of singers, particularly Black women, lending their voices to smash hits and receiving no recognition. The careers of artists like Martha Wash (“Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now),” 1990) and Loleatta Holloway (“Good Vibrations,” 1991) have been punctuated by legal battles to win compensation for their uncredited vocals.
In this sense, Black featured musicians are sometimes witness to their own presence and absence simultaneously. They are hyper-visible, in that their output forms the bedrock of American music, but invisible in the eyes of copyright law and much of the audience that consumes their work. From this perspective, the trope of featured-artist-as-avatar feels like a raw articulation of how Black artistry functions in the industry. Avatars are neither here nor there, straddling the worlds of material and immaterial, human and machine, living and dead.
Despite this dichotomy, featured artists still occupy space, albeit in a state of ephemerality. As of February 2022, just under half of the songs on the Billboard Hot 100 are collaborations. Features are big business. They can launch a career, save a career, revitalize an old song or validate a new one. They can be opportunities to flex one’s sonic versatility or penchant for networking. Even their absence is a selling point, with rappers like J. Cole gaining clout among fans for “going platinum with no features.” Whether the guest verse is being harnessed or denounced, all of this action reaffirms the sway and presence of featured artists.
Surveying music videos, it is clear how avatars are used to expand this presence. CGI and green screen makes it possible to splice a pop star’s image into multiple virtual environments. An example of this tactic can be seen in the music video for “#thatPOWER” (2013) by will.i.am, where a single shot of Justin Bieber is used in different contexts. Like the actual audio of Justin’s voice, which one can imagine was duplicated in the chorus sections, Bieber’s image is also doubled. He first shows up as a hologram, and then moves to a series of billboards in Tokyo. Not only does post-production allow Bieber to phone-in his features remotely, but it allows his likeness to occupy multiple geographic locations at once. The ability to communicate the reach of one’s global stardom is bolstered by employing virtual imagery.
A similar approach can be seen in Coldplay’s “My Universe” (2021), featuring an appearance from the group BTS. The song marks the intercultural union of two pop behemoths by portraying them as holograms. As they jam out via technology, a torch is passed between a Brit-rock mainstay and the most famous South Korean boy band in the world. The video could be seen as a form of cultural diplomacy, whereby the blurring of borders between flesh and flesh becomes analogous to the traversing of political borders that their collaboration represents.
For pop acts whose output is at the scale of the planet, virtual personas also take on lives of their own. A recent wave of posthumous holographic “performances” featuring Tupac, Whitney Houston, and others have demonstrated how a celebrity’s likeness can live on even after death. Despite the questionable ethics of resurrecting artists without their input, audiences seem to have an insatiable appetite for phantasmagoria. These events are attended because of, not in spite of, their artificiality. Additionally, there are a growing number of living performers who choose to use holograms in their stage shows. Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, Chief Keef, Janelle Monáe, and will.i.am, to name a few, have all found inspiration in the possibility of technological immortality. Like chopping up a vocal sample, artists can reconfigure their image in new spacetime configurations between past and present.
Nicki Minaj is prolific in this regard. Since first releasing mixtapes in 2007, she has built a career around kaleidoscopic personas and virtual guest appearances. It’s on Kanye West’s “Monster” (2010) that she spits the iconic quotable “50k for a verse, no album out,” a figure that is now reported to have risen to half a million dollars. Boasting about the price tag for a feature is representative of something Minaj does often, where she expresses her hunger for recognition while also establishing the terms of engagement. Her use of avatars could be seen as an extension of this approach, in that they allow her to hold presence while denying touch. Memorable features in music videos include her guest appearance as an oil painting in Little Mix’s “Woman Like Me” (2018), a rapping rectangle of light in Madonna’s “Bitch I’m Madonna” (2015), and an electronic mirage in David Guetta’s “Hey Mama,” (2015). With humour, swagger, and campiness, Minaj demonstrates mastery at transforming her own mediated image.
This counter-intuitive logic of self-commodification offers a way out of the notion that featured artists as avatars only enact a choreography of subjection. Historian and professor Uri McMillan explores this thinking in his book Embodied Avatars: Genealogies of Black Feminist Art and Performance. “What happens,” he writes, “if we reimagine Black objecthood as a way toward agency rather than its antithesis, as a strategy rather than simply a primal site of injury?” Placing Nicki Minaj in dialogue with the work of artists like Simone Leigh and Adrian Piper, McMillan describes a process of “performing one’s body” and searching for “the surprising powers, and even pleasures, in Blackness as abjection.” Minaj wields her likeness with an acute understanding of how her body circulates and uses the spectacle of Black music and visuality in service to her own character-play.
An embrace of multifaceted being also resonates with the words of curator and writer Legacy Russell. In her book Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto, Russell posits the body as a celestial organism, abstract in its formation and “inconceivably vast.” Focusing primarily on the work of Black trans, queer, and gender-nonconforming artists, as well as her own identity formation through the prism of the internet, she considers the ways that the body itself is a cultural construct.“Who defines the material of the body?” Russell asks, “Who gives it value—and why?” In response to these questions, Russell casts the “glitch” as a strategy of resistance for those whose presence has been deemed “faulty.” Embodying the glitch is a way to subvert and supersede binary notions of gender, race, and sexuality by abstracting the material of the body. “Through the application of the glitch, we ghost on the gendered body and accelerate toward its end,” she writes. This “ghosting” also happens at the imagined boundary between digital and physical. When featured artists shape-shift into new technological entities, they explore the constellation of human and non-human forces that make up corporeality.
With this understanding, the trope of featured-artist-as-avatar is liberatory as much as it is shaped by the converging forces of capital and anti-Blackness in the music industry. That being said, perhaps liberation is not always the end goal, nor does it adequately describe what is at play. Not all artists wade through the murky depths of representational politics each time they lay down sixteen bars on a bridge. Sometimes identity-play is just for the simple joy of identity-play. If there is one thing that pop music makes room for, it is exploring the artifice of the body. Fleshy beings are malleable and there is fun and entertainment in shaping one’s humanity into a million different configurations. The nuance of this gesture in music videos is precisely what gives the feature its resonance.
 Holograms in live performance are typically achieved using a 19th century stage illusion called “Pepper’s Ghost,” in which an image is projected on a slanted piece of glass to give it the appearance of being three-dimensional. This trick has often been used in magic shows and theatrical productions. In music videos, Pepper’s Ghost is rendered digitally.
 Before LCD monitors, televisions housed a funnel-shaped mechanism called a cathode-ray tube that manipulated electron guns to display on a phosphorescent screen. In a similar fashion to the use of holograms, the look of this technology is now achieved in music videos using computer-generated imagery.
 McMillan, Uri. Embodied Avatars Genealogies of Black Feminist Art and Performance. New York University Press, 2015, 11.
 McLeod, Ken. “Hip Hop Holograms: Tupac Shakur, Technological Immortality, and Time Travel.” Afrofuturism 2.0, edited by Reynaldo Anderson and Charles E. Jones, Lexington Books, 2016, 109-124.
 Campt, Tina M., “How Black Artists Are Shaping a Distinctly Black Gaze.” Hyperallergic, 2021, https://hyperallergic.com/671547/how-black-artists-are-shaping-a-distinctly-black-gaze-tina-m-campt/
 Harris, Aisha. “The Troubling Viral Trend of the “Hilarious” Black Neighbor.” Slate, 2013, https://slate.com/culture/2013/05/charles-ramsey-amanda-berry-rescuer-becomes-internet-meme-video.html
In a text exploring the ways in which Black people’s traumatic experiences circulate as memes online, Aisha Harris credits the virality of these images to “a persistent, if unconscious, desire to see Black people perform”.
 In 1990, the Billboard Hot 100 saw the first use of the word ‘featuring’ on a chart-topping song. With the release of Glenn Medeiros’ “She Ain’t Worth It” featuring Bobby Brown, as well as a number of other hit singles, the music industry had formalized the language of collaboration. Genre-bending tracks that led to this moment included “Rapture” (1980) by Blondie, “I Feel for You” (1984) by Chaka Khan, “Walk This Way” (1986) by Aerosmith and Run DMC, and “Friends,” (1989) by Jody Watley with Eric B. and Rakim.
 Molanphy, Chris. “The Complete History of Pop Hits with Featured Rappers Dropping Verses.” Slate, 31 July 2015, https://slate.com/culture/2015/07/the-history-of-featured-rappers-and-other-featured-artists-in-pop-songs.html.
 Community-based traditions range from folk songs passed down across generations to viral TikTok dance trends. In regards to roots music and its incompatibility with copyright law, K.J. Greene’s 2008 essay, “Lady Sings the Blues: Intellectual Property at the Intersection of Race and Gender” explores how intellectual property rights were structured to deny Black artists proprietorship of their compositions and recordings.
 Notable vocalists include Kym Mazelle, Paris Grey, Crystal Waters, Ultra Naté, La India, Barbara Tucker, and Robyn S.
 Travie McCoy’s “Billionaire” (2010) launched the career of Bruno Mars. Justin Bieber had a comeback at 21 with the release of Skrillex and Diplo’s “Where Are Ü Now” (2015). Phoebe Bridgers’ feature on the re-release of Taylor Swift’s album Red (2012/2021) was the perfect co-sign to bridge two eras of singer-songwriter. And after Lil Nas X was initially rejected by Country radio for not being Toby Keith-enough, he flipped everyone the bird and re-released his single “Old Town Road” (2019) with features from Nashville royalty, Billy Ray Cyrus and Mason Ramsey. It was a massive hit, proving once again the power of the feature.
 One example is Ed Sheeran’s No.6 Collaborations Project (2019), where guest features are part of his larger project of making lukewarm music in multiple genres. He is very good at it.
 Since the 1990s, producers have increasingly moved into the spotlight, making for a distinct kind of (mostly male) pop act whose entire catalogue hinges on collaboration (think DJ Khaled, Mark Ronson, Calvin Harris, Santana, Gorillaz etc…). These performers move between the roles of musician, MC, taste-maker, vibes-initiator, and figurehead.
 Able, Autumn. “J. Cole Went Platinum with No Features.” Know Your Meme, 2016, https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/j-cole-went-platinum-with-no-features.
Popular holographic performances have included depictions of Tupac, Whitney Houston, Eazy-E, Old Dirty Bastard, Pop Smoke, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Frank Zappa, Ronnie James Dio, Elvis Presley, Maria Callas, and Michael Jackson. After a holographic animation of Tupac “performed” at Coachella 2012, the artist’s albums re-entered the Billboard charts. Sales increased over 500% and the stock price of Digital Domain, the company responsible for the illusion, rose by more than 60%.
 Iandoli, Kathy. “The Economy of Guest Rap Features.” The Face, 2019, https://theface.com/music/guest-verses-rap-hip-hop-nicki-minaj-drake-travis-scott
 McMillan, Embodied Avatars Genealogies of Black Feminist Art and Performance. N, 10.
 Russell, Legacy. Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto. Verso, 2020, 41.
 Russell, Glitch Feminism, 9.
 Russell, Glitch Feminism, 10.