That’s the “Alter Ego” proposition in a nutshell. We meet aspirant singers, speaking as themselves, as they design digital avatars synced to their body and voice. Then, with the human out of sight, the projected self performs a cover of a pop song. These projections do things that the human competitors literally cannot — set themselves on fire, or move their tattoos around their bodies — and things that they simply cannot imagine. A good number of the premiere episode’s five vocalists express some sort of insecurity or anxiety when it comes to taking the stage as themselves: A computer-generated projection allows them to make pop star dreams a reality.
The results are mixed. We lack real insight into why, exactly, contestants chose the particular personae they did, and what little we get doesn’t really nourish. When judge Alanis Morissette asks a singer performing under the name Misty Rose why that’s her stage name, we’re told that Misty is her cat’s name and roses have many layers. And why they’re performing under digital disguise at all tends to be reduced and overexamined at once: The singers are insecure, for one reason or another, which the judges will probe at some length. The idea of this new technology as interesting in and of itself can’t be allowed to stand.
To wit: One gentleman says that he feels uncertain on stage because he’s not “handsome and cool.” The judges reassure him that he really is, which is well-meant, kind, and very much in the late-”Idol” inspirational vein. But treating the “Alter Ego” technology as the bridge to allow people to perform as themselves suggests that there’s something less-than about the very thing we’re being asked to spend an hour watching. The show discounts the possibility that the very concept it introduced — performing in character — has merit of its own.
This tendency is most pronounced when a woman who complains of having been misgendered for what she calls her “deep voice” gets the opportunity to perform as a gender-nonconforming individual named Seven. “I didn’t know where I fit in, because I didn’t,” she says, celebrating that her digital self “doesn’t meet expectations.” After Seven’s performance of Hozier’s “Take Me to Church,” judge will.i.am comments that “he brought Seven, and the depth, to a whole different level.” A brief controversy emerges among the judges over the gender of the “real” Seven, with Morissette remarking, “She’s a woman! But I love that we can’t tell” as Nick Lachey looks astounded and confused.
The person within the machine had believed they were transcending a conversation about gender and being seen for who they really were; the judges’ dragging gender back into it feels small, and mean, and as though the show doesn’t have anything to say about the technology it’s using other than that it’s cool but weird. Generally, the judges are a problem for this show: Morissette, Lachey, and host Rocsi Diaz seem benevolently disengaged, while will.i.am and Grimes are enthusiastic in a flailing, exaggerated way. It makes sense: In the Black Eyed Peas’ latter days, will.i.am embraced a sort of incoherent futurism. And Grimes, a thrilling recording artist who may have become better known for her provocative public statements, is flattened and made trite by the show’s format. With only moments to address contestants, she lands on truisms like “What can you be that your human self can’t be?”
If the show were really interested in that question, it might have allowed Seven to perform as themself without instantly litigating the gender question. It also might have been a little more visually imaginative: I was struck that a recent awards-show performance of “Levitating” by the corporeal Dua Lipa featured her soaring into the air, while an “Alter Ego” competitor singing the same song remained earthbound. A show on which the contestants can do anything sates us by having them do a little.
We’re perhaps meant to be impressed by the mere fact of “Alter Ego’s” existence. But the concept is not new: Holographic pop stars — from Japanese “Vocaloid” superstar Hatsune Miko to animated Damon Albarn project Gorillaz to the Miley Cyrus “Black Mirror” lampooning real-world projections of deceased recording artists — have been with us for some time now, spurring, alternately, fandom, admiration, and an uncanny-valley dread. Their fundamental appeal is in making literal the job of a pop star, which is to show us a side of themselves even as we know the “real” them, whomever that is, is somewhere under the artistry, and the machine. There’s a rich irony in eliminating the human factor altogether, an irony “Alter Ego” doesn’t seem interested in exploring.
“Alter Ego” tries to have it both ways — introducing us on intimate terms to people who insist that they’re best understood through their music, and, in sharing that personal backstory, making it impossible for us to see them the way they want to be seen. It puts forward a fascinating, odd concept that’s moving from the fringes of pop closer to its mainstream, and says that the only reason one might pursue it is to hide from oneself. Encouraging contestants to bare their souls even as they’d plainly rather not, this show recalls nothing more than the early days of “American Idol.” And there’s nothing cutting-edge about that.
“Alter Ego” premieres Wednesday, Sept. 22, at 9 p.m. E.T. on Fox.