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Rest in Python: Jeff Buckley, John Lennon and the rise of AI.

Great news guys, Jeff Buckley's alive and still singing! Well not quite, but with a recent trend of digital necromancy, we can keep exploiting our favourite artists even when they're six feet under. If you're anything like me, falling down a Spotify recommendation rabbit hole is a regular occurrence. Yet, on a recent excursion I stumbled across a song I have not been able to shake. The song itself is popular, maybe even one of your favourites: Mariner's Apartment Complex by Lana Del Rey. The twist, however, is it's not Del Rey singing, instead artist Jeff Buckley. Whilst the song has beautiful lyricism and a wistful melody, this is not what caught my attention. Instead, the impossibility of the cover becomes the defining feature- as Buckley passed 22 years prior to the song's release.  


As I delved further, I found the practice is not uncommon. There are multiple websites, YouTube and sound cloud covers claiming to use Buckley’s vocals. And it doesn't stop there; covers imitating popular artists- dead or alive- often go viral without consent or accreditation. The world of AI is developing at such a rapid pace, and there is little time for consideration of ethics or morality. Whilst artists such as Grimes have given public consent for their likeness to be used in AI creations, this decision is impossible for dead artists. Buckley, who passed in 1997, has attracted such AI interest possibly due to the nature of his death. The artist had a tragically short career, yet still managed to produce a vast collection of critically acclaimed originals as well as fan favourite covers. When touring in 1997, Buckley waded into the Mississippi River and vanished, his body found a short week later. The circumstances surrounding Buckley’s death add a layer of intrigue to his music, reveal pain behind the art and perhaps most importantly, the tragedy makes him rather morbidly all the more appealing to audiences. Buckley is no stranger to his art being resurrected posthumously, with multiple leaked songs such as ’all flowers bend in time towards the sun’ and journal entries or unfinished poetry being published. Repeatedly, there is a trend like many other artists where their wishes for privacy become ignored after death in the name of audience consumption under the guise of appreciation for the art. When AI enters the equation, the question raised time and time again of morality becomes increasingly prevalent, and increasingly ignored.  


But where does appreciation for the art, and the desire to entertain separate? I think a great example lies with The Beatles latest release ‘Now and Then’. The song was released in 2023, despite the band breaking up in 1970 and two members having passed away decades ago. The song uses AI to separate and improve the quality of a tape of Lennon’s vocals gifted to McCartney shortly after his death. Furthermore, the song is an original creation led by a close friend and bandmate, rather than an imitation of an already popular song created by an anonymous fan.   


The practice is not only exploitative, but also carries worrying implications for the future of the music industry. The practice of contracting consent to AI projects allows labels to continue making music under an artist's name- often solely for monetary gain. It is worth mentioning that positive examples of posthumous AI projects do exist- for example the album ‘The Lost Tapes of the 27 Club’ which uses AI to imitate artists such as Hendrix and Winehouse, in order to raise awareness around mental health issues. However, the potential for exploitation even after death becomes too great, eroding both autonomy and dignity from the artist.  


The issue is vast, tricky, and each case requires nuance. Whilst AI opens a new potential for creativity, it also opens the potential for exploitation. Often the difference between AI art and imitation lies within the intention of the creator. When fanbases use AI to digitally resurrect artists, the work lacks the intention and soul that garnered them the fan base in the first place, instead becoming yet another sound bite vying for attention in the digital abyss. 

Words + Image: Bea Butterworth, she/they



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