The shocking death of Whitney Houston in the February of 2012 stands as possibly the greatest tragedy in popular music this decade. Just two days after her impromptu performance with Kelly Price at a famed Hollywood nightclub, the Queen of Pop was found dead in her suite at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. The days and weeks that followed were submerged in tributes and condolences, as celebrities from the music industry and beyond emerged to honour the memory of the pioneering popstar.
Less than a decade later, the Whitney Houston Estate has paired with BASE Holograms to present An Evening With Whitney, a colossal stage show spreading to arenas across the UK and Ireland in the February of 2020 – with a holograph presentation of Whitney Houston as the centrepiece of the attraction. The press release (including endorsement from former manager, sister-in-law, and current CEO of Whitney’s estate, Pat Houston) explains that the show will “reunite audiences with the beloved Queen of Pop” with a combination of the aforementioned hologram, backup performers, and several “digitally remastered arrangements of her classic hits”. A nearly identical statement and tour announcement was seen with another recently departed pop icon – the revered Amy Winehouse – whose controversial hologram tour was postponed earlier this year due to ‘some unique challenges and sensitivities’. With potential attendees being charged £50 for a ticket in the cheapest of the cheap seats (according to SEC Armadillo prices), rifts have opened between fans and critics alike who are split on the ethical quandary that inevitably trails such a concept.
Reliving the work of a dead artist for a modern audience is nothing new in the field of performance; you can’t spit without hitting an advert for one tribute act or another. However, the morality of presenting a technology-aided smoke-and-mirrors manifestation of a deceased performer has been debated as long as the bleak science-fiction became reality. When faced with the idea of playing alongside a projected image of jazz-legend Duke Ellington, Prince condemned it as “the most demonic thing imaginable” – a sentiment shared by many, especially as technology evolves and the holograms onstage delve further and further into the uncanny valley.
The uncanny valley is defined as the phenomenon occurring when a CGI or robotic figure begins to so closely resemble a human, but something about it creates a feeling of disgust in the viewer. This presents a fatal flaw in the marketing and general concept of the holographic tours: they are not ‘reuniting audiences’ with the beloved performer, it’s nothing but an overblown trick of the light. No matter how much money and extravagant staging is thrown at the project, it is simply impossible to recreate the experience of a live concert from the likes of Houston or Winehouse. Reviews of the 2018 Roy Orbison In Dreams tour corroborate this, with most describing it as technologically impressive but, in practice, a wholly soulless endeavour. The distinct lack of stage banter, natural motion or, shockingly, any real liveliness left the audience in a constant state of unease, unsure on whether to applaud a performer who wasn’t there. For fans of the aforementioned artists, seeing the charisma and stage presence drained to be replaced by ghoulishly sanitised pre-recordings is almost sacrilegious.
These criticisms don’t even touch on the moral reflections on society raised by the necromantic performances. While living artists such as Grimes have come out in support of a holographic replica of themselves, the dead have no such means of consenting. And when the rights to an artist’s entire existence after death lies in the gnarled hands of the notoriously grotesque music industry, a tinge of the dystopian is cast over the whole affair. The effect that the uncaring void of the music business has had on the lives of artists such as Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse, and a myriad of others and its continuous profiteering off the back of these individuals even into their deaths is, in a word, repulsive.
I suppose the overall message here is simply ‘let the dead rest’. Personally, I fail to see how an extensive discography of classic songs and albums cannot be considered anything other than legacy enough. If you’re truly insistent on trying to reconnect with the music of yesteryear in a live setting, do yourself a favour and find a real person performing a real tribute act who is really in the same room as you. Besides, they could do with your support far more than a dead-behind-the-eyes motionless projection.
[Fred Bruce – he/him]