Whitney’s back from the dead. But is her hologram tour a joyful tribute or ghoulish exploitation?

Published by The Mail on Sunday (16th February, 2020)

Whitney Houston will soon be back on stage. Tickets are being sold for what is billed as the first world tour for a decade of the talented but troubled singer. 

The first concert takes place in Sheffield on February 25 – less than 40 miles from Manchester, where her final world tour ended in 2010 amid criticism of stumbling performances. ‘Bloated, bedraggled and out of tune,’ ran one unkind review of the London leg of her tour.

Yet fans are divided over the new tour. The stunning star possessed of such a glorious, gospel-tinged voice died aged 48 in 2012 – so this tour features a hologram of the singer belting out those familiar hits.

The 90-minute show, complete with full band, backing singers and dancers, is in final rehearsals in Los Angeles and will feature 17 of her songs, including I Wanna Dance With Somebody, Greatest Love Of All and Saving All My Love For You.

Some critics claim the concept is creepy. Others have condemned it for cashing in on the dead. ‘I hope no one attends this… let her rest,’ said American writer and cultural commentator Frederick Joseph.

But Houston’s resurrection is the most significant step yet in a new trend in music that harnesses laser technology to nostalgically revive the live performances of dead pop stars.

It comes after a South Korean documentary showing the unsettling sight of a bereaved mother being ‘reunited’ with her dead daughter. Using a virtual-reality headset, the mother touches a computer-generated image of her daughter, who died four years ago at the age of seven.

Houston’s re-appearance follows in the artificial footsteps of Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison, hip-hop legend Tupac Shakur, oddball rocker Frank Zappa and even the opera singer Maria Callas.

Music is, of course, an industry in which many of the biggest earners died too young. So Houston may be followed back on stage by Amy Winehouse, whose hologram show is being developed in collaboration with her family.

There has been talk of Abba taking a chance on such a tour, although all four members of the Swedish band are still alive. Fans can already sing along with their avatars in the pop group’s Stockholm museum.

Many of the other biggest stars are now old enough to collect their pensions – such as The Rolling Stones, Sir Elton John, Cher, Bruce Springsteen and Sir Paul McCartney.

Champions of the fast-developing technology predict that it might soon allow fans to download such ‘artists’ into their living rooms when they want them to perform – or that lazy stars could sit by their swimming pool and send their avatars on tour. 

‘This is the future,’ said Fatima Robinson, a choreographer who worked with Houston and is directing the new production. ‘After a while, you can get tired of the road. Technology is taking us to some interesting places.’

She dismisses doubters. ‘This is a good way to pay homage to Whitney Houston’s legacy and enjoy her music. You can dance and cry and relive the songs you have heard at weddings and graduation parties.’

Certainly the show is a bold move. Houston, a scion of music royalty whose cousin was Dionne Warwick, sold 200 million albums during her stellar career. Even her rendition of the US national anthem became a hit.

Behind the golden facade, however, lay a story of alleged childhood abuse, a secret lesbian relationship, domestic violence and drug problems. She drowned in a foot of water in her bath in February eight years ago, her death linked to cocaine and heart disease.

Warwick has called the idea of her cousin’s hologram tour ‘surprising’ and ‘stupid’. 

But one veteran tour manager quipped to me that a big benefit of hologram singers is that they always turn up on time, perform to perfection and behave while on the road. ‘They’d never even have a cold, let alone a hangover or worse,’ he said.

These shows are an attempt to resuscitate her reputation and revive sales after her career became clouded by controversy. But Robinson believes Houston would have backed the idea. ‘I knew her, I worked with her and she would have loved it.’

She is finalising the show in rehearsal with a body double who will be replaced by the hologram image. It is taken from a recording of a 1986 performance, specifically chosen after the team listened to more than 100 of Houston’s concert recordings.

The hologram – basically an ultra-sophisticated light projection – will be joined by 12 live performers.

The challenge is to mimic Houston’s charisma and ability to transform a song – while, on a practical level, producers must ensure no one goes behind the image on stage since they would be seen through her body.

The concept dates back to 2012 when the rapper Tupac Shakur – who had been shot dead 16 years previously – unexpectedly appeared to sing two songs alongside living hip-hop stars Dr Dre and Snoop Dog at a music festival.

His hologram involved a body double and was based on a trick popular with Victorian entertainers called ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ whereby a strongly lit image is reflected on to angled sheets of plastic to produce a wraith-like image on stage.

Among the 70 million people who have watched the rapper’s performance on YouTube was Marty Tudor, a veteran music industry figure. ‘A hologram is just light that looks 3D,’ he said. ‘I thought this is really cool and there may be something special here.’

He formed a company with two partners called Base Hologram and secured rights to create holograms of Orbison and opera singer Callas – launching their shows two years ago. ‘We thought that, because these artists were so iconic, the audiences might still be out there.’

Despite scepticism from some critics, Tudor’s hunch proved right. The Orbison shows sold 1,800 tickets a night on average – and a new branch of the music business was born.

‘This is not a tribute band because, with Whitney, you are hearing her actual voice,’ said Tudor. ‘The illusion becomes very real because of all the live elements in the performance.

After about 10 minutes you forget this is not a real artist on stage. People say this is weird but how is it any different from when they recreate actors such as Carrie Fisher and Peter Cushing in Star Wars?’ Both appeared posthumously in the films with aid of computer-generated imagery.

Tudor’s firm tries to bring in extra personal elements to reinforce a sense of live performance. The hologram of Callas, who died in 1977, for instance, catches her dress as she passes the first violinist, then, in true diva style, stops mid-song to rebuke her conductor.

‘She looked a little pale, a little spectral,’ wrote Anthony Tommasini, classical music critic for The New York Times. ‘It was amazing, yet also absurd; strangely captivating, yet also campy and ridiculous.’

The idea of a similar Amy Winehouse concert tour has proved more controversial. Complaints that it would be too soon after the singer’s 2011 death and faced ‘unique challenges and sensitivities’ forced postponement last year.

The show remains in development, however, and Tudor insists his firm takes immense care, working with the estates and families of stars to get details right. ‘We try to be authentic because we are music-lovers and respect their creative process.’

Buddy Holly, who died in a plane crash in 1959 aged 22, proved a challenge to recreate as a hologram since no colour film footage could be found, but help was offered by the singer’s widow.

‘Everyone thinks he had black hair because of what was seen in his photos but it was really brown,’ said Tudor.

As for the Roy Orbison hologram, his son Alex – who was 13 when his father died in 1988 – told me he felt something was wrong when he first saw the hologram of the Only The Lonely singer.

‘The way the glasses sat on my dad’s nose was not quite right, so I adjusted them. It was an incredible moment.’ He admitted shedding tears when he saw his father’s hologram performing his anthem Crying.

‘The impression that I was at a Roy Orbison concert again was so real, so palpable, with all the things I was so used to seeing my dad play. Most people might think my dad passed away 30 years ago, so that’s why I was crying. But it was not from sadness. I was just so proud that his songs had bought 3,000 people together again. That’s the magic of the hologram.’

I asked if there isn’t something almost sacrilegious about recreating dead stars. Orbison quoted his father who, when asked how he wanted to be remembered, said: ‘I just want to be remembered.’

Tudor would most love to choreograph a Beatles reunion – recreating their famous final performance on the roof of their Apple Corps headquarters in London before the release of Let It Be, using holograms of John Lennon and George Harrison alongside the real Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. Others are also cashing in.

A former New York financier called Jeff Pezzuti has a firm called Eyellusions that has created shows around heavy metal singer Ronny James Dio, who died in 2010, and Frank Zappa, who died in 1993.

The Zappa show featured guitarist Mike Keneally, who played on the artist’s final tour. ‘I remember thinking, this might be spooky. And then I saw the footage of it, and I found it strangely moving,’ Keneally said afterwards.

After a concert in New York, Rolling Stone magazine reported that ‘the crowd of mostly older men buzzed with excitement’ and gave the show a standing ovation – adding: ‘Throughout the show, people screamed with praise. “You’ve still got it, kid!” one fan yelled at the hologram!’

Holograms may not be the future of rock ’n’ roll – but they might just be a clever way to tap into nostalgia by extending the live careers of dead artists in an ageing industry, especially as the technology grows smarter. 

‘I can understand why some might worry about taste but I know people who went to the Orbison shows and really enjoyed them,’ said Paul Craig, manager of rock band Biffy Clyro and chairman of the 500-strong Music Managers Forum. ‘Ultimately, the best judges will always be the fans.’

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