The problem with hologram tours, and why a Whitney Houston hologram only makes her death feel worse
Author Michael Arceneaux discusses the news that Whitney Houston is the latest deceased music icon to be turned into a performing hologram for profit—another heartbreaking instance of her being taken advantage of by family, even in death.
In an interview with the New York Times last month, Pat Houston, the executor of the estate of the late Whitney Houston, revealed plans that were described as being “intended to awaken the commercial potential of a dormant megacelebrity brand.” Most of them seemed on the nose: branding deals, a potential Broadway musical, and an album full of unreleased material (including tracks not used on her 1985 eponymous debut album). However, there was another plan that rightfully raised eyebrows to the point that it probably also shifted wigs: a touring hologram.
This feels tacky and exploitative. Like, there is a recent Black Mirror episode with Miley Cyrus portraying a pop star whose managers organize a hologram tour while she is hospitalized in a drug overdose-induced coma. Should anyone want to mirror that level of awful? Unfortunately, this is a sadly unsurprising move by Houston’s estate considering the popularity of reviving late musicians and profiting off their images via posthumous holograms. BASE Hologram, the company behind these plans for Whitney, has done similar shows for Buddy Holly and Maria Callas, and they are working on an Amy Winehouse one (God, no). The hologram is apparently the biggest priority for Houston’s estate and is already under development. It will reportedly feature performances of tracks like “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” and “The Greatest Love of All.” The hologram will be backed by her original band and backup singers—including Whitney’s brother and Pat’s husband, Gary Houston.
If you watched the Whitney documentary, released in 2018 and commissioned by the Houston estate, you’re fully aware that Whitney not only struggled with substance abuse, but that some of the very people planning to tour with her virtual ghost are directly responsible for her introduction to drugs. While I know that family is complicated and I respect the fact people have to earn a living, there is something so unsettling about the idea of Houston’s brother standing on stage with a virtual replication of his dead sister, knowing the role that he played in her addiction. (Not only that, when the subject of Robyn Crawford, Whitney’s former friend with whom she was long rumored to be romantically involved, surfaced in the film, Gary was defiantly homophobic.)
The ill-advised reality series The Houstons: On Our Own, which also happened to be led by Pat and Gary, chronicled Whitney’s family members as they dealt with her sudden and tragic loss. That show premiered mere months after her passing, and featured a visibly distraught and disoriented Bobbi Kristina Brown—Whitney’s daughter who would go on to die in a way too eerily similar to her mother. When you carry that kind of exploitative baggage, you should probably be mindful of the optics of all future endeavors in the deceased’s name. You should want to make business moves that don’t draw the ire of longtime fans like me—or hell, the ire of any decent people who feel Whitney’s life was marred with abuse and that, more than anything, she was taken advantage of by family members for her entire life.
Beyond that, there’s another reason to loathe the idea of a touring Whitney Houston hologram.
Days after the announcement, Whitney’s cousin, the legendary Dionne Warwick, was asked about the announced plan and offered sharp disapproval. “I haven’t a clue as to what that is. It’s surprising to me,” Warwick told Entertainment Tonight. “I don’t know what it is. I think it’s stupid, but whatever it is—that’s what it is.” Although past financial troubles may have suggested otherwise, Warwick is one of the most successful artists of the 20th Century. That’s no easy feat for any artist—much less a Black woman and undoubtedly one of her age. And she is a former TV psychic. Needless to say, she is correct, and I wish someone over at the Whitney Houston estate would have said what a stupid idea this is.
Then again, there have been plenty of signs that the public might not be responsive to this idea.
In 2015, the Houston estate announced plans for a Whitney Houston hologram in order to feature a “duet” with Christina Aguilera on The Voice. The announcement was met with so much online backlash that the Houston estate ultimately cancelled the performance. “We decided the hologram was not ready to air,” Pat Houston said at the time.
Beloved, we are still not ready.
Recently, Rolling Stone spoke to BASE Hologram CEO, Brian Becker, about the upcoming stage show, which is presently called An Evening With Whitney: The Whitney Houston Hologram Tour. Becker assured that the company would make the most out of available technology for the experience. “We will substantially increase our use of the creative elements that are available to us with this technology because it is cinematic, which means we can do animation and special effects to really enhance the show,” Becker said.
I’ve gone to one of these hologram shows, and I’m confident this isn’t a good thing for Whitney’s legacy.
The show I went to was for Michael Jackson ONE by Cirque du Soleil at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. (No, it wasn’t my choice, but I didn’t buy the ticket and was provided alcohol so whatevs). At first, the show was interesting and enjoyable thanks to the coupling of the known talents of all those who make up a Cirque du Soleil production and Michael Jackson’s music. But the hologram in question didn’t arrive until the very end of the performance. It was bizarre and not especially necessary, since the show already worked just enough thanks to the circus performers.
In contrast, The Whitney Houston Hologram Tour is more focused on Whitney Houston alone—when Whitney Houston is dead. More than anything, no hologram can capture what Whitney Houston was on stage.
Was she the best dancer? No, but her dancing was a joy to watch because it was done with Whitney’s spark. A hologram cannot capture that, no matter how much “creativity” is put into it. Likewise, the voice that made her so special is one that has to be experienced when the woman behind it is alive and well. Whitney Houston’s legacy does deserve to be preserved. She does not need her name and legacy soiled by the personal issues that sadly ended up swallowing her whole. I am in full agreement that the estate should generate money, but more than anything, should remind people why Whitney Houston was so special and why her talents remain unmatched.
A glorified karaoke show organized by folks who still haven’t learned how to stop exploiting their fallen relative is not the best way to achieve either of those goals.
If anything, it only reminds me that, even in death, Whitney Houston can’t catch a break. It makes me sad for her all over again.
Michael Arceneaux is the New York Times bestselling author of the recently released book I Can’t Date Jesus from Atria Books/Simon & Schuster. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Essence, The Guardian, Mic, and more. Follow him on Twitter.