Ghost in the Machine
An Evening With Whitney delights fans, but raises questions about the ethics of hologram shows
Whitney Houston bursts back into existence from a nucleus of light. She is projected on a transparent screen hanging behind the backup dancers and in front of the band, her face ethereal, her body draped in a glittery gold gown, arms opening to the audience. She’s just slightly transparent and her skin has a filtered glow. The first bars of “Higher Love” play. Her gilded skirt brushes the solid floor. As she sings, keywords flash on the screen like karaoke prompts, and the live backup dancers perform energetic moves, their outfits adding sparkle to all the other sparkle. When the song ends, without hesitation, the audience begins to clap.
Harrah’s Showroom is a small theater — 544 seats all stationed at a distance from the stage that feels intimate. Tickets cost $47 to $92 plus fees, and the show is every night except Mondays. On the way up the escalator to An Evening With Whitney: The Whitney Houston Hologram Experience, I passed Harrah’s other show, Menopause the Musical, and the two vibes couldn’t be more different. For the Whitney Houston show, the audience is bathed in purple light, and the music of Chaka Kahn and her contemporaries preps us for what’s to come. Waitstaff take drink orders ($14 for a Coors Light), and a photographer shoots flash photos to sell later stuck into cheap paper frames. Selfies pop all around, and a few people have already started dancing in their seats. “If it wasn’t for Bobby Brown we woulda been watching this live,” says the man sitting next to me.
Whitney Houston’s is not the first or last celebrity hologram, but it is the most permanent — her posthumous residency has no official end date. Its appearance in Las Vegas hints at a new era in simulated performances. When Tupac rose from the Coachella stage in 2012 to perform with Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, he kicked off a quickly accelerating industry of tech-driven resurrection. Watching video of that performance, I felt uneasy about this type of representation, particularly in the music industry, with its well-known history of exploiting Black performers.
Since then, holograms of our dead idols have appeared every so often at big music industry events, most notably Michael Jackson at the 2014 Billboard Awards and Prince during Justin Timberlake’s 2018 Super Bowl halftime show. Both raised a storm of controversy — with Jackson, over which tech company owned the rights to his hologram; with Prince, over whether a hologram should even have been made, because the artist was clear, while he was alive, that he was against it.
Timberlake and team tried to assuage the anger of Prince fans by announcing they weren’t using a hologram. Instead, a huge image of Prince was projected onto a billowy screen on stage. They were right, technically; it wasn’t a hologram. But the star of An Evening With Whitney isn’t one either, technically. So far, all so-called “holograms” have been some form a light projected onto a surface.
The Tupac illusion was produced with the Pepper’s Ghost effect, a method conceived of in the 16th century that had its heyday in Victorian-era England, where phantasmagoria was lucrative business. This type of hologram-like technology is an illusion. Put a dark room below, to the side, or above the audience, place a sheet of glass at a 45-degree angle, and a ghost of whatever is lit in the dark room appears in front of the audience. The Coachella audience — and millions of YouTube viewers since then — saw something 3-D that was actually 2-D.
For An Evening With Whitney, developers used a different technology. “It’s effectively projection of the (image) on a proprietary scrim,” says the show’s executive producer for BASE Entertainment, Matt Franzetti, who wouldn’t comment on the specifics of the technology. “And by doing that, we are able to get a crisper picture. Also, from a more practical perspective, it makes it easier to tour and get it up every night.” A tour is scheduled for 2023 that will launch after a new biopic is released.
Many other films, most of them documentaries, have been made about Houston since her death, and not all were officially approved by the singer’s estate. An Evening With Whitney, however, is an estate-sanctioned project.
“It all stems from an idea that Whitney and Pat — Pat Houston, her sister-in-law and former manager — had, where Whitney always wanted to do a show called An Evening With Whitney,” Franzetti says. “She never wanted to do the big arena spectacle. She liked the idea of doing something intimate, where she can connect with the fans.”
When Whitney Houston died in 2012, her daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown inherited her estate. After Brown died in 2015, Whitney’s mother, Cissy Houston, inherited it. She passed it to Whitney’s brothers Gary and Michael Houston, who passed it to Pat Houston, the current executor of the estate. The estate controls the assets Whitney Houston had when she died, including the right of publicity.
That is “the right of a person to control commercial exploitation of their name and likeness,” says Mary LaFrance, a UNLV law professor who specializes in intellectual property. “A hologram is an intangible three-dimensional image, and it has to be created from some other existing image or images, so I think there would be several different kinds of intellectual property at issue in creating and utilizing and exploiting a hologram,” LaFrance says. (To clarify, La France is using "exploit" in the legal sense of using a resource for commercial ends.) To make the Whitney Houston hologram, BASE Entertainment needed to get permission to use the music and lyrics. They also needed to get permission from photographers and film companies for whatever footage and images they used in making the hologram.
“And then in exploiting that hologram, now you are not only exploiting the copyrighted content that went into it, but you’re also exploiting the right of publicity of the person,” LaFrance says. “So you would also need to either be the owner or the licensee of the right of publicity, in this case a postmortem right of publicity, in order to have the exclusive right to exploit that content.”
BASE Entertainment has that right. Franzetti says, “Pat Houston has been involved from day one. She has final say on pretty much all creative decisions. … It’s really been a blessing to have them, because they know best what Whitney would have liked and what her vision would have been.”
Conversations with the estate began five years ago, Franzetti says, and then there were five years of development. He says the team studied “what was it like when Whitney performed ... talking to past music directors, band members, security, anyone that might lend insight to what (she) was like.”
The result of that research and development is a concert with two scrims, four dancers, a four-piece band, and live music with voice from Houston’s live shows set over it. “It is wildly technical. It’s literally physics, figuring out where to hang things and how the audience member is going to be able to see the hologram so she doesn’t flatten out,” Franzetti says.
From the second row, she looks flat to me. The light effects pulsing around her remind me that there is a screen where her body should be. Houston looks too tall and too small at once, in comparison to the dancers, who have big smiles and are undeniably working it. Their chests heave with effort. I stare at Houston’s for minutes, trying to catch it move. “There’s always a real body, everything you’re seeing is real video footage, so there is breathing,” Franzetti says.
After most songs, her outfit changes in a burst of light, from a silver ball gown, to a red jumpsuit, to jeans and leather jacket for “I’m Every Woman.” The audience claps after each song, whether the backup dancers are onstage or it’s just Houston serenading us. “Get ’em, Whit!” someone in the audience shouts during “I Have Nothing.”
I compared my take on the show with that of my friend and fellow writer (and Desert Companion contributor) Sin á Tes Souhaits. He saw the show because someone had bought him a ticket, and he’s a Whitney Houston fan. He enjoyed it.
“I experienced the hologram (as) a very high-quality animation of a person,” á Tes Souhaits says. “If a singer was moving her arms up and down, she wouldn’t hit the same top point and the same bottom point every single time with her elbow and her hand … The way they had certain things happen, it was very clearly programmed as opposed to natural.”
Just before the curtain went down, the Houston hologram sang “Greatest Love of All” among a montage of family photos.
“I was really crying at the end,” á Tes Souhaits says. “When I left, I was reminded of the magnitude that the loss of Whitney Houston really was. Just an incredible artist — honestly, I always say, the greatest voice of all time.”
What happens to the greatest voice of all time when the person it belonged to dies? A hologram allows a producer to take an artist who has died and make their likeness perform six nights a week with no end date.
“On an ethical and economic level, I would liken it to a form of ‘ghost slavery,’” wrote Simon Reynolds, author of Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its own Past, in a June 2019 blog post titled, “Dead Pop Stars and Their Profitable Afterlife.” He adds, “That applies certainly when done without the consent of the star, by the artist’s estate in collusion with the record company or tour promoter.” Whether it’s “ghost slavery” or just showbiz in the 21st century, the rise of holographic entertainers raises numerous legal and moral questions.
LaFrance says, “If it’s as simple as hiring somebody to be a dancer and then just putting an image of the celebrity’s face, incorporating that into the hologram, then you could certainly do it without the cooperation of the celebrity ... which would mean that lots of unauthorized parties could try to put together a hologram show exploiting Whitney Houston, or Michael Jackson, or Prince, or any deceased entertainer.”
Although many simulations have been made, it’s curious that both á Tes Souhaits and LaFrance listed these three — all Black artists with huge earning potential, who died with drugs in their systems. Any type of unpaid labor, including the re-commercializing of someone who has died, has a racial association.
“Whitney, she did not get love when she was alive,” á Tes Souhaits says. “I mean, there were periods of her career where she was celebrated, but for large parts of her career, and afterwards, she was slandered and ridiculed and mistreated, both by the people who managed her and the people who consumed her art. It seems unfair that we resurrect them in a hologram. Can it ever be fair to do that?”
As holograms become prevalent, more artists might go the way of Chance the Rapper, who stated, “Please don’t make no holograms, don’t wanna do it twice” in his 2019 song “Sun Comes Down.” But a wish in a song isn’t legally binding, and whoever ends up having power over an estate may decide otherwise.
“I don’t think it will replace the way that we watch shows,” Franzetti says. “People have no problem with a tribute band, and I think this is just another way to pay tribute. In fact, I would argue that this tribute is better because it’s endorsed by the estate of the artist.”
Tribute bands and celebrity impersonations are popular in Las Vegas, because right of publicity laws here have exclusions that allow them, LaFrance says. “So if somebody wanted to do a live impersonation of Whitney Houston in Las Vegas, there’s a good chance that would not be infringing.”
But the word “live” has multiple meanings in the entertainment business. “Does that mean you are simulating how that person behaved when they did a live performance? Or does that mean you have to be giving a live performance in imitating the person?” LaFrance asks. “I would say the Nevada statute is ambiguous as to whether a hologram performance would qualify for the exception.”
So, while the An Evening With Whitney has the right of publicity through Houston’s estate, many future projects could go forward without such permission.
Through self-driving car accidents and smartphone privacy invasions, we’ve seen how slow the law is to catch up with technology, if it ever does. Currently, hologram-like technology is being used in theme parks, museum displays, and immersive entertainment — with much more in development that will enrich production and technology companies, estates, and record labels, but not the deceased artists themselves. Ghosts can perform, but they cannot profit.