In regards to leaked footage of a holographic Whitney Houston performing on The Voice, the Internet has done what it’s meant to do: ridicule. “It’s not right and it’s not okay” has been coined, as it needed to be. Whitty Hutton has been invoked. And the Houston estate has pulled the plug.
“Holograms are new technology that take time to perfect, and we believe with artists of this iconic caliber, it must be perfect,” Pat Houston said yesterday. “Whitney’s legacy and her devoted fans deserve perfection. After closely viewing the performance, we decided the hologram was not ready to air.”
The Voice premiere of the long-hyped holoHouston was meant to raise the curtain on a new era of entertainment, when living human performers are no longer needed to distract the masses. But make no mistake: That era is still coming, or at least a lot of people are still working to make it so. 3D recreations of Selena and Notorious B.I.G. are reportedly on their way. The billionaire behind of one of the more ambitious hologram companies has talked about reforming the Beatles and even resurrecting Jesus again. (Caveat: “Hologram” is a technically inaccurate term, but like the word “hoverboard,” it’s what we’re calling these things.)
What’s interesting about the backlash to the Whitney footage is that it concerned the quality of the reproduction, not the fact it happened at all. If the creature belting “I’m Every Woman” next to Christina Aguilera had more resembled the actual woman who sang the song in 1992, the logic goes, applause and not jeers would have resulted. Is that right? I’ve previously expressed amusement about coming hologram trend, reasoning that this kind of nostalgic recreation isn’t, in the abstract, creepier than any other kind. But watching the scrapped Voice video that may or may not be circulating online, it’s hard not to feel deep dread about the day when this method is “perfected.”
The performance begins as standard tribute, with Aguilera belting “I Have Nothing” as still images of Houston stand behind her. Then Aguilera says, “Ladies and gentlemen, Whitney Houston,” the curtain falls, and we see a stage farther in the back of the room with the dead diva sort of hovering on it. When Aguilera steps onto that second stage it feels like when Mike Teavee in Willie Wonka meets his fate.
Why is Aguilera acting like the image next to her is a real person? What’s the point? The genius of a great pop star always lies, on some level, on their ability to make a moment unique—to imbue humanity into product. There is no chance of a hologram doing that until we have Ex Machina-level AI. What’s more, the tragic dimensions of Houston’s life, the sense that she was exploited and dehumanized by fame, can’t help but come to the fore in this context.
But when technology progresses, it’s usually without anyone getting to vote on whether it’s a good idea that it does. The financial worth of nostalgia has been amply demonstrated. Whitney will return at some point, seeming like herself in all but the most important ways.