Over the last decade, ghosts have become an increasingly present part of live music, with holographic recreations of Tupac, Michael Jackson and opera great Maria Callas all appearing in concert. Whitney Houston's estate is taking the trend to the next level; starting Feb. 25, the late pop superstar will embark on a hologram tour of Europe.
"This is happening at a time when great, classic performers are no longer with us, like Michael Jackson, or David Bowie, or Prince, or Aretha Franklin," Jason King, who hosted the NPR R&B channel I'll Take You There, says. "Awards show viewership is lower than it's ever been. So this is an opportunity for masses of people to reconnect with great performers of the past, whether you're talking about Maria Callas, or Whitney Houston or others."
Houston's posthumous program is called An Evening with Whitney and produced by the same company that put on the Callas hologram show; it features a digital recreation of Houston, supported by a live band, singing her greatest hits and bantering with the audience.
There are a wide range of ethical dilemmas raised by both the concept of posthumous hologram tours and specifically by a Whitney Houston tour.
"This is an artist who spent some time in her career in the throes of substance abuse, did not always seem in control of her image, or her sound, or her finances," King says. "And so now there is this potential that she's being exploited all over again."
NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro spoke to Jason King about how these holograms — a high-tech version of a 19th century projection trick — work and why there's been a sudden emergence of this style of show. Listen to their full conversation in the player above.
WHITNEY HOUSTON: First there was 2Pac. Then Prince was scheduled for the Super Bowl. Now...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANNA DANCE WITH SOMEBODY")
HOUSTON: (Singing) Oh, I want to dance with somebody.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
...Whitney Houston. Fans will be able to pay and see a hologram of the singer, who passed away in 2012, on tour, backed by singers and a live band. Jason King is a music professor at New York University. And he was also the host of NPR Music's R&B channel I'll Take You There. We've reached him in New York. Welcome to the program.
JASON KING: I'm happy to be here.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: First of all, how does this even work? What's the technology?
KING: Well, the technology is called hologram or holographic technology. But that's slightly misleading because they're not actually using real holograms. It's my understanding that what these companies are doing is using a kind of souped-up projection, an illusion technology or technique that's called Pepper's Ghost. And it's actually been around since the 19th century. It's a magic trick. It's - you could have seen it at amusement parks or museums or carnival side shows, that sort of thing.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh, so what's old is new again. So what will fans actually experience at the concert?
KING: Well, what you're going to see onstage is a pristine, highly rendered visual projection of Whitney Houston performing in concert. So she'll be singing. She'll be doing stage banter, moving around, with actual flesh and blood musicians and singers performing in real time with her.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is this cobbled together from old footage? Or is this sort of recreated in some new fashion?
KING: My understanding is that it's old footage that's been comped together to create the illusion of a full concert performance. Unlike some of the other performances that people might have seen, whether we're talking about 2Pac at Coachella or Michael Jackson at the Billboard Awards, this is a full concert. So it's beginning, middle and end.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What have people who've seen other events like this said about the experience?
KING: I mean, it's an uncanny experience. You know, unlike video that's typically projected against a screen, here there's no screen, or there's just a kind of translucent screen. So it's basically, you know, this free-floating image in space of Whitney Houston. But it feels as if she's there. So it's kind of magical. It's eerie. It's ghost-like. Most people aren't used to seeing augmented reality or seeing these kinds of holographic images. And eventually we're going to all get kind of used to seeing this. Our eyes will become habituated to these images. It won't seem so special. But right now it still does feel pretty special.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What are the kinds of people that this event is hoping to attract? I'm assuming fans of Whitney at the very least.
KING: Yeah. I think it's aiming for fans of Whitney Houston, people who've only heard her on record. I also think it's appealing to people who are interested in the novelty aspect. There's a huge interest in vocaloid technology from Japan. These are virtual pop singers like Hatsune Miku, who's not a real person. But people pay tons of money to go see her in concert. And we should also say that, you know, this is all happening at a time when great classic performers are no longer with us, like Michael Jackson or David Bowie or Prince or Aretha Franklin. So this is an opportunity for masses of people to reconnect with great performers of the past, whether you're talking about Maria Callas or Whitney Houston or others.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And this is also, obviously, a way for the Houston estate to make profit. I guess a question for you as a critic - how respectful is it to bring Houston back from the dead, essentially?
KING: I think this is where it gets tricky, right? So the issue is consent. And in most cases, we can imagine that the artist did not directly provide consent to have their image used in this way after their death. But even if they had, there's this larger question about exploiting dead performers. Can James Dean star in a new movie, which has been announced? - Carrie Fisher posthumously appearing in the last "Star Wars" movie. Is this an opportunity to displace contemporary living performers to make money for the estate? So is this a labor issue, too?
The other part of it that's troubling is that it's Whitney Houston. And she was an artist, who, you know, spent some time in her career in the throes of substance abuse, did not always seem in control of her image or her sound or her finances, sometimes seemed like an industry puppet, if you've seen recent documentaries on her. And so now it seems like there's this potential that she's being exploited all over again. Or is she being celebrated all over again? I think it's a very fine line.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Many things to consider. Jason King is a music professor at New York University and was also the host of NPR Music's R&B channel I'll Take You There. Thank you very much.
KING: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S NOT RIGHT, BUT IT'S OKAY")
HOUSTON: (Singing) It's not right. But it's OK. I'm going to make it anyway. Pack your... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.