“Good evening everyone and welcome to Whitney Houston – very much live!” gushes the controversial Whitney Houston hologram, performing at the Manchester Apollo eight years after the global icon’s death. “There’s going to be a lot of love coming off the stage tonight! We’re going to be giving you the best we’ve got!”
As avatar Whitney launches into ‘Saving All My Love For You’, the woman next to me erupts into tears. Some fans are so taken in by the digital phantasm, they wave at ‘her’. At points, words can’t quite do justice to how unusual tonight is – the dictionary is waving a white flag.
An Evening With Whitney Houston has been endorsed by Houston’s estate, but early reviews of the first night in Sheffield were splenetic, with reports that audiences had taken to heckling, which feels like a very 2020 “Sue, you’re shouting at a hologram!” moment. But this didn’t deter the crowds from turning out in droves to Manchester; some I spoke with have come as far afield as Poland. Like many here, Oliver – celebrating his 17th birthday – was too young to see IRL-Whitney when she was in her prime. He doesn’t feel it’s macabre – or “ghost slavery” as one critic memorably dubbed it.
“It’s just trying to introduce her to a younger audience who didn’t actually get the chance to see her,” he argues. And then he’s off to buy a commemorative hoodie.
It’s a sentiment echoed by 35-year-old Daniel, resplendent in a vintage Whitney tour T-shirt. “Part of the excitement of this is not knowing what to expect,” he says. “I don’t think it’s disrespectful. When legends have died, people will go and see tribute acts of them – so how is this any different? This is letting her music live on and I know that before she died, she was planning a tour of smaller theatres – this is just fulfilling her last dreams.”
Part of the anticipation comes from the show’s inherent novelty value. Will it be like virtual pop idol Hatsune Miku but for boomers? When the recreation finally arrives – singing her cover of Steve Winwood’s ‘Higher Love’, the track that was sampled by Kygo for the producer’s 2019 single – it’s technically impressive and full of loving touches like her carrying her trademark handkerchief. But this can’t compensate for the ‘uncanny valley’ effect – where you end up gazing at a fake human with the eerily baffled expression of a dog encountering a frog.
Your phone camera can’t focus on her because it knows it’s not an actual person. At times, she resembles a Mortal Kombat 11 character. Backed by a real band and flesh-and-blood choreographed dancers – who have the double-edged-sword effect of adding some dynamism to a show which can feel static while also emphasising how unreal the hologram looks in comparison– she disappears and re-materialises in different costumes and hairstyles Star Trek transporter-style, and performs during a storm during ‘Run To You’, seemingly sodden from the rain.
Because it’s obviously a pre-recorded singing voice taken from live performances, there’s no spontaneity, no interaction, no sense of drama over whether she’ll hit the high note. While Houston’s stunning, soulful vocal pyrotechnics cut through the artifice, it’s often more interesting to watch how the crowd reacts to the hologram than what’s onstage. They clap after each song (which initially feels akin to saying “Thank you” to a self-service check-out). By the time ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)’ rolls around, they’re up out of their seats and moving with abandon. Some even suspend disbelief enough to cry a euphoric, “G’wan Whitney!’.
Whitney always strove for perfection: this is the idealised Disney-version fans see in their mind’s misty eye, and some have even claimed that tonight has helped them wash away memories of her disastrous 2010 tour, where she appeared drug-ravaged and raddled. The atmosphere is that of a communal live album listening party meets mass raucous hen do. Take the moment, during ‘I Will Always Love You’, when Whitney’s vocal pauses for tension and dramatic effect: fans drunkenly finish the lyrics before she does, with multiple karaoke renditions competing with each other and sounding like a fire on Noah’s Ark.
You do run the gamut of emotions. There’s a joy in hearing iron-clad bangers such as ‘It’s Not Right But It’s Okay’, and there are moments of supreme weirdness (at one point, lightning shoots from her fingers like Emperor Palpatine). There’s also a sense of unease – such as when during ‘The Greatest Love of All’, the replica croons: ‘Whatever they take from me / They can’t take away my dignity‘, which perversely takes on another level of meaning. This evening may be well-intentioned, and doesn’t feel entirely like the cynical cash cow some have presented it as, but it’s worth wondering whether a woman who seemed to have so little control over her life is facing a similar challenge in death.
But as she sinks into the stage like holographic quicksand waving (with the crowd surreally waving back) after an encore of ‘I’m Every Woman’, the faithful here have few complaints – and it’s touching how much they’ve emotionally invested in something which is a cross between Madame Tussauds and a jukebox stage show musical.
Beaming, Daniel – 35 – enthuses: “You accept it’s a hologram – a bloody good hologram – and it’s the next best thing to seeing her. We got up off our seats and started dancing. We actually thought she was there at one point. At the end, you applaud and then you have that moment when you think: ‘What am I applauding for?!’ We had a discussion after the first few songs, saying, ‘Well, it’s for Whitney but we’re also applauding the musicians and everyone else involved.’”
In a homemade Whitney t-shirt, Kimberley, 30, raves: “What made it emotional for me – I started crying at one point – was I actually believed she was there. I forgot it was a hologram. It felt like an honour and a tribute to her. The technology has given me an experience I would never have had.”
The Whitney Houston hologram played:
‘Saving All My Love For You’
‘All The Man I Need’
‘I Have Nothing’
‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)’
‘It’s Not Right But It’s Okay’
‘I Believe In You And Me’
‘Run To You’
‘My Love Is Your Love’
‘The Greatest Love Of All’
‘Exhale (Shoop Shoop)’
‘I Will Always Love You’
‘Queen Of The Night’
‘I’m Every Woman’