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From holograms to advertising: Is Whitney Houston's legacy being preserved or exploited?

On August 31, 10 years ago, Whitney Houston released her seventh and final album I Look To You

Whitney Houston performs onstage at Jones Beach, New York in 1982. Getty Images. 
Whitney Houston performs onstage at Jones Beach, New York in 1982. Getty Images. 

Once celebrated as the greatest voice of her generation, Whitney Houston died in a Beverly Hills bathtub, at the age of 48 and decidedly down on her luck. But intrigue in her enduring work and tragic life has only grown since her death in February 2012.

New products and fresh revelations help to feed such fascination, naturally sparked by the singer’s premature death, while public interest is fuelled further by last year’s stark documentary portrait Whitney. Houston’s final album I Look To You was released 10 years ago last week, but it has been far from the final word from Houston – it was simply the last one she had any say in.

Houston just scored her first top 10 hit from beyond the grave

The voice of 11 Billboard No 1 hits in her lifetime – including her timeless cover of Dolly Parton’s overwrought romantic ballad I Will Always Love You – last month Houston scored her first top 10 hit from beyond the grave with Higher Love, a cover of Steve Winwood’s blue-eyed soul number, based on vocal parts recorded for her third album, I’m Your Baby Tonight (1990).

Produced by and co-­credited to Norwegian DJ Kygo, this floor-filling electronic version topped the US dance charts, but has stoked controversy among fans of Houston, not least for a regressive video that depicts a troupe of female dancers being eagerly watched by lusty males.

“This music video is the estate of Whitney Houston in a nutshell: cheap, tacky, nothing like Whitney,” stated Instagram fan account @whitneyhoustonthe­legacy. “This video is the exact opposite of everything she stood for as an artist and if you are a fan, you should know it.”

The ultimate commodified novelty treatment: a touring Houston hologram

But Higher Love is unlikely to prove the most controversial statement from Houston’s estate, which after years of respectful distance recently announced a series of new money-making plans – including a potential new album, a Broadway show and several branding and licensing partnerships. That last proposal could lead to the singer’s voice being used to help sell products she had never heard of in her lifetime, let alone endorsed.

It has been 10 years since Whitney Houston released the album I Look To You. Courtesy Arista
It has been 10 years since Whitney Houston released the album I Look To You. Courtesy Arista

More contentious still are plans for the ultimate commodified novelty treatment – a touring Houston hologram, arguably the most divisive trick that can be pulled on a deceased star’s memory. Musicians including renowned opera singer Maria Callas, rockabilly treasure Roy Orbison and famous rocker Frank Zappa have ­all been brought back to life in hologram form, as has Houston’s former romantic partner, Michael Jackson.

A 3D Houston representation has been in development for years and sources even suggest the Houston hologram will “sing” hits such as Saving All My Love for You and The Greatest Love of All “live” alongside the star’s original band members and singers. Call it karaoke in reverse.

Money matters: Why you might soon see Houston in new advertising campaigns and sponsorships

In May, the Houston estate signed a multi-million-dollar deal with Primary Wave Music Publishing, a “boutique” agency that has interests in aging acts such as Smokey Robinson, Paul Anka and Def Leppard, and which last year controversially acquired a share in Bob Marley’s evergreen catalogue.

As part of the agreement, Primary Wave will have the right to use Houston’s name and likeness for advertising campaigns and sponsorships, as well as enjoying 50 per cent of royalties from the singer’s music, film and merchandise. That decision to sign that deal was ultimately made by one person – with the singer’s sister-in-law and former manager, Pat Houston, listed as the sole executor of the estate.

“It’s been quite emotional for the past seven years,” Pat Houston told the New York Times at the time of the deal. “But now it’s about being strategic.”

Whitney Houston performs onstage at the 2011 Pre-Grammy Gala and Salute To Industry Icons. WireImage.
Whitney Houston performs onstage at the 2011 Pre-Grammy Gala and Salute To Industry Icons. WireImage.

Not much is known about her planned strategy, but we can surely expect a full-blown assault in advance of the 10th anniversary of Houston’s death, in 2022. However, can we hope for any new music? It’s rumoured that dozens of unused tracks may exist from mid-1980s sessions for Houston’s first two albums, but it is unclear how complete or marketable these outtakes and offcuts are, or from where else a whole album of fresh material might be sourced.

Five fresh Houston singles have come out in the years since her death

So far, Houston’s archives have dodged the kind of comprehensive ransacking that has typically followed the death of an A-lister. Superstars Prince and Avicii released “new” albums from beyond the grave in June.

In total, five fresh Houston singles have trickled out in the past six years, of varying worth and insight. Higher Love marked the second time Houston’s vocals have been digitally transplanted on to a new production, with 2016 welcoming a well-received virtual duet with Siti Nurhaliza on Memories, originally written by Hugh Hopper of Soft Machine fame.

The release transplanted Houston’s first professional vocal recording, at the age of 19 – a relatively unheard guest slot on Material’s 1982 album One Down – on to a new vocal from Nurhaliza, who was 37 at the time, and released to celebrate the Indonesian singer’s 20th anniversary as a recording artist.

Whatever aesthetic concerns exist about repurposing these old vocal tracks, Houston’s two posthumous duets have fared better than her final recordings, three of which were ­released in the slipstream of her death in 2012. The first to come out was the last song Houston recorded, Celebrate, a duet with Jordin Sparks drawn from the soundtrack to Sparkle, Houston’s final feature film acting role, and arguably as good a swansong as we could hope for.

Shot three months before the singer’s death, the story of a revolutionary girl group inspired by The Supremes – and a remake of the 1976 film of the same name – Sparkle allowed Houston to pay homage to the classic era of Motown. A deliberately derivative period piece, Celebrate was a duet with writer and producer R Kelly.

That pairing may now be considered unfortunate given the #MeToo-­inspired allegations against Kelly that would follow, but he also cropped up on a duet version of I Look to You – released in September 2012 – that was used to promote the obligatory greatest hits package, I Will Always Love You: The Best of Whitney Houston, which featured another unreleased track, the underwhelming R&B dirge Never Give Up.

Most telling was a second unplanned tune from the Sparkle soundtrack, released a day after Celebrate, called His Eye Is on the Sparrow, a rousing gospel number once recorded in Grammy-­winning fashion by Mahalia Jackson. In the movie, the performance marks a touching moment, but an earnest critical listen to the audio wasn’t pretty and revealed just how much Houston’s voice had deteriorated in her final days – a decline that was roundly blamed on her lifestyle.

“Houston sings – and croaks – in a voice octaves lower than in her prime,” mourned Rolling Stone’s Jody Rosen. “At times the song has a ravaged magnificence, but mostly it’s painful”.

Hopefully, the same won’t be said of whatever emerges next – but however disappointing the remaining offcuts remain, there may soon be a hologram of Houston waiting in the wings, ready to belt out I Will Always Love You.

Updated: August 31, 2019 01:46 PM

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