Beyoncé Is Our Michael Jackson: All Hail the Queen of Pop
Let us count the ways.
It feels so good to be proven right. Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning.
The year was 2009. Michael Jackson had died days earlier and the BET Awards became a tribute to him, with Jamie Foxx, Ne-Yo, Ciara and more performing his songs and doing his moves and praising his greatness. It was a legendary night on Black Twitter. That night I saw one of the funniest tweets I’ve ever seen. BET was celebrating MJ in its way which, as usual, sometimes made us proud that there was a network dedicated to Black culture and sometimes made us exasperated that BET was that network. And in the midst of the madness someone, I don’t know who, tweeted this: “I wish BET died and Michael Jackson did a tribute to them.” Oh man, Black Twitter was crackling that night. And then finally the epic group conversation turned to the inevitable question: Who is the next MJ? Or really, Who’s the King of Pop now?
A few names were floated, no serious contenders. Then Questlove, dream hampton, and I fell into our own sub-conversation where we quickly realized that the answer was clear: the King of Pop was dead and the heir to the throne was… Beyoncé. Reader, believe me when I tell you, after the three of us asserted that we got killed. I felt like I was drowning in hate tweets. But I knew we were right.
To be fair to those who couldn’t see it then, Beyoncé was at the time coming off I Am… Sasha Fierce. “Single Ladies” was her most recent smash. So this was years before “Drunk In Love” and the masterpiece Lemonade and the recent, brilliant Love Is Everything. This was before Beychella. I can forgive those who doubted—and hated—but I cannot forget. By now I hope it’s obvious that Beyoncé is the Queen of Pop, the heir to the throne that MJ once held, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. That night people attacked as if we’d said something sacrilegious. Or attacked their mom. The main thrust of their noise was that Beyoncé could not sing or dance or make hits as well as MJ. Facts, I said. But Beyoncé’s competition for the throne was the living. She did not need to be his equal to sit on his throne, she merely needed to be better than everyone else still doing it. Now we can all see the big check mark beside that.
Since that fateful night Bey has only grown as an artist—she’s become a better singer, a thrilling dancer, an extraordinary video-maker, a consistent hit-maker, and a really compelling music-maker. She’s still not MJ’s equal at any of the core talents that go into being a pop star but she still doesn’t have to compete with him. And she still doesn’t have any competition. She’s the undisputed Queen of Pop who’s living up to the paradigm MJ set. I usually avoid being petty but not this time: we were right and y’all were dead wrong. Consider this a written touchdown dance.
Jackson was an extraordinary pop star—he could sing any way he needed, dance in his own unique style, and made smash after smash. He revolutionized the art of video-making, elevating it to the level of short, artful films. He was also a movie star (The Wiz!) and a fashion icon and an incredible live performer. And his appeal was boundless—he was global and multigenerational and the ultimate crossover artist. To be the heir to his throne there’s a lot that has to go right. But, like MJ, Beyoncé was born for this.
A music-business friend who worked with Beyoncé once told me a little story. They pointed out the way many artists go on their first long tour and quickly realize how grueling it is traveling for months and living out of suitcases and sleeping on buses and stomaching all the craziness, boredom, and exhaustion of zigzagging around the country. Many artists, my friend said, go on their first long tour and never do another because it’s all too much. But at the end of Destiny’s Child’s first tour, Beyoncé declared that she was ready to go back on tour right away. She’s got the endless work ethic required to be the best.
We see it to this day: she’s a 36-year-old multi-multi-millionaire mother of three who’s got nothing left to prove and yet in the first six months of 2018 alone, she’s given us an epic Coachella performance, the On the Run II Tour, and a fantastic new album that’s longer than seven songs—#shade. Plus videos shot in the Louvre and Trenchtown. That’s a ton of product dropping in just half a year. All of that takes planning, rehearsals, time, and energy. Sure, she’s got help from producers, choreographers, an army of nannies, etc., but no one goes onstage in her place. And if you think she’s constantly handed great songs, great concepts, great choreography and she just steps in and does her part, you’re crazy. I’ve seen Beyoncé go through a dance rehearsal and I was tired just watching her. She nailed the steps quickly and was able to improve the choreography, too. She’s got a hand in planning and shaping everything she does.
Like MJ, she’s a global pop icon who’s popular with children and grandparents and the generation in the middle that takes care of them. Like MJ, she’s taken Black music and made it cross over, though that’s not nearly as hard as it was when MJ did it in the ‘80s. But MJ’s dominance of the ‘80s airwaves was aided by there being far fewer outlets and gatekeepers. MJ’s ascent coincided with the rise of MTV, which in the ‘80s was the single most powerful entity in pop culture. Nowadays there’s no institution that serves as a unifying force. There are a million gatekeepers, which means Beyoncé is dominating an era that’s much harder to dominate.
She does so with a dizzying array of product—hits, videos, tours—that are getting more sophisticated as she grows. Like MJ, she does all this with family orbiting around her—her husband, sister, parents, and kids are all stars in her constellation, they’re all part of the public performance of Beyoncé. Like MJ, she’s got a message in her music about empowerment—on songs like “Formation” and “Irreplaceable” and “APESHIT”—and she’s an icon of female strength, urging women to be as bad as they can. She may not be Michael’s equal but she doesn’t have to be. No artist alive is her equal. No one else can give us all that Beyoncé gives regularly. She’s the Queen of Pop and from the looks of it, her reign will continue for years to come.