Today in The Root, Dayo Olopade posited that the pop star set to inherit Michael Jackson’s mantle as the King of Pop is Beyoncé Knowles. And my girl Kristen (who of course pointed me to the article in the first place) asked for people’s thoughts on this assertion. Here now is my effort.
Obviously, no opinion can be reached without mention of how important Michael Jackson was to people. While I can be snide and agree with others that he hadn’t made a good album since 1987’s Bad, I also won’t pretend to know how deep an impact he made on generations of African Americans and what it was like to see a young black man launch into that kind of mythology. Even if you’re Chuck D and you made the point that having MTV air the music video for “Billie Jean” in 1983 nearly 20 years after Jackson broke into the mainstream as part of The Jackson 5 was an achievement for white America (a point Chuck makes in The History of Rock and Roll) I don’t know if you can qualify how particularly and specifically important Michael Jackson is to generations of African Americans. And Beyoncé was born in 1981. Indeed, she didn’t exist before Michael. So I definitely think his impact on her — along with several other African American pop stars — is monumental and different from their white counterparts. Thus, I’m absolutely fine with Cord Jefferson’s assertion that Justin Timberlake cannot inherit Jackson’s legacy. Let Beyoncé wear the damn military jacket.
Yet, while I feel that the Beyoncé as successor story is really compelling in theory, I wonder if it works. As many people have argued, including Olopade, we may have witnessed, with the death of Michael Jackson, the end of superstardom. And while others might disagree, I think this is a good thing, as I feel that a life lived in quotes, italics, and all caps only ends up ruining the body and mind living the persona(e). It may be captivating, or even aspirational to the general public, but it also seems hollow, empty, lonely, and unfulling to the person. It also seems too taxing to keep up. Listen to Jackson’s songs, as his lyrics became increasingly paranoid. Look at Neverland. Look at the increasingly desperate music videos that could never replicate the magic of “Thriller.” Witness the body in a constant state of mutation, decay, whitening, and plasticity. As Michael aged, the man in the mirror must have become more alien to himself. Absenting a larger discussion about looming rumors of child molestation and a confirmed history of child abuse and exhausting work conditions administered by his father, Joe, I cannot help but view what happened to Michael as a perilous lesson at how cruel and unfulfilling that level of fame is. The high price is assuredly the self.
To me, if we want to go with a model for how Michael’s fame warped any semblance of a personal life and informed his music, the more accurate analog is Britney Spears, a young woman formed into a hologram for our society’s distorted desires, started rebelling and making commentary on her fame, who we watched collapse, villified and mocked for making poor decisions, took offense to the havoc the stress of fame and vanity wreaked on her body, and whose untimely death will assuredly be met by a dumbfounded mass. She may live past 27, but I’m not sure that her attempts at normalcy and privacy won’t be as ill-informed and unfortunate as Jackson’s were.
Beyoncé, on the other hand, seems to carve out an autonomous private life for herself as best she can. To that end, I actually think she has more in common with Michael’s sister, Janet, Miss Jackson if you’re nasty. While both have suffered speculation and public battles with body image and weight fluctuation, I also think they were aware of their popularity, reticent to embrace it as a result of their shyness and self-possession, and made an effort to keep some of themselves to themselves. Beyoncé may collaborate with her husband Jay-Z, but they rarely disclose any personal information beyond the occasional outing to a Knicks’ or a Nets’ game or reference to their relationship in song (I seem to remember the mid-2000s being a hard time for the power couple to balance love with work — they seem to have made it to the other side without us knowing too much about their private goings-on).
Likewise, Jackson has taken privacy to perhaps necessary extremes, hiding her entire marriage to René Elizondo from the public until she announced their divorce in 1999. She’s since been in a long-term relationship with rapper-mogul Jermaine Dupri which may or may not culminate in marriage. I kind of like that I don’t know. Maybe it’s the Protestant in me, but I’m not as interested in their personal lives as I am with their work. Of course, how one informs the other is tremendously useful and important to me. But I like that both women have given themselves the space not to have the factoids of their love lives be common knowledge.
These women’s effort to separate the public from private life is reflected in their music. While Olopade states that Beyoncé asserts the confidence that Michael lacked, I don’t think you have to look any further than Janet to find similarities. Thus, I think that while Michael’s influence as a pop star is not to be ignored, neither can his sister’s. As assuredly as Michael’s innovative music, kinetic movements, and larger-than-life persona inspired Beyoncé, I get the feeling that Janet’s no-nonsense, pro-woman, and at times politically charged anthems left quite an impression as well.
Another point I’d like to challenge is the idea that Michael Jackson was born a monolithic pop star and was the first of his kind. He evolved into a pop star over time. To that end, he also modeled himself on other pop stars, icons, and musicians. As Madonna did with Mae West and Marilyn Monroe, as Tina Turner did with Mick Jagger, and as many after them will continue to do, Michael modeled himself after pop stars of his time. Obviously, Motown, the birthplace of his career, left quite an impression on him. Diana Ross, specifically, became his mentor and model for how to be a pop star. While some catty folks may argue that Michael took the admiration too far, in effect trying to turn himself into her, “whitening” his features and taking on her soft voice, I don’t think we can discuss how assimilable Michael Jackson or Diana Ross (or Motown in the 1960s) was without getting into a larger discussion about the control predominantly white people in positions of power in the culture industries have in enforcing what supposedly white perceptions of what popular music should look and sound like.
Beyoncé has had to face similar instances of institutional racism and assimiliation. She often bleaches and straightens her hair, has witnessed multiple magazines Photoshop inches off her curves, and has shed pounds for movie roles. Beyoncé is also clearly inspired by Ross. Her first group, Destiny’s Child, were clear heiresses to The Supremes’ girl-group legacy. Similar to Ross, Beyoncé broke out on her own, becoming a definitive diva for her era. And adding another layer, Beyoncé played Ross’s avatar in Dreamgirls (for which she lost a considerable amount of weight).
We could then argue, via the Jackson-inspired dance break in the music video for Destiny’s Child’s “Bootylious,” that Beyoncé is placing herself in a continuum between Michael Jackson and Diana Ross.
Like Michael and Ross, Beyoncé has worked in movies. And while some people may want to scoff at her film career, I think the range and variety of Beyoncé’s filmography is interesting and helps open up what a pop star can do. She’s been in summer blockbusters like Austin Powers in Goldmember. She’s been in campy, racially charged suspense thrillers like Obsessed (which I haven’t seen, but dear God I hope she cuts that white girl). She’s also been in Dreamgirls and Cadillac Records, playing either fictionalized or real female musicians. (Note: She got to put on weight when she played Etta James in Cadillac Records, a movie I’m sorry to have missed in the theaters but expect a later post about it — gotta support African American female directors like Darnell Martin). But she isn’t only playing the singer.
Beyoncé’s foray into acting, coupled with her recent stint as The Gloved One 2.0 (aka Sasha Fierce) also speaks to her ability to self-fragment, using this tactic to showcase multiple, often contradictory versions of the female self. Which I think speaks to her feminist camp potential as well. Her music videos are sexy and provocative, but always with a wink, always tongue-in-cheek, whether she’s referencing Basic Instinct, riding a mechanical bull, rolling a hula hoop, or channeling Robert Palmer.
But while it might suggest a commonality with Madonna (one of the few pop stars to rival Michael Jackson’s stardom in the 1980s), I think Beyoncé’s campiness is singular. Principally, she channels her camp through humor. She’s really funny. Not a lot of pop stars get to be (or allow themselves to be) truly funny. A song like “Irreplaceble” stings with so much camp wit, and there are many others (the woman has her own vocabulary and phraseology). And, ever the shrewd businesswoman, she can use any song to its full synergistic potential. The guy in “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” is holding her tighter than her Deréon jeans, after all.
So, while it’s important to think about Michael Jackson and Beyoncé, I see their cultural relationship less as an issue of successorship than as an instance of continuum and evolution. Because while I’m stoked that Beyoncé is on par with Michael Jackson and am excited about watching her career evolve, I think of it as her career. In time, I hope that we think of this shy Houstonian playing the brazen pop goddess for all the world not as the next anything. Rather, I think of her in dialogue with the past, looking to pop history as a means of defining Beyoncé.