In the days following Beyoncé’s stellar performance at Coachella 2018 last Saturday night (Apr. 14), debate raged on social media as to whether or not the megastar had attained the kind of rarified cultural stature comparable to the legendary King of Pop, Michael Jackson.
Of course, it’s hard to fully express how specific and otherworldly Jackson’s post-Thriller fame and success looked in the ’80s and ’90s, and even harder to compare it to anything occurring in the haze of overexposure and cynicism that is contemporary pop culture. But make no mistake, Beyoncé has absolutely become the kind of omnipresent figure that can only be compared to an artist of MJ’s stature. No other point of comparison really makes sense at this point.
The comparison isn’t arbitrary or superficial. This isn’t 2000s Usher or 2010s Chris Brown being compared to Michael Jackson just because of a smash album or similar dance moves. Beyoncé’s music and image have become indelible in a way that only seems comparable to Michael Jackson; she’s become the kind of pop star that everyone has to have an opinion on. Virtually anything she does becomes a national or global event, whether she’s announcing her pregnancy or just showing off a hairdo; her fanbase is as rabid as any in the history of music and her personal life becomes fodder for the kind of analysis usually reserved for world events. She’s the single most compelling star in music and has been for the better part of a decade. And she’s spent most of the 2010s cementing her status as one of the all-time greats.
The omnipresence of social media and reality TV and an endless barrage of media coverage have robbed the general public of the kind of innocence that made adults faint at the sight of Michael Jackson at the height of his pop mega-stardom. In a similar vein, the much-touted “Voice of a Generation” designation is harder to assign when you’ve seen so many superstar meltdowns in real time. The average pop culture addict today has every reason to be cynical.
But… there’s Beyoncé.
Like Jackson, she emerged from an uber-successful group in Destiny’s Child, had to establish her own voice and as an artist and had to assume control of her career from a controlling father. Both became standard-bearers for artists in the age of music video; Michael at the dawn of the artform and Bey as the medium was in desperate need of reinvigorating. Their collaborators run the gamut from chart-topping contemporaries to venerated legends; they’ve worked with the defining producers of their respective times. They both even have similarly gifted little sisters.
And then there’s the inherent draw and allure of both as performers — the anticipation that you’re going to see something myth-making. No artist of his day demanded your attention the way that Michael Jackson and his extraordinary aura did. And Ms. Knowles holds that position today.
Beyoncé has command of a generation’s gaze at a time when it seems like we don’t make these kinds of megastars anymore. And with the command of attention has come a clear commitment to showcasing the art and culture of Black people — southern Black women, specifically — in a way that forces the masses to see what was previously obscured or downplayed. Beyoncé is certainly not the first Black pop superstar to present Black culture on the mainstream stage, but for her to do so with such vigor at the height of her popularity and during a time of great cultural fission isn’t incidental.
At his commercial zenith, Michael Jackson gave platform to famed South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo and dropped an all-Black music video set in ancient Egypt on MTV. But by the time the King of Pop released the scathing “They Don’t Care About Us” in spring 1996, his image and popularity had taken a hit in the U.S., following 1993 child molestation allegations. But Beyoncé’s presentation of powerfully Black feminist imagery on Lemonade not only occurred as America was grappling with issues surrounding racism and misogyny; it occurred while she was still at the epicenter of popular culture.
“For three years, the stream of cell-phone videos of fatal encounters between African Americans and local police sustained a national controversy that, in some quarters, came down to a choice between one and the other,” wrote Melissa Harris-Perry of Beyoncé as a voice of the times in 2016. “She chose blackness even as many Americans rejected it, taking sides and never wavering.”
There hasn’t been a megastar who so deftly navigated — and so creatively maximized — this position before. We’re witnessing a Black woman wielding the kind of far-reaching cultural influence that Black women in music were previously denied in various ways. Despite a career of tremendous popularity, influence and longevity, Janet Jackson was never recognized in her own heyday as the upper echelon pop innovator she is — often presented in a deferential light to her famous brother or Prince or Madonna. Diana Ross and Whitney Houston are icons, but were marketed in ways rooted in traditional showbiz glamour that sought to deliberately maximize their crossover appeal. Lauryn Hill became a superstar in the late ‘90s, but walked away from the mainstream after she’d become one of the biggest names in music.
When Beyoncé took the stage at Coachella, armed with all-Black backup dancers and singers, an HBCU marching band and references to everything from Fela Kuti to Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up” to Black step shows, she took yet another opportunity to put specifically Black culture front-and-center in a space that isn’t known for centering Blackness. “Coachella, thank you for allowing me to be the first black woman to headline,” Bey pointedly acknowledged mid-performance. “Ain’t that ‘bout a bitch?”
She has the entire world’s eyes and ears on her. Lemonade was the kind of cultural moment we aren’t supposed to see anymore. There may not have been record-shattering sales numbers a la Thriller, but there hasn’t been a singular pop album that generated so much conversation, critique and controversy in at least a decade. There hasn’t been a musical presentation as world-stopping as “Formation;” with its evocative video and the controversial halftime performance at Super Bowl 50. Only a handful of popular artists have the reach that turn album releases into international flashpoints like a Thriller was at the dawn of MTV in the 1980s or a Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band during the reign of 1960s hippie flower-power. The scope of Beyoncé’s stardom was cemented with Lemonade. She’s just sharpening the point now.
It seems uncomfortable for some to acknowledge the space Beyoncé is in currently. Putting her in the conversation with Michael Jackson seems like heresy; he was an inescapable force that seems to sit alone in terms of cultural sway and commercial dominance. And it’s always precarious to compare an artist in the middle of a creative and commercial peak to legends of yesteryear. But Beyoncé now represents a similar level of power and fame, and she’s there 15 years after Dangerously In Love, her multi-Platinum solo debut. It feels like she’s peaking now, and considering how famous she’s been and for how long (Destiny’s Child debuted in 1998), we’ve witnessed an upward trajectory with her unlike any we’ve ever seen. She doesn’t have to prove anything else. She passed the audition ages ago. Now it’s just a matter of where in the annals of legendary artists she sits.
It isn’t necessary to push a major figure past their predecessors in the rush to anoint a new “King” or “Queen.” Hierarchy is mostly a fallacy in popular music and we can obsess over it nowadays — with “stans” and “haters” constantly going to war over their favorites on the battleground that is the internet. But when looking at what Beyoncé has accomplished and where she stands currently in music and society; it feels appropriate and necessary to recognize that she is in a space where she can only be compared to those in the most rarified air.
Such comparisons may not work on the micro level — Michael Jackson’s uniquely prodigious talents as unparalleled performer and distinguishable songwriter shouldn’t be undervalued, and the sheer magnitude of the commercial records he set is mind-blowing today — but if you’re assessing the overall impact of who she is and what she’s doing, she’s gotten to a place where it’s the only kind of comparison that fits. Michael Jackson is forever the King of Pop, but this current regime is world-changing in a uniquely modern way that is re-calibrating popular culture and giving a look into Black womanhood on the highest profile stage. We are bearing witness — and we should celebrate what we’re seeing. Long may she reign.