The New King of Pop is a Queen
Why Beyoncé is the only plausible heir to Michael Jackson’s sparkly glove.
The two weeks since Michael Jackson’s death have been awash in tributes and testimonies to the man and his music. Yet the tide of nostalgia and revisionism that has gripped the entire planet obscures a nagging truth: The very idea of superstardom may have died with Michael. After all, so many of the eulogies have focused less on Jackson’s iconic music than on his extraordinary fame, his status as ruler of a kingdom called Pop. He won this crown with a fusion of precocious talent and gleefully bizarre antics—the thrilling 1983 moonwalk at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium and the shocking 2005 baby-dangle in Berlin contribute equally to the idea of Michael as spectacle.
Jackson’s omnipresence during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s—from prison yards to bar mitzvah scenes—extended his cultural wingspan, eventually reaching fashion, film and kids like myself who weren't even born when “Thriller” dropped. For our generation, the death of the “Man in the Mirror” only exposes the sorry state of contemporary music, and begs the question: Who's next?
I've got one word: Beyoncé. It used to be two words, but such are the heights the 27-year-old from Houston has scaled in a career that has already spanned two decades. Say what you will about her scantily clad BET tribute to Michael—she is the only living performer to even approximate Jackson's blend of talent and cultural clout. Yes, she's a woman; but her work ethic, daring musical choices and chameleonic artistic presence makes her more of an heir to the Gloved One than any man out there. The fact that she is already one of the most famous people on the planet only adds to the case for passing her the torch.
The synergy between Michael Jackson and Beyoncé Knowles is not just a matter of their biographies—but it's a good starting point. We know the story: Thrust into showbiz while still in rompers, Knowles entered the entertainment industry in earnest as the 9-year-old lead of girl group Destiny's Child. As early as Jackson was charming Motown executives and mid-century television bandleaders, she was singing lead and navigating both a “Momager” and “Dadager” in the forms of pushy Mathew and Tina Knowles. While her rearing was considerably less scarring than the abusive, exploitative relationship that Jackson maintained with his father Joe, Knowles entered her teens steeled with the same tireless work ethic many saw in a young Jackson. In an interview from the early days of Destiny’s Child, bandmates describe her as “the serious one” and “the overseer of it all.”
But like Jackson’s controversial 1977 decision to break up the band of brothers then performing as “The Jacksons,” Knowles gave the people what they wanted and strode into her 20s as a solo artist. Her freshman effort, Dangerously in Love, was a bit of a gamble: The summer before the LP was released, even her handlers weren’t sure that she could hack it on her own. The album had been slated for the fall of 2003, to give audiences a chance to absorb the odd sound of the first single, “Crazy in Love,” released in February. It wasn't necessary. The infectious hook and horns, from a 1970 Chi-Lites song, “Are You My Woman? (Tell Me So),” produced a sound completely unexpected in mainstream pop or R&B. Audiences went wild for the blend of Jackson-era funk and contemporary dance pop. The verse from then-boyfriend Jay-Z was the icing on the wax. Her studio promptly moved up the album release date.