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.
But what makes Beyoncé the most plausible living heir to the pop monarchy is the magnitude of her fame. Michael Jackson’s legacy is special precisely because he was famous for young and old, rich and poor, black and white—on six inhabited continents. Beyoncé’s musical reach is not nearly as large (frat boys look, but don't buy). However, like Jackson, her cultural impact extends beyond music, to the realms of fashion, film and beauty. Sasha Frere-Jones of The New Yorker wrote that she “is creating a new kind of supersized music, a triumphalist pop that makes its point through magnitude as much as style.” And that was before she spent more weeks at No. 1 than any female this decade, sold out a national tour this summer, or carried the schlocky stalker flick Obsessed to a $28.5 million, No. 1 opening weekend.
Like MJ in The Wiz and Francis Ford Coppolla's pricey epic Captain EO, Knowles’ acting has been widely panned. But the point is that she’s out there. Countless talented female singers—from ‘60s talents such as Wendy Rene and Ann Peebles to ‘70s giants such as Diana Ross and Tina Turner—have laid the track for how to revel in the spotlight. And Knowles, whose vocal talents are not the best of her generation, has been training for this fame triathlon ever since her parents strapped on that first pair of sparkly disco pants. Between makeup endorsements and PSAs for hunger, Beyoncé has become a business, man.
Want proof? She has fans in high places. Jackson paid four visits to the White House over the years. But the first daughters, Malia and Sasha Obama, begged to attend a Beyoncé show in Washington. And at the nationally televised concert preceding Barack Obama’s inauguration as president, Knowles was the de facto headliner—beating out other boldface names such as Garth Brooks, Mary J. Blige and Bon Jovi. Even the president was spotted waving his palm back and forth, in echoes of “Single Ladies.” And of course, Knowles sang “At Last” for the new president and his wife at the Neighborhood Inaugural Ball that evening.
Her vocal range and clarity may not be quite as large as her desire to entertain, but having the guts to perform anyway is what Knowles and Jackson have in common. Even at his most frail and supposedly drug-ridden, Jackson’s instinct was to get back onstage this summer, to win back the love that had been lost or forgotten in the years he retreated into the demons created by fame. He couldn’t make it. But as one of the hardest working folks in show business, Beyoncé can and should step into that spotlight
Long live the queen.
Dayo Olopade is Washington reporter for The Root.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.