Beyonce` Knowles is in a unique position and at an interesting turning point in her career. If she plays her cards right, she very well could be the next singer to be crowned the “Queen of Pop.” Over the last decade, she has increasingly become one of the most visible and internationally-known (not to mention financially successful; according to “Forbes” she made 87 million last year) singers of our time and barely has ANY major competition from her contemporaries, especially those in R&B. Britney Spears appeared to be a major contender for the title, but recent years have left some questioning her position in the pop kingdom. Some may mention Lady Gaga in this mix, but she is honestly too new to be considered in this discussion. Talk of Beyonce’s potential to become the “Queen of Pop” began after Michael Jackson’s death, as music media analyzed Jackson’s legacy and influence on the current generation of artists. Based on her deep love for Jackson (Most artists respect Jackson, but Knowles is actually an involved hardcore fan of his), her intense work ethic and dominance in pop music and pop culture, she was deemed the closest thing to Jackson out right now. Some music magazines referenced her as “the female Michael Jackson.” As if the “female Michael Jackson” title wasn’t enough, she has been endorsed by some of the greats in the industry including Prince (she performed a Prince medley with him at the 2004 Grammys), Tina Turner (performed with her at the 2008 Grammys), Barbara Streisand, Bette Midler, Etta James and Reba McEntyre, just to name a few. And let’s not forget being hand-picked by 1st Lady Michelle Obama to sing at her husband’s inauguration. The lane is wide open and the crown is Beyonce’s to wear. All she has to do is keep driving in the right direction. Considering the careers of those who came before her, I’ve created a list of things that I think will ensure Beyonce’s coronation.
Lesson 1: Avoid “Nipple gates” and Scandals.
Granted, Janet Jackson didn’t plan for her bare breast to be exposed on national television during her 2004 Superbowl halftime show, but her intentions didn’t matter to the media or the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). After the incident that came to be known as “nipple gate,” Jackson was heavily scorned and ridiculed by the media, and the singles from her album, “Damita Jo” (released a month after the Superbowl), failed to make the top 40 on the billboard chart (ref. Wikipedia). According to the RIAA, “Damita Jo” sold only a million copies; a major decrease in sales in comparison to her previous albums. The sales decrease and her loss of the lead role in a Lena Horne biopic are suspected to be a result of the Superbowl controversy. Furthermore, some have tried to define Jackson by that moment. After years of great music and performances, that’s all some people STILL focus on. They’ve tried to reduce her to an exposed nipple and act like she’s no one. It’s not fair or just, but in this industry, that’s what happens. One scandal or unflattering moment, and everything you’ve worked for is threatened. You’re given a “scarlet letter” label that may never be removed. Many artists still hold their respective honorary titles (titles like the “Queen of Pop” or “The King of Rock N’ Roll) despite controversies, but it’s not worth the risk if you can avoid it. Beyonce` needs to consciously do what she can to avoid scandal and controversy to gain her title and keep it in tact. Seemingly already ahead of that game, Beyonce` has a great P.R. (public relations) image and has avoided any drama. Let’s hope it stays that way. Some might argue that “pushing the envelope” helps. In that case, it’s smarter to “push the envelope” musically by discussing a controversial societal issue (not sex, because that’s what EVERYONE does) versus doing something controversial personally.
Lesson 2: Always Self-Preserve and Stay Healthy.
Part of what becomes a scandal or controversy for some artists is their lack of care for themselves. Any type of substance abuse or addiction can be a threat to you and your career. Many artists have attested that, due to a number of factors, being in the entertainment industry can be physically, emotionally and/or mentally wearing and can lead to a breakdown or seeking self-destructive “escapes” (like drugs and alcohol). Beyonce` should never exceed her own personal limits at the expense of her health. No matter what, she needs to self-preserve; even if it means retiring from music. I love hearing a new Beyonce` record like the next fan, but not if it results in a breakdown.
Lesson 3: Know what your source of power and strength is; aka your “formula.”
Most artists have a particular creative formula or aspect that they can rely on to stay ahead or keep their music solid. For some, it’s working with a specific writer. For others, it may be having a certain image or stance. Sometimes, it’s recording in a certain setting. Taking a risk and deterring from your “magic formula” can work out well, but it has the potential to cost you. Janet Jackson’s collaboration with producers (and writers) Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis has been nothing but magic. She’s primarily collaborated with them her entire career, and her long-held success has been attributed to their chemistry together. Her last three albums have had reduced sales due to a number of different factors, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the last three albums have also had different mix of writers and producers. On her latest record, “Discipline”, Jam/Lewis were nowhere to be found and Jackson didn’t write a thing. “Discipline” is her lowest selling record since “Control” in 1986. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. The Jackson/Jam/Lewis chemistry is her magic formula, and deterring from it didn’t work out.
Beyonce’s has 3 parts to her “magic formula.” Musically, her strength is her cross-over appeal. Image-wise, it’s being viewed as feministic and clean-cut. If you listen thoroughly to all of the Destiny’s Child records and Beyonce’s solo work, each album has a different sound or incorporates a different genre. When you incorporate a different genre into your music, the material can appeal to a new audience, expanding your fan base. With each project (and business/branding deal), Beyonce` has been expanding her fan base and visibility. Becoming the “Queen of Pop” involves being internationally known and a household name. The worldwide obsession with the “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on it)” video and the success of her Spanish-language songs and South American tour dates (two dates in Rio were sold out and 60,000 people attended her Sao Paulo concert) show that Beyonce` isn’t wasting time diversifying.
In terms of her image, being viewed as feministic and clean-cut has served her well. Social communities that are mistreated or discriminated against (ex. women & racial minorities) often support those who represent or defend them or give them someone to relate to. Beyonce’s fan base is mostly female and they’ve made it clear that her feministic material is something they appreciate. Her biggest selling and most popular solo singles are those with female-supportive themes, like “Irreplaceable,” “Single Ladies”, “If I Were a Boy” and “Me, Myself and I.” One female Bee fan said to me “Beyonce`…we NEED her. We need her music.” When Knowles covered “Allure” magazine in February 2010, the headline was “Beyonce`: The Voice of Strong Women Everywhere.” ABC did a news piece on her entitled “Beyonce`: The Symbol of Female Empowerment. Obviously, a feministic image/or theme is something she should stick with as a part of her formula. As mentioned earlier, Beyonce` currently has a sparkling public image. I think this is a contributing factor to her diverse fan base. When you appear to be “clean-cut”, you’re more socially acceptable and porous. People (especially parents), are more comfortable admiring you or looking to you as a role model. She hasn’t had a “fall from grace” or has been “obscene or offensive” to make her socially debatable or worth rejecting. All a part of a great formula that Beyonce` should stay conscious of and keep.
Lesson 4: Stay ahead of record label politics and stay in creative control.
B.S. handed down by record label execs can really jack up your career either temporarily or permanently in a number of ways. From Prince, to Fiona Apple, to Kelly Clarkson, the list of artists who have had public wars with their record labels or management over artistic creativity, finances, promotion and etc. goes on and on. It can be difficult to stay ahead of and dodge label politics, but Bee’s gotta watch her back nonetheless, and take chances (like Prince) to preserve her artistic and business integrity. Sometimes label issues can result in leaving a recording label, which is often a murky, transitional process. Mariah Carey has treaded those murky waters a couple of times. She left Columbia Records at the top of the millennium after what she described as a negative “political situation” from “corporate people,” only to move to Virgin Records for a “stress-fest.” Virgin offered her an $80 mill. contract, but paid her $28 million to close it after mediocre album sales. Carey is now with Island Def Jam. Carey said of her decision to sign with Virgin: “I made a total snap decision which was based on money, and I never make decisions based on money. I learned a big lesson from that." What Bee can learn from this particular example is to never chase money and always sign with a label that respects her as an artist and has her best interests at heart. When it comes to creative and business control, Bee already has a leg up. Since the Destiny’s Child days, she has had her own publishing (helps with royalties), and gets credit for writing and producing on her albums. Unfortunately, even with that much creative input, label execs can still force their hand; but some input is better than no input. She should keep this up and increase her creative control with time if she can.
Lesson 5: Have multi-tasking music and don’t back track.
A strength that prior pop icons have had was multi-dimensional music. Pop may be viewed as the designated genre for dance fluff, but many who have reached iconic status had music that not only made you dance, but made you reflect or….procreate (wink, wink lol) at the same time. Covering political or societal issues from time to time or having personal lyrics will be help Beyonce` have longevity and creative sustenance. As far as back-tracking, your music should continuously evolve and never conform (see “Professionals Sounding Like Newbies” 6-7-10) to current gimmicks or the current sound in attempt to stay popular; it never works. Being you works. Consistently growing and progressing, not moving backward, works. Keep this in mind, Beyonce`. If she follows or conforms to what is current or popular, she will be in the race with everyone else and will be at risk to get lost in the shuffle.
Lesson 6: Pace Yourself. Know when to sit down and stand up.
As far as I know, Beyonce` is currently on hiatus and is not in the studio or working on a movie. This is the longest time (it’s been about 5 months) that Beyonce` hasn’t been working on or promoting a major project since 1997. In my opinion, she’s taking a much needed break. Part of preserving your health AND art is taking well-timed breaks. There IS such a thing as overexposure, and Beyonce` might have been riding that line, especially after “Single Ladies.” Over-exposure can lead to the audience growing weary or underwhelmed by you (or taking you for granted). No one wants that. The opposite of this problem is taking too long of a break. You don’t want to be gone for so long that people lose interest or that you become irrelevant. Going on a break is a delicate process. You gotta know when to sit down and stand up. So the rules of “breaking” are: Take breaks, break when you’re on top (you wanna leave because you chose to, not because people didn’t want you anymore), and don’t be gone for too long.
Lesson 7: Use your instincts.
A gut feeling is a gut feeling. No one knows you better than yourself; she should always follow her instincts.
Lesson 8: Watch your inner circle.
It may be difficult to keep genuine people around you when you’re an international pop-star, but it must be done. Like many who started a recording career as a teen, Beyonce’s inner business circle consists of family. Fortunately enough, her family has proved to be trustworthy. Her father is her manager, her mother still acts as her clothing stylist (she used to be her hair stylist as well) and her cousin is her personal assistant. Nearly everyone else, from her choreographer to her tour creative director has been around since the first Destiny’s Child record. There are very few outsiders. This tight-knit circle approach has served her well so far. Anyone in the industry needs to make wise decisions about who they let into their atmosphere.
At the very ripe and young age of 28 (she’ll be 29 in September), Beyonce` has accomplished quite a bit. Particularly as a minority artist, it’s quite the marvel. Records have been broken, history has been made and a standard has been set. It will be fascinating to see what direction she takes with her career; of course I wish her the best of luck. It’s a shark tank.