I know y’all think I’ve got an unhealthy obsession with this, and you know what? I kinda do. I’m like the character in the movie who paces in front of the chalkboard for decades trying to figure out the equation after everyone else has moved the fuck on. I’m the pop culture Cassandra, warning and cautioning and predicting and being wholly ignored as a crank every time I point at a photo of Kanye West snatching the mic from Taylor Swift on the MTV VMAs stage in 2009 and screaming “BUT DON’T YOU SEE!?!”
Well, don’t you? When you look at the pop culture landscape now, eight years later, don’t you see how everything changed? Ed Sheeran, Meghan Trainor, Shawn Mendes, Mumford & Sons, Lukas Graham, ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’, ‘Fight Song’, that fucking Calum Scott cover of ‘Dancing On My Own’… none of these artists or songs, and thousands more, could ever have been possible without the MTV VMAs 2009. I’ve been mumbling about it for years as I clutched my tin foil hat tighter to my head and rocked back and forth, losing myself in nostalgic memories of when pop music was big and ambitious and better. For years I’ve blamed Taylor Swift for pop’s decline into a bland, beige singer/songwriter nothingness. For years I’ve been wrong.
But recently, I had my breakthrough. My eureka moment. The equation rearranged itself in front of my eyes, the cloud lifted, and I can see clearly. Mediocrity in pop culture is not Taylor Swift’s fault. It’s Beyoncé’s.
Let me show my workings, here. Back in the 80s, MTV made generational icons of Madonna and Michael Jackson, forming an archetypal view of what a modern POPSTAR was: provocative, boundary-pushing innovators who were crucially visual in their approach to artistry. They didn’t just sing, they danced. They didn’t just dance, they performed. And they didn’t just perform, they entertained. They were unstoppable forces, larger than life, chart dominating juggernauts of the genre. The way popstars should always be.
Between the late 90s and early 00s, Disney (and slimy fraudster Lou Pearlman) took the archetypal popstar and rewrote the blueprints. The new icon was still provocative, but primarily sexually so, no longer confrontational or political. They were talented singers and dancers, but not necessarily born to it or naturally gifted, instead trained into excellence from a young age. But they still sang, they still danced, they still performed and they still entertained. A new pop era flourished and the Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC and Britney Spears were the main players and the new bar for excellence.
Back then, music was kinda… segregated. None of the homogenous, genre-crossing sonics of nowadays. Music was pop, or it was rock, or it was black and there was barely any mainstream crossover. So alongside the rise of the sound of the clean, bright, white American teen dream, R&B and hip hop was also big business and for every Britney or Christina there was an Aaliyah or a Brandy. And Destiny’s Child? They were the black Spice Girls (though with Sugababes personnel problems).
As with every pop bubble, there inevitably becomes an unsustainable point where it has to burst, and this one ended in 2003. The Backstreet Boys split up, Justin Timberlake had already released his debut album and established himself as *NSYNC’s breakout star, while Britney Spears dropped the last studio album she made while still wholly mentally sound. In the summer of that transitional year, Beyoncé Knowles released ‘Crazy In Love’ and changed absolutely everything.
Firstly, ‘Crazy In Love’ is a pop song. A massive, pop song. A perfect, classic pop song that I still to this day do not think Beyoncé has managed to best. That was against the rules. Aaliyah had died in a tragic plane accident two years prior, and every black female artist was vying for her R&B queen crown. Beyoncé herself auditioned for it with her previous solo releases ‘Work It Out’ and ‘Fighting Temptations’, both traditionally R&B songs which ultimately failed to make any serious impact. Releasing ‘Crazy In Love’ switched up the game and tore the rug out from under everyone’s feet. This bold step into the pop arena, previously annexed territory, was a turning point. Anyone heard from Mya, lately? Ashanti? Amerie? Any of those R&B girls? ‘Crazy In Love’ ended careers and an entire genre. RIP R&B.
Beyoncé’s first album, Dangerously In Love and the follow up B’Day were big successes, but it was 2008’s I Am… Sasha Fierce that really and truly put her on the map. Personally, I think it’s her worst album, by far. But it’s also her most mainstream and her most pop and between ‘I Were A Boy’, ‘Halo’ and ‘Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)’, Beyoncé had an absolute banner year critically and commercially. Before, Beyoncé’s throne and crown were far from safe: the singles from B’day had mostly underperformed and her own husband had signed and was managing an usurping threat in Rihanna – younger, hotter and rising rapidly. The I Am… Sasha Fierce era cemented Beyoncé’s success. And pop had a new archetype. All singing, all dancing, all performing, all entertaining… and for the first time, she was a black woman.
But wait, that’s not all that was happening around 2003. Reality TV talent shows were in vogue, with early precursors Pop Idol and Popstars making way for the more slickly operated American Idol in 2001 and The X Factor in 2004. These shows promised ordinary people who could hold a tune and had a dream that they could become overnight stars. A different type of pop archetype emerged. This popstar wasn’t a double, or triple threat. They were barely a threat at all. They were either average-looking, charmless but well-meaning white people that could belt out well-known soul songs to a karaoke standard or average-looking, charmless but well-meaning white people capable of stripping all the fun out of a great pop song by cooing along earnestly to a stripped back acoustic arrangement. This model of popstar is is deeply unsustainable as invariably there is no solid bedrock of talent to build upon but an entire generation grew up on this diet of cheap celebrity leading us full circle back to Louisa Johnson in 2015, inspired to compete in The X Factor by the show’s first real “star” Leona Lewis. But I’m cutting ahead. Back to Beyoncé.
Who was around to challenge Beyoncé in 2008? Britney Spears made a spectacular comeback, but her mental health has prevented her from revisiting former glories and while she remains a legend and an icon of pop culture, as a performer she hasn’t been able to match Beyoncé for a decade. Christina Aguilera, never much of a dancer, but an entertainer of the old mold nonetheless put out a Greatest Hits collection that year and nothing more. Of the new guard, Rihanna had the hits but not the range, Lady Gaga had unmistakable promise but was merely a newcomer, and Katy Perry was two years out from her record breaking Teenage Dream campaign. By rights, Beyoncé should have sailed in to the 2009 VMAs, cleaned up, and sailed back out. But then.
Well look, we all know what happened. The video for Beyoncé’s ’Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)’, one of the most memorable and memed videos of the year lost in the Best Female Video category to Taylor Swift’s ‘You Belong With Me’, Kanye West objected, and the rest is history.
So much has been written and said about the mic snatch seen around the world; I have written and said a lot of it myself. The Taylor vs Kanye narrative arc has dominated the pop culture soap opera for years, culminating in the very messy, and one would hope, final showdown of 2016’s Snapchat exposé. I was Team Kanye that VMAs night, and everything he has said in justification for his drunken, and in hindsight, ill-advised stage invasion has rooted in me to the point of this 1300 word and counting dissection of the moment. Kanye’s assertions, that in rewarding Taylor Swift without merit, those who look to Beyoncé, who can do it all (and in heels) for inspiration, will be discouraged from striving for greatness, have through time been proven true. But the blame didn’t lie with Taylor for being so average, it’s Beyoncé’s fault for being so great.
That’s victim blame-y af, but it doesn’t make it any less true. 2003, that interesting year where the old regime bit it and the new regime began to establish her footing, marked the year white standards slipped. There has not been a white artist, male or female, within touching distance of Beyoncé as a performer since Justin Timberlake semi-retired from music in 2006. The gulf between Beyoncé and other black artists is a mile wide, but when it comes to Beyoncé and white performers, they’re not even operating on the same planet. Beyoncé was the new archetype, and she could not be replicated or matched.
In a society where whiteness must flourish, this is unacceptable. For white artists to succeed on Beyoncé’s level, the goalposts had to move and values had to change. And so, for the first time, something that had never been a crucial plot point for establishing a mainstream Top 40 popstar’s success suddenly became the most-highly sought after skill of all. Which leads us on to Beyoncé’s big “weakness”. (Yes, Hive, she has one!)
Beyoncé is not a songwriter, or a producer. Not in the strict auteur sense in which we consider artists to be “songwriters”. Sure she has credits. And I am of the firm belief that she is extremely hands on in the studio, especially of late. But she doesn’t play an instrument or produce beats. In a sense I would refer to her more as a pop maestro than a pop musician. And I don’t say this to drag, I say it to illustrate my next point.
Taylor Swift is a songwriter. A traditional, Nashville-trained, pen/pad/acoustic guitar songwriter. Whether she is as good as her many accolades suggest is a point for debate another time, but in all the ways Beyoncé is not a songwriter, Taylor Swift very much is and so it doesn’t matter that Taylor Swift has paper thin vocals, or the natural rhythm of a bamboo cane or the overall creative outlook of the mean girl villain in a teen movie and her Mason jar obsessed Pinterest fanatic mother combined, Taylor’s ability to write lyrics bore out a whole new popstar archetype, one rooted not in the spirit of elevating greatness, but in keeping greatness in check. And it’s all Beyoncé’s fault for being so fucking good.
The rise of the singer/songwriter as popstar has been full and unchecked. Ed Sheeran, with his far from remarkable looks and target-chasing marketing manager personality is one of the biggest male artists in the world. Ten years ago, he would have been Daniel Powter. Now he’s Michael Jackson. Meghan Trainor won a Best New Artist Grammy in 2016. Ten years ago she wouldn’t have been allowed out of the studio, and her songs would have been given to artists with actual charisma and performance skill. Meanwhile the cottage-industry of YouTube covers has opened doors for the likes of Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes and Tori Kelly – all of some talent, but none of the electrifying calibre required to ascend to the upper echelons of popstardom in years past. The tools it takes to become even passably decent at being a bedroom studio artist – singing/music lessons, access to a quality camera, access to an instrument or the money to buy Logic further gentrifies pop into being a middle and upper class white reserve.
Distressingly, Beyoncé’s greatness has been used as an excuse to crowd out further success from black talent. Whiteness can support any number of Pixie Lotts, but where is the room for artists of colour to be average? Even good black artists aren’t given the same space and time to develop their craft. Which is always providing they can get through the door in the first place, since being a “mixed race girl who sings like Beyoncé” (something I have heard, verbatim, in relation to new talent) can bar you at the point of entry. Because being able to sing like Beyoncé is valued in white girls but not in black ones. Even Beyoncé’s own sister was a casualty of her success – it has taken Solange 12 years, and an extreme side-step into a very different lane to move out from under her sister’s shadow.
And honestly, aren’t you fucking bored? As you watch another dead award show or listen to another song that sounds exactly the same as the other songs that “stream well” which you listen to even though you don’t even get very excited about them, don’t you just miss pop music being fucking exciting? Don’t you miss popstars being otherworldly beings that just emanated that aura of being so much fucking better than you? I do. I miss it. I miss the days when being Beyoncé wasn’t just yet another unrealistic expectation of women.
Because it is unrealistic. We straight up do not make them like her anymore. She’s transcended. GOAT level. These kids do not have her talent and they do not have her drive. They don’t even know what it takes to be her. The X Factor and YouTube would have this generation believe that you do not have to learn your craft to be Beyoncé, but Beyoncé has been working towards being Beyoncé since she was eight-years-old. To be able to sing and dance at that level and sustain it to the same standard across multiple live dates worldwide is not something any of the new breed of popstar are capable of. An attitude of “anything will do” has replaced “only the best will do” and inspiration has stagnated to the point of indifference from both artist and audience. And it’s Beyoncé’s fault for not allowing white artists to keep pace with her.
I’m not sure what can be done to change the new status quo. Among other things, it would take a combination of bold A&R decisions at a talent level, an uptick in diversity among music journalists and critics, the death of both The X Factor and The Voice and a consolidated effort between radio and streaming services to start supporting artists and not just songs. And that’s a tall order.
At ground level, the best I can do, and any of us can do is put money down for the type of artists that we want to see, especially artists of colour who will always be most at risk. Show out for Twigs. Show out for Tinashe. Show out for Zendaya. Show out for all the girls from Fifth Harmony apart from Camilla, and show out for all the girls in Little Mix especially Leigh-Anne. Show out for Zara Larsson, who is white pop’s best chance for a new Britney Spears. Show out even when the bops are only middle drawer quality in the hopes we can carry them along to those top drawer goodies in future.
And you know what else? Let’s stop acting like what’s just okay is the greatest thing we’ve ever seen or heard. That doesn’t help anybody. From stans to critics the internet only knows how to tear something apart or elevate it more than it probably deserves. Let’s just be real about things. Some pop music is okay, but it could be a lot better if white artists were trying harder. And white artists would be trying harder if we’d told them they had to be as good as Beyoncé instead of lowering our standards to accommodate them. If my favourite movie of all time, Bring It On, taught me anything it’s that white people only get better at stuff if there’s black people to compete against. And even if they try harder it doesn’t mean they’ll win, but the point is that they tried harder. It’s time to move the goalposts back to where they were before, with Beyoncé standing right in the middle of them and let’s up everyone’s game by striving to get one past her. We deserve it.