The game of being being a fabulous superstar is rough, but Beyoncé plays it like a champion. In fact, as 2013 came to a close, she showed us how it’s done. The first step is to spend a decade defining yourself as the most fabulous superstar of all. Then, once the haters begin to question your otherworldly fabulousness by comparing your sales numbers to the latest round of pop stars, you create an entirely new level to the game.
Boom! You release an album with no pre-promotion whatsoever. Wham! This album is not designed to be spoon-fed to the iTunes-trained masses that pick and choose the songs they like (it must instead be initially purchased as a full collection of 14 tracks and 17 videos). Blam! Despite it’s non-iTunes flavor, you initially make it only available on iTunes–and when mega-retailers like Amazon and Target refuse to carry your album because they’re all butt-hurt over the iTunes exclusive? Kabam! You don’t care, because you’re Beyoncé.
“I’ve never done anything so brave in my life,” she told ABC News. “I really wanted to surprise people and didn’t want it to be all about the hype and promotion.”
You can’t fool me, Beyoncé, this whole exercise was about stirring up hype and promotion–but, more importantly, it was about doing so in a way that only a towering queen of pop culture can do it–and this, in my opinion, was the whole point. Beyoncé was not simply releasing new music. After a decade at the top of the music world, she was throwing down a fabulous gauntlet. There are pop stars who play the pop star game, but Beyoncé is beyond compare because Beyoncé is the only Beyoncé there is.
Seriously. Let Katy Perry and Rihanna and Lady Gaga scramble for high-profile TV appearances and iHeart Radio concerts slots. You think Beyoncé needs to share a stage at a radio show with the Miley Cyruses of the world? The intensity of her fabulousness would melt such posers into little twerking puddles of prepackaged whatever.
Hell no, with the release of her fifth album, Beyoncé sought to change the conversation entirely. Nobody was talking about her pre-orders or her chart position, they were instead talking about how only someone like Beyoncé would try such a thing. She distanced herself from everyone else and, for a minute, it was as if sales figures didn’t matter anymore. Beyoncé just strutted out of nowhere and dropped 14 songs and 17 videos into our lap. She cemented her brand as an unstoppable musical force that does whatever she wants, whenever she wants.
It was as if Beyoncé was saying, “All you other girls can put out songs for radio to play, and you can do all that pre-promotion on the Today show…but Beyonce is just gonna open up the sky so Beyoncé’s music can rain down…because that’s how Beyoncé likes it now.”
(We love the idea of Beyoncé referring to herself in the third person)
I can’t think of any other iconic pop star who has ever come close to something like this. Think of poor Michael Jackson. In his day, he had to continue to slog out albums, just like the rest of the world. Once the glow of Thriller (and, arguably, Bad) wore off, he was just another superstar trying to move product. He kept on playing the same game, along with everyone else. Dubbing himself the “King of Pop” was just hype and promotion.
And then there’s Beyoncé. Her last album (2011’s 4), was not a game-changing release. It did well, but was a definite step down from I Am…Sasha Fierce in terms of sales and media attention. It looked as if the Katy Perry’s and Rihanna’s of the world had started to encroach on her territory as the she-juggernaut of the music charts.
But you don’t mess with Beyoncé. Even if this new album did not hit the jackpot in terms of sales, it was a new hallmark in what it means to be a fabulous superstar. Her surprise move made everyone else on the chart look old-fashioned. So 2012. Of course, since we’re talking about Beyoncé, the album did ride the wave of awestruck press, debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, moving 617,000 units in the United States in its first week. That’s almost twice as much as 4 did when it made its initial bow in 2011.
Don’t call it a comeback. Call it “knowing how to define yourself” and how to shift the game in your favor by changing the rules at will…because, at the end of the day, you’re Beyoncé. And that’s exactly the point.