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How could you not love this lady? Beyonce, having what looks like a ton of fun at this year's MTV Video Music Awards.
How could you not love this lady? Beyonce, having what looks like a ton of fun at this year's MTV Video Music Awards. Kevin Winter/Getty Images
I'm a talented freestyle rapper — really! — and back in 2003, that scored points with the kids in a summer program I directed. They loved it when I improvised about pop stars of the day, using my sweet rhymes to goof on 50 Cent and Usher while they clapped out a beat. But the day I rapped about Beyonce Knowles, everything changed. "You don't talk about Beyonce," one girl said, and with solemn faces, the other kids agreed. Dissing her, even in jest, was heretical.
The rest of the culture may not be quite that devoted, but eight years later, we're still giddy about almost everything Beyonce does. When she revealed her pregnancy at the MTV Video Music Awards, Twitter literally exploded, and when she surprised a group of kids as part of a publicity stunt at Target this summer, even TMZ dropped the snark and said she was "awesome."
Beyonce has worked to maintain that goodwill. She's one of the rare pop superstars who's never been plagued by a scandal, a sex tape, or a public meltdown. Sure, there was that unfortunate business with her father, but it tarnished his reputation, not hers. She kept coming across like a devoted professional who sings for the president, stars in popular films and inspires her husband to rhapsodize about her brilliance. From where I'm sitting, Beyonce seems like someone who shows up on time, delivers a good performance, and then retreats to a private life that is none of my business. I appreciate that.
Me, I show my appreciation by purchasing her music, and you'd think that was a natural response. Recently, however, Beyonce's music has gotten less attention than Beyonce herself.
Her latest album, 4, has sold just under 900,000 copies in four months, and while that's respectable, it's certainly not phenomenal. Meanwhile, the album's songs aren't selling that well either.
In this age of a la carte music consumption, it's not unusual for a megastar's album sales to pale next to the performance of individual tracks. Katy Perry's Teenage Dream LP has sold less than 2 million copies, but its five number-one singles have moved over 20 million digital downloads. Even middleweight artists like OneRepublic and The Script routinely sell millions of copies of their hits.
Yet none of the songs from 4 have gone platinum. The album's biggest success, the elegant breakup ballad "Best Thing I Never Had," has sold a little under 800,000 copies and peaked at #16 on the Hot 100.
Again, this is not terrible, but for an artist of Beyonce's stature, it's surprising. In celebrity culture, she's a hurricane, but in the world of music, the world where she ostensibly "belongs," she seems to be downgrading to a tropical storm.
It's possible, of course, that people just don't like the songs on 4 as much as they liked "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)" and "Irreplaceable," and that without Beyonce's intense public approval, they'd be even less popular than they are. She might have a smash hit next year and prove me entirely wrong.
But I wonder. Is it possible she's losing her status as a chart-topping juggernaut? It happens to everyone, after all. Bruce Springsteen (1982) invariably becomes Bruce Springsteen (2001), still getting respect, but not quite dominating iTunes.
If that's what's happening to Beyonce, then I'm shocked that her musical ebb is arriving during the high tide of her public persona. What do you think? Can she correct this dip with a (sasha) fierce new album, or have music buyers decided she's replaceable after all?