material girls

There’s one huge difference between Madonna and Beyoncé

March 31, 2014
March 31, 2014

Madonna is the artist every female pop performer wants to catch.

Her constant revolutionizing sexiness is her brand—a form of artistic self-expression. In the 1990s, she wore the infamous Jean Paul Gaultier cone bra with the dizzying spirals to emphasize sexuality, juxtaposing it with her Catholic upbringing (all while seducing a chair) during her Blonde Ambition tour. She reportedly grossed nearly $63 million which made her most successful tour at the time. A decade later, her Confessions tour, during which she sang Live to Tell hanging from a cross, earned her $194.7 million, according to Billboard.

Now it looks like Beyoncé has been studying the playbook. She wore a La Perla thong at the Grammy Awards’ audience to expose her “fatty” while performing Drunk in Love—also on a chair—as she seduced (and was seduced by) her husband Jay-Z.

Perhaps her Grammy performance and this saucier new side we’re seeing is a tribute to Madge (in her fifth, self-titled album, the song and video Haunted has been compared to Madonna’s Erotica). Or maybe she understands that starting a pseudo-sexual revolution for profit is how to maintain relevance.

Because sex still sells. And their businesses are booming. Forbes, for example, questioned whether Bey’s Drunk in Love performance was for record sales. The answer is, of course it was.

“I started my own company,” Beyoncé told Billboard, talking about Parkwood Entertainment, which she founded in 2008. ”When I decided to manage myself it was important that I didn’t go to some big management company. I felt like I wanted to follow the footsteps of Madonna and be a powerhouse and have my own empire and show other women when you get to this point in your career you don’t have to go sign with someone else and share your money and your success—you do it yourself.”

But if Beyoncé is chasing a Madonna-sized brand, the question is, will she catch her?

It won’t be easy.

After decades in the business, Madonna is the top-selling female singles artist of all time. At 55, she has sold more than 300 million records worldwide, she has made hundreds of millions on touring alone; she’s won 14 Grammy Awards from 26 nominations. Billboard ranked her second only behind The Beatles in its latest “Hot 100 Top Artists” list, making her the most successful solo artist in the history of the American singles chart. Just last year, Madonna topped Forbes’ list of celebrities making more than $125 million, and despite her MDNA album flopping, her tour grossed $305 million.

Beyoncé, 32, has been a solo artist since breaking from Destiny’s Child in 2005, and as a solo artist she has sold more than 118 million records and won nine Grammy Awards from 25 nominations in just nine years. In 2009, Billboard named her the Top Female Artist of the 2000s and she was its Artist of the Millennium in 2011. Forbes recorded Beyoncé’s earnings at $53 million last year. Her latest tour, the Mrs. Carter Show World Tour, consisted of 132 performances and had raked in $183 million as of March 12.

“Beyoncé has an amazing amount of control over her persona and what she puts out to the world. You never know if there are people behind the scenes who help put herself out,” says Kevin Allred, a professor at Rutgers University, who established a class on race, gender and sexual politics called “Politicizing Beyoncé.”

She put this control into action late last year, when Target choose not to sell her self-titled album after she gave iTunes one week to sell it exclusively. Bey took control. She went to a Wal-Mart store in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, and offered every customer in the store the “first $50 on [her]” during the Christmas shopping season, effectively giving Target the finger and artfully saying “here’s some extra money to buy my album.”

And being in control is what makes Beyoncé the businesswoman she is—a trait she’s learned to perfect.  “I’m never satisfied,” Beyoncé told Forbes in a 2009 cover story. “I’m sure sometimes it’s not easy working for me… I’ve never met anyone that works harder than me in my industry.”

And while “Madonna could be seen that way, having a lot of control [over her image],” Allred told Quartz, “it just seems like there is an extra level [with Beyoncé]. If there’s an unflattering photo that goes out, it gets taken off the internet.”

Beyoncé set aside five months to prepare for the 2013 SuperBowl, which is the most watched musical show of the year (Madonna took four months for hers). She pulled out all the stops and pledged personal perfection. Gawker described her SuperBowl performance, noting, “Beyoncé exists to overwhelm us with perfectly executed, extraordinary work ethic and here she did it in a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle.”

But in some ways Beyoncé’s perfection is an Achilles heel. To revolutionize the music business, playing in the fast lane, being better than everyone, isn’t enough because everything changes in the blink of an eye. Artists must reinvent their brands to stay on top or they will be left behind.

That is something Madonna knows well. Recently, she shared a picture on Instagram of her hairy armpit. She wrote, “Long hair…… Don’t Care!!!!!!#artforfreedom#rebelheart#revolutionoflove.” But as one writer observed, Beyoncé will not allow herself that kind of freedom—she is always completely in control, flawless.

“Beyoncé has quite possibly never seen a single unflattering image of herself in any medium,” wrote Esther Zuckerman of The Wire about Beyoncé’s documentary. “She looks stunning when recording close-ups of herself in bad lighting. She looks stunning when she’s going into labor. Watching her perform flawlessly is a thrill. Watching her go through hard times without a hair out of place just makes you feel bad about yourself.”

Beyoncé is a boss, a hardworking, ambitious one. But bosses are not good at making revolutions: if Bey wants to start one—and a feminist one—wage war or put fake hair under her arm and Instagram it. She can get away with it. But until she understands this, she won’t catch Madonna, let alone overtake her—she’ll just continue to play in the fast lane.

A version of this post appeared on the author’s blog. Follow Rachael on Twitter @rcj7. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

Correction: A previous version of this post stated Beyoncé has won 9 Grammy Awards as a solo performer. She has won 14.

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