On Sunday 12th September, MTV celebrated 40 years of music and music videos at its annual Video Music Awards. The event featured highly anticipated performances from pop upstarts Normani and the newly solo Chlöe Bailey, inspiring a rousing discourse about the state of modern pop music and the role of the Black pop star in it. No matter what side of the debate you're on, there's one truth that we should all hold tightly to: icons aren't born — they're built over time.
Over the years, the rules of the music industry have changed drastically, to the point that pop stars of past may not actually be able to recognise it. With the rise of social media and influencers across Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok, the music realm has become oversaturated by new acts in every genre with...differing levels of talent. (If you know, you know). In this super-crowded landscape, making a lasting impact on audiences is more important — and more difficult — than ever. Every artist’s new release is make-or-break as they try to establish themselves and compete for dominance in the space. Simply put, it's a jungle out there.
For the new class of Black pop girls like Chlöe, Normani, Doja Cat, Lizzo, SZA, and Saweetie, the stakes are much higher. Misogynoir and many of its related offshoots (slut shaming, colourism, fatphobia, featurism, and more) are running rampant in pop culture, creating various barriers for entry and hurdles for the girls to clear, over and over again. Even the musical giants who paved the way for this generation of artists have become a stumbling block for their spiritual successors. The impossibly high standards set by past legends’ entire illustrious careers are now the bar for which many music fans use to project expectations onto artists who are only in the nascent stages of their journeys.
Sunday's VMAs sparked heated discussions about the innate star power — or lack thereof — of the new crop of potential stars. Some thought the girls weren’t giving what they needed to give, tweeting that the performers were “doing a lot of copy & paste” and needed to “find [their] own style.” Some even re-upped the age-old “inspiration versus imitation” debate. Fan favourite Normani hit the stage for her first live performance of "Wild Side," delivering a one-two combo of aesthetics and expert-level choreography despite only having a few days to prepare. (She was initially left off of the performers list until outrage from her fandom helped change MTV's mind.) For some watching at home, the performance was Normani at her best — the dancing ass doll that pop music has been missing for quite some time — but for others, it didn't feel original. From the performance’s dance homage to late legend Aaliyah, to the fashion, to its ending featuring Teyana Taylor, directly pulled from an unforgettable Janet Jackson throwback, the whole thing felt perhaps too inspired.
Later in the evening, Chlöe's debut as a solo artist drudged up some of the same tensions. The singer and actress recently released the full version and accompanying music video for her first single "Have Mercy," a self-love anthem that sees Chlöe fully stepping into her grown and sexy era. Intentional or not, the visual for the song had Beyoncé’s touch all over it, and her VMAs performance was more of the same, echoing Bey's self-titled era costuming and her chaotic but perfectly contained choreography style onstage. There's no doubt who Chlöe's blueprint is. She’s Destiny's Grandchild.
For some music heads, that's precisely the problem: a lot of the new girls are following far too closely in the footsteps of their inspirations. People like Janet, Aaliyah, and Beyoncé changed the very essence of the music industry in their respective ways, altering the makeup of the landscape by carving out their own lanes. And although many of the musicians that we now know and love were inspired to pursue music by some of the same people — Janet is, undoubtedly, the spiritual mother of several generations of pop and R&B singers — they were able to make their way by creating their own vibes. Years later, we can immediately tell who's trying to embody Baby Girl's feather-soft vocals or Beyoncé's specific brand of BDE (big "Diva" energy, in her case), and it doesn't quite feel fresh because we've been there, done that. Beyond the homages and tributes, who exactly are these new voices? It’s not easy to tell just yet.
But even as we're taking in this new talent and making judgments about their work, we have to also remember that star quality, even of the Black and pop variety, takes time to develop. Janet initially debuted as Michael Jackson's baby sister, fighting off comparisons to a man who had been a superstar even before hitting puberty, and Beyoncé paid her dues with 16 years as the front-woman of Destiny's Child before finally launching her solo career. All of our pop legends were once eager upstarts looking to make their name in the industry (one that was notably much whiter and even more difficult to break into than the landscape that we're seeing today).
Many of us grew up alongside these artists and watched their work mature, experiencing in real time the transformation of their styles and their voices. We didn't always love every look or every performance, but we did understand that so much of this process, especially in its early stages, is about trial and error — if Rihanna hadn't ventured out sonically and aesthetically with her Loud and Rated R eras, we would have never been able to tap into our own growth, aka our inner dominatrix and rocker chicks. That same nuanced understanding of artistic maturity needs to be applied to the new generation of singers as well, especially since they're just getting started. It takes time for artists to iron out their performance personas and their vocals, and these new girls will be no exception.
We can't discount the laundry list of unfortunate double standards and unreasonable expectations that Black women in the game have historically had to contend with. Within mainstream music, Black women have been picked apart for any and everything; they're too sexy, not sexy enough, too skinny, too fat, too in-your-face, too boring. There have always been critics at the ready poised to attack these artists, a fact that's particularly painful because many of their white counterparts have often skated by with half as much skill while still gaining the world. The scales just aren't tipped evenly for the Chlöes or the Normanis, for the Lizzos or the Tinashes. Knowing this, it's important for us — the people that many of them specifically make music for — to be intentional about giving these young women the space they need to grow artistically.
Granted, this isn’t to say that critiques aren’t welcome; they just work better when they’re constructive, allowing artists to take the feedback that they’ve received and apply it when and where they see fit. The more opportunities they get to hone their craft, the easier it will be for them to claim their own lanes within the music industry, which will lead to music that feels different but more importantly, feels good. Just look at Doja Cat; she's been grinding and evolving since 2012, and we can very clearly see the outcome of that hustle today. That’s a success story almost a decade in the making.
It's early days for the new class of Black pop singers — Normani hasn't even released her debut album yet, and "Have Mercy" is only Chlöe's first single — but the talent is so obviously there. All they need is a little more time. After all, neither Rome nor Beyoncé were built in a day.