by Dom Jones
A few weeks ago, my Facebook timeline was going crazy over this post asking who was the better vocalist: Brandy or Beyoncè? There was even a video of them singing when they were both younger. There’s the Prince or Michael Jackson debate. There’s the Jay-Z or Nas debate. There’s the Kendrick or J. Cole debate. There’s the N’Sync or Backstreet Boys debate! I could go on and on and on. Comparison is a natural thing, we all do it, but when they turn into these epic arguments where everyone thinks they’re an honorary art critic, it actually diminishes the brilliance of the artist. And really… most of the time there is no comparison to be made except for the impact that each icon has had on music and culture.
There’s room for more than one at a time.
Women and people of color are already at a disadvantage in an industry where they are not the most prominent demographic, so to pit them against each other by comparison does an injustice to their brilliance as it stands on its own. Brandy, known in the music community as “the vocal bible” completely shifted the way singers approached R&B/Pop/Soul with her third album “Full Moon,” and has been a dominating voice of inspiration for singers and musicians everywhere. Beyoncè is one of the greatest entertainers of our generation, and someone who has influenced culture with her business savvy and prowess. They can AND SHOULD co-exist.
Icons are incomparable.
Michael Jackson and Prince both name James Brown as influences of their style, but when we really look at their bodies of work, there really is no comparison. What made them iconic is their unique styles, musically, lyrically, and aesthetically. Comparing them strips them down to their most basic characteristics: They were light skinned black guys who danced and played instruments and wrote their own songs and entered the industry young. Sure, on the surface, they had similarities, but once we dig deeper, we find that they were two extremely distinct artists whose messages and sounds often diverged. The fact that they were so different opened up spaces for more artists to be influenced by them. Without MJ, there would be no Usher. Without Prince, there would be no D’Angelo. Usher influenced Chris Brown. D’Angelo influenced Miguel and BJ The Chicago Kid. Icons create continuums of artistry, and are the type of leaders (maybe without trying) that music needs to sustain in an ever changing economy.
We’re really proliferating divisiveness, unnecessarily.
When you start to unpack the politics around comparison, especially in the entertainment industry, issues like colorism, body image, and sexism are raised and proliferated, but not addressed in a manner that goes in a positive direction. Make no mistake, when someone says that Beyoncè is better than Brandy, they may unconsciously be engaging in more discrimination than preference because Bey aligns more with the European standard of beauty that has been praised as more socially acceptable. And so, where music is supposed to unify, it begins to divide us even more. We find the art imitating life instead of transforming it because audiences are listening so much with their eyes that artists feel diminished in a marketplace that weighs their visual aesthetic more heavily than their actual work.
One of my favorite quotes says, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” These constant rants about who is the best are unneeded at best and damaging at worst. Let’s stop comparing musical icons and simply appreciate them for the magnificence that they add to our lives and bring to our ears.