Yesterday marked what would have been the 35th birthday of the late pop/R&B star Aaliyah. Since the singer’s untimely death in 2001 and the age of 22, there has been an outpouring of love and grief for her legacy and music, similar to what fans of the late Tejano singer Selena have exhibited since she was killed in 1995. But in recent years, a certain sentiment has arisen among Aaliyah fans that sets her against a current superstar and questions whether said star would have achieved all that she achieved had Aaliyah not perished in that plane crash in the Bahamas almost 13 years ago.
That superstar, of course, is Beyoncé.
The idea that “Beyoncé wouldn’t be _____ if Aaliyah was still alive” has been gaining steam for years. Fans cite Aaliyah’s rising star power at the time of her death — her crossover appeal, hit singles, platinum-selling albums and movie and modeling opportunities made her one of the most visible black women in music at the time, and seem to believe that Beyoncé has benefited from a void that Aaliyah created.
This kind of idea isn’t new. For years, people have claimed that Beyoncé’s superstar husband Jay Z would have never achieved fame had it not been for the twin murders of the Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac in the mid-90s. But in both instances, this kind of thinking reveals more of a romanticized revision of the past as opposed to practical thinking about pop stardom.
At the time of Aaliyah’s death, Beyoncé had yet to release a solo album, but she was already well established as a star: her group, Destiny’s Child, had just released the multiplatinum album Survivor, which included two songs that reached No. 1 on the pop charts and another that was No. 2. With the success of the album, the group became the best-selling girl group of all time. It should also be noted that the group’s previous album, 1999’s The Writing’s On the Wall, had already sold close to six million copies in the U.S. alone by the time of Survivor‘s release.
So it could be argued that Beyoncé’s trajectory was already set.
Prior to her death, Aaliyah’s final album, titled simply Aaliyah, was selling much slower than her previous project, 1996’s One In a Million, though it did debut at No. 1 on Billboard. In the wake of her death, sales picked up tremendously, but it’s noteworthy that even by 2009, it sold about three million copies. There’s absolutely no shame in a triple-platinum album, but it’s not quite the same kind of blockbuster that Destiny’s Child was known for in the early 2000s.
To be clear, this is not about “who’s better?” That’s a childish and irrelevant question: taste is just taste and it’s pointless to debate. But it is to point out that we shouldn’t always feel the need to force contemporary stars to compete with the ghosts of the past. We also should remember that there is room for more than one superstar in music. Even today, Beyoncé shares the A-list with several other women, such as Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and more. It’s a bit silly to think that Aaliyah wouldn’t be there alongside those stars, but it’s probably sillier to think they wouldn’t be who they are had she lived.
Aaliyah’s legacy is largely one of unknown potential. She was a star, no doubt, but we’ll never know just how bright she could have shined. So it’s best to embrace her music and films and celebrate her legacy on its own terms. And not use her tragic death as ammunition to tear down anyone who’s dominating the charts today.