Destiny's Child released their first major-label song on the soundtrack to Men in Black, which came out on CD, cassette, and MiniDisc; they became famous shortly before Monica Lewinsky. This is the kind of thing a pop star less secure than Beyonce wouldn't want to draw attention toward, which is one of the reasons it was surprising to see last week that an enormous comeback is already in motion. (Their new song, "Nuclear," is now streaming across the internet; MiniDisc availability is unclear at this hour.)
Imagine what 15 years ago looked like for pop superstars in 1999: That was before Michael Jackson's impossibly dated-sounding Bad, before Janet Jackson's Jimmy Jam years, before Madonna's "Like A Virgin," and all of those stars already seemed like pop's elder statesmen. Beyonce, though, still has the vague sense of the up-and-comer. Because in 2013, old pop stars never die, even when they die.
It's not that Beyonce and Destiny's Child haven't sounded dated in a given moment. If nothing they released is quite as of-its-time as Janet's new-jack or Michael's croaking synthesizers and glass drums, it's still easy enough to tell a MiniDisc single from a CD from the YouTube-driven "Single Ladies."
It's that something about her--her talent, probably, and her restraint, in equal measure--and about the time in which she's come of age has allowed her the space to continually reinvent herself and pop culture. She's skipped (more successfully than her bandmates) from the tail-end of 90s R&B and the boy-and-girl-band renaissance to the mid-aughts flavor of diva-ism to the new move toward the dance-y and robotic, acting somehow as a trailblazer in each trend.
She's not the only one, either--the Destiny's Child comeback was followed in the same news cycle by the news that Justin Timberlake, who stood as a symbol for the lush, over-produced boy-band baroque period ("It's Gonna Be Me," et al) and the spartan, barely-a-song-at-all craze in pop ("SexyBack") at a five-year interval, would be making a comeback of his own. Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera have, after multiple musical reinventions, become TV stars, and not in that sad, Vanilla Ice-y reality-show-contestant way. This isn't completely or even mostly without precedent, but the rate at which it's happening seems strange; we're generating far more long-term stars, and far fewer future reality show contestants.
One theory: Having become entirely self-sufficient and sustainable (I'm looking forward to The Real Housewives Celebrity Fitness Survival Rehab Challenge, as pitched by the near-sentient supercomputer that randomly generates new Bravo shows), the reality TV industry no longer needs to bid up Vanilla Ice and Flava Flav futures.
Another theory: As so much of pop culture becomes fragmented and niche-y, the space in our pop-star firmament for the world's several-hit-wonder also-rans--the Madonnabe to your Madonna, who rides one style and can't get off before the next one leaves the station--is vanishing. (In publishing a similar phenomenon has been explored as the decline of the "Midlist Author,", who sells well enough to stick at a major house but never becomes a ubiquitous, spinning-airport-rack bestseller.)
So where, 10 years ago, Beyonce might have inspired a raft of pseudo-Beyonces, who released ephemeral pop hits and cheapened the initial impact of a "Single Ladies," now she just inspires us to wait for the next Beyonce song. She's powerful enough, now--so in control of her own image, so permanently fresh, so seemingly insulated from the culture-shifts that used to end careers--that she can use the Super Bowl halftime show to remind us that she's going-on-32 (60 in pop-years), and that she was famous before many of her fans were born.