IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The ‘King of Pop’ is dead, long live the ‘King’

Years after his death in 1977, Elvis Presley is still referred to as the “King of Rock and Roll.” When Michael Jackson died last week, chances are his “King of Pop” title didn’t die with him.
/ Source: contributor

Years after his death in 1977, Elvis Presley is still referred to as the “King of Rock and Roll.” But there really hasn’t been one person who can make a claim to the post-Elvis throne, even though many groups have found success since his passing.

When Michael Jackson died last week, chances are his “King of Pop” title didn’t die with him. He will still retain that honor among his multitude of admirers.

Although rock tends to anoint groups as royalty, pop leans more toward the singular. Relatively speaking, pop groups have a shorter shelf life than pop individuals.

So with Michael gone, who becomes the new reigning “King of Pop”? Even though the title will always be associated with Michael Jackson, for practical purposes, who will step forward and become the top pop artist in the world?

“I had this argument on Twitter on Sunday,” said Toure, a music journalist and pop culture critic. “I think that Beyonce is heir to the throne, if you can consider anyone.

“It’s important to clarify that this is not a comparison between Beyonce and Michael Jackson. It’s a comparison to Beyonce and everyone else who is alive today. It’s a comparison of her and her competitors.”

MTV helped make 'Thriller' a phenomenonThe trouble with any “King of Pop” handicapping is that 2009 represents a vastly different era from, say, 1982, when Jackson’s “Thriller” exploded upon the pop consciousness.

“The level of stardom that Michael obtained is no longer viable in the music business because people aren’t selling albums like that,” Toure said. Estimates vary wildly, but it is believed that somewhere between 50 and 100 million copies of “Thriller” have been sold to date.

“When Michael was hot in the ‘80s, MTV was a huge part of American pop culture,” Toure added. “It was the No. 1 radio station. MTV played Michael Jackson in heavy rotation, more than 100 times a week. That galvanized a nation to go out and focus on him.”

Toure believes that in this vastly different climate, Beyonce qualifies as perhaps the next King or Queen of Pop because “She’s one of the top 10 black movie stars in Hollywood, she’s had three multi-platinum albums, she’s liked by black and white people.”

Elliott Wilson, founder and CEO of, recognizes that the music business is different. What he looks for in the next “King of Pop” is someone who actually changes it by his or her mere presence.

“To me what has gotten lost is that, with Michael’s great success with ‘Thriller,’ he built a whole new industry,” Wilson explained. “He changed the business. Obviously the next person will have to change the business model for selling records.

“We’ve yet to have a music star icon who represents this generation.”

Hard to imagine Jackson's magnitudeWilson mentioned Usher and Justin Timberlake as potential heirs, and said he would have included Chris Brown if not for his recent abuse incident. “The question for these people is, how do I carve my own identity?” Wilson said. “I’m not that optimistic about the people who exist now. But you could be surprised. Who would have thought that little Michael Jackson would have surpassed the legion of Motown greats?

“He came out bigger than the Temptations, bigger than Marvin Gaye, bigger than Stevie Wonder.”

The magnitude of Michael may not need any other measure than the 750,000 tickets for 50 shows in London’s O2 Arena that sold out in March less than five hours after they went on sale. It showed that, despite his recent legal and money woes, his intense popularity was always bubbling just below the surface of the pop landscape.

“Honestly, I can’t think of anybody else who would come close to that,” said Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of Pollstar, which tracks the concert business. “There are a couple of rock acts who would be huge if they regrouped, like Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin. But that’s it.

“Nobody comes close.”

Search for new King may go global‘The new “King of Pop” might also be someone the world doesn’t yet know. The throne may sit empty for a while until that person has time to ascend.

“It probably will be somebody who was born in the ‘90s or 2000s, or even somebody who is around but will have to completely reinvent himself,” Wilson said.

Like a lot of journalists who cover music, Ann Powers of the Los Angeles Times has found herself having the “King of Pop” discussion in recent days. She feels that talent alone won’t get it done when it comes to a coronation.

“In terms of astounding talent, I think Lil Wayne fits it, in a way,” she said. “And Justin (Timberlake) definitely has a lot of talent. I love Beyonce. She’s incredibly talented, but she hasn’t quite presented her vision as solidly.”

Powers suspects that the next “King of Pop” might appear from another land. “If we do see another Michael Jackson figure,” she said, “that person might not come from the U.S., and the next new thing could be a truly global phenomenon not based in the States. The next Michael Jackson could come from Asia, or Latin America. I don’t think we should expect that person to necessarily be an American.

“A bilingual person could be the next Michael Jackson.”

There is also one other distinct possibility. Said Toure: “It may be that the throne is left unused.”

Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to