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When we grow up alongside our stars

When stars hit it big just as a generation comes of age, it can create a unique and lifelong bond with their fans. Above, Beyoncé performs in Los Angeles in July 2009.
Kevin Winter
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When stars hit it big just as a generation comes of age, it can create a unique and lifelong bond with their fans. Above, Beyoncé performs in Los Angeles in July 2009.

Like many people who routinely suffer FOMO, I've drained a ridiculous portion of my bank account to secure tickets for Beyoncé's Renaissance tour, which officially kicked off last week in Sweden. This will be my third time seeing Queen Bey live; I last saw her when she was touring for Lemonade in 2016. But before that, it had been even longer between my IRL sightings: 17 years(!), when Destiny's Child (pre-Michelle Williams) opened for TLC during the FanMail tour.

I was 11 years old. Back then, I had no idea that that same lead singer with a unique name would become such a dominant force in every era of my life: my teens (the "Crazy in Love" era); college (the "Single Ladies" era); my 20s (4, Beyoncé, Lemonade), and now, my 30s. I had no clue that decades later, I would pay a pretty penny to watch her put on one of the biggest tours in my lifetime.

For many people my age, Beyoncé's always been a part of our lives. Her combined level of stardom and critical esteem is exceptionally rare; more than 25 years into her professional career, she's arguably bigger than ever. But this has got me thinking about other cultural figures and the generations of fans who have grown up and older alongside them. This year marks 20 years since Kenan Thompson joined Saturday Night Live, though as a millennial raised on a steady diet of Nickelodeon, he was a part of my life long before then, as a star on the kid shows All That and Kenan & Kel. (I've been watching Kenan on my TV since I was six years old!)

For Gen-Xers, Weird Al is one of those guys; as my lovely co-host Stephen Thompson recently observed, the prolific musician-comedian's debut album dropped 40 years ago, and he's never stayed away too long in all that time since. (Just last year, a bonkers pseudo-biopic about his life was released.) Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, Michael and Janet Jackson, Oprah, Mariah Carey, Steven Spielberg, Leonardo DiCaprio and Will Smith – all mean something special to the ones who were young when they first came up, too.

Beatles fans in Toronto in 1964.
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Beatles fans in Toronto in 1964.

To be clear, this is different from purely nostalgia-fueled artists who remain stuck in the collective memory primarily for whatever they did many years ago. (Sorry, Backstreet Boys.) And it's also not quite the same experience as having grown up with the pop culture that older generations hand down. However, part of occupying this unique cultural space does require multi-generational longevity.

Every generation has its stars who hit it big just as that generation is coming of age and honing its tastes in art and who never seem too far from that cohort's consciousness even as they age.

Instead, it's about how every generation has its stars who hit it big just as that generation is coming of age and honing its tastes in art and who never seem too far from that cohort's consciousness even as they age. I think it creates a unique bond that's harder to break, for better or worse; you may find it difficult to accept and/or reconcile their faults. It can lead to dumb intergenerational tiffs. (Don't even get me started on the under-30-somethings who try to argue Chris Brown is anywhere close to being on the same level as Usher.)

It can also feel like a personal evolution, where you can pinpoint each phase of your life and map it alongside that artist's oeuvre. It connects you to those who vividly remember being in high school when they saw a young Tom Cruise in Risky Business during its original release. Now, here you are all these years later, watching an old Tom Cruise scamper across rooftops and train a new generation of fighter pilots. You've grown up together, in a way.

The careers of these generational figures ebb and flow like all careers do, and that generation's relationship with them probably ebbs and flows, too. And yet they're a constant, reliable presence. When I catch Beyoncé in August, the audience's age range will be all over the place, and that's part of her enduring appeal. But I also know that certain older songs will hit some of us way different than they do others, with clear memories of a much younger Beyoncé and our much younger selves dancing furiously and with precision – there's no other way with Beyoncé – in our minds.

This piece also appeared in NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter so you don't miss the next one, plus get weekly recommendations about what's making us happy.

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Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Aisha Harris is a host of Pop Culture Happy Hour.