On this day, Thursday 16th January, in an alternative universe Aaliyah would have been celebrating her 35th birthday. Perhaps she would have uploaded a picture on Instagram of her birthday cake and the subsequent celebrations. Fans would have pored over the glamorous shots as life long friends Missy Elliot, Timbaland and DMX showered her with gifts. She would have tweeted a thank you to all her adoring fans for their warm wishes and may have even released a surprise video via Vevo.
Maybe MTV would premiere documentaries celebrating her illustrious career from the sultry nineties to her blossoming film career in the noughties. BET would showcase her most successful videos and show full coverage of her sold out performance in Madison Square garden. The milestone of 20 years in the industry would coincide with a greatest hits album featuring her collaborations with Kendrick Lamar, Pharrell Williams, Miguel and Janelle Monáe to name a few.
But we all know too well that this is mere fantasy. As the adored and respected icon edged closer to the tremendous world acclaim she deserved, a devastating plane crash would end the story mid-sentence. Suffering fatal head injuries, Aaliyah died alongside her closest colleagues in an eerily symbolic plane crash. Her dedicated fans and avid supporters can’t help but wonder what the industry would be like if one of it’s brightest stars had lived…
Aaliyah became a signed recording artist at 12, and recorded her first album Age ain’t nothing but a number at just 14 years old. The album sold 74,000 copies in its first week alone and has since been made double platinum. Written and produced by R.Kelly, the adult content is retrospectively disturbing, suggesting an exposure to sexual themes at a very early age. A wedding certificate published in VIBE magazine would later expose the illegal marriage between the 27-year-old mentor, R. Kelly and his child prodigy.
Aaliyah was just 15 years old when her album began to climb the charts, successfully juggling a straight A work ethic at a Performing Arts college in Detroit. At 16 years old she became the youngest person to perform at the Academy Awards, singing the soundtrack to Fox’s Anastasia. Following this, her single for Eddie Murphy’s Doctor Dolittle, titled Are you that somebody, earned her a Grammy nomination.
There is much that can be learned by someone exposed to so much, so young. If she had lived, her example would have been a poignant reminder to the young stars of today that the progression from child to woman can be driven by dignity rather than nudity. Perhaps her handling of such an overwhelming experience without a public meltdown could have inspired the likes of Miley Cyrus and Lindsey Lohan.
Perhaps young female rappers would have looked at the adoration Aaliyah garnered from male rappers without having to use explicit lyrics to mimic ‘masculinity’. Aaliyah was the ‘baby girl’ that was seen as one of the guys. Forming close bonds with DMX and Puff Daddy alike, she did not have to compromise her reputation to be respected. Aaliyah personified the authenticity that was irresistible to both men and women, carrying on the ‘hat 2 da back’ philosophy of liberated women like TLC. In an album review Robert Christgau wrote that she was ‘lithe and dulcet in a way that signified neither jailbait nor hottie—an ingénue whose selling point was sincerity, not innocence and the obverse it implies.’ Her 35th birthday could have seen her join the elite annuals of child artists like Justin Timberlake and Usher that are successful well into adulthood.
Aaliyah was illustrative of the 90’s, when sex wasn’t peddled as the exclusive selling point of female artists. Once upon a time Madonna was the only female pop artist openly celebrating S&M, hip hop honeys were the only ladies consistently in thongs and it wasn’t normal to know your favourite singers inner thighs better than your own. Perhaps overtly sexual women like Rihanna and Lady Gaga wouldn’t feel compelled to strip down to their underwear for almost every single video, if someone before them had made it to the top fully clothed. Perhaps the hundreds of fans wouldn’t see their bodies as commodities to be exchanged for ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’ if their idol had lived for longer in relative modesty. She was desirable and sensual without veering into the Terry Richardson slime that encouraged Miley to simulate oral sex on a sledgehammer. Can you imagine Aaliyah making a video like ‘Pour it up’? I can’t either.
Aaliyah was a legitimate contender for Beyonce’s crown with an upbringing and ethic that was eerily similar. Like Beyonce, Aaliyah came from a music-orientated family with an uncle married to Gladys Knight and a vocalist mother. Beyoncé similarly recorded her first album whilst in Destiny’s Child at 15 years old and performed adult songs backed by her parents. Both women were talented, beautiful and relentlessly hard working with dreams of becoming triple threats. Aaliyah always stated it was her dream to act as well as dance. Beyonce’s lead role in the ‘hip-hopera’ Carmen was met with a Luke warm reception at best. Comparatively speaking, Aaliyah’s film debut in Romeo must die blew Carmen out of the water. If we compare the stars at 22 years old we see an almost identical rise in terms of output and reception. Aaliyah’s blossoming friendship with Jay-Z may also have seriously changed the face of Beyonce’s personal life too. Looking at statistics alone, it suggests that if her life had not been cut short, Aaliyah would have been a real force to be reckoned with. If Aaliyah had lived, would Beyonce really be the widely worshipped and idolised star she is today?
Death, however leaves a plethora of unanswered questions in its wake, with nothing but speculation and guess work to paint a picture of what could have been. We are left with possibilities, insubstantial fantasies based on probability. But behind the speculation and what could have been we can see the facts; Aaliyah was and always will be one of the most loved female artists of all time. In just 22 years she touched millions that looked to her charisma and character as a benchmark of 20th century feminism. On today, the day that would have been her 35th birthday, all we can hope for is the preservation of her energy, spirit and memory for years to come.
Rest in perfect peace, Aaliyah Dana Haughton. 1979 – 2001