Icon: a person regarded as a representative symbol or as worthy of
Legend: an extremely famous or notorious person, especially in a particular
field - the man was a living legend
a screen legend
With the digital era and its corresponding increase in single sales, has come the misuse of various terms. Previously used to indicate the superiority of certain videos, shoots and musicians, words such as 'epic', 'legendary', 'legend' and 'icon' have become commonplace; used to refer to the most base in the music industry. This has led to such words, in essence, being rendered completely meaningless and it has become quite clear to many that their true meanings must be re-established.
This article intends to reinforce the meaning of both 'icon' and 'legend', as well as determine the necessary criteria for an artist to realise both statuses. It shall also hypothesise the musicians of today who could potentially see the attachment of the aforementioned words to their resume in the near future.
Allow us first to address the true meaning of 'icon'. If we're going by the above definition (as stated in the Oxford Dictionary), then an icon is merely a representative symbol of something. It follows on, therefore, that icons (particularly those 'of the moment') can be replaced if someone else emerges who is proficient in that particular area. Fashion is a notoriously fickle area in which this is apparent. One only has to take the example of model Agyness Deyn. Cited as a style icon as recently as 2008, she has since fallen into relative obscurity with the likes of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley having arguably taken her place.
This is a similar case in music. Popular 90s artists like Hanson, Tevin Campbell, Shanice and even the still-popular Monica were all referred to as icons at the time, and have all since seen a change in circumstances. It is doubtful that many would refer to them as music icons, today, though Monica could still be rightfully deemed as an icon of 90s R&B. Still, it is clear that, with changing trends, icons are often replaced. That, or the field in which they were originally mooted as being iconic in, is considerably narrowed.
It is therefore easier for an artist or celebrity to see iconic status. Indeed, all that is necessary to realise it is considerable success or notoriety in a certain field, or for that person to bring about a noticeable change (however small) to it.
As such, it is also easy for artists or celebrities to be deemed 'icons' early on in their careers. Artists like Lady Gaga (who was cited as being a fashion icon less than year after her debut) and models like Rosie Huntington-Whiteley have seen such status while being relatively 'green' in their respective fields.
'Legendary' status, however, is considerably harder to achieve and it is what this article primarily intends to focus on. It also must be stated that, while legends are always also icons, icons are not always also legends. With 'legend' being defined as
an extremely famous or notorious person, especially in a particular field...
legends are almost impossible to replace due to the fact that the criteria to realise such status is much more discerning and most are simply incapable of meeting them.
For artists, record sales are just one area in which they must see considerable success. Musicians like Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley and the Beatles have all sold a reported one billion records. These numbers are astonishing, but, as they are so incredibly high, it would be unrealistic and foolish to make them a prerequisite for legendary status. Hence, other musicians like Madonna and Mariah Carey (who have both sold over 200 million records) are also deemed legends - and rightfully so.
But incredible record sales alone are not enough for 'legend' status to be granted. Artists must also bring about a considerable change in the industry as we know it; they must shake the very foundation of music. This includes iconic videos and the calibre of their respective catalogues, as well as various paraphernalia. The possession of numerous hit songs goes without saying, as well as critically acclaimed records and eras, and at least three memorable and notable performances. They must also have the respect of their peers and superiors in the industry; the approval of established musical legends must be obtained and known publicly. Another prerequisite is that they enjoy (even comparative) success throughout a lengthy career (or for a substantial portion of it).
Arguably, the best example of an artist who possessed all the aforementioned is the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. As well as essentially creating the music video as we know it, he has several iconic songs and albums, record-breaking tours and is cited as the inspiration behind the careers of almost every artist since. In addition, his noteworthy career spanned almost four decades.
One would think that it was obvious, but it has become increasingly apparent that the following is far from it. Extraordinary talent is the most important quality necessary for an artist to see legendary status. Whether it be in vocals (Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston), dancing (Michael Jackson), performing (again, Michael Jackson) or general musicianship (the Beatles, Prince), those who wish to realise it must have it in their possession.
Now, it is expected that some will argue that Madonna, the Queen of Pop, does not have any such extraordinary talent in any of those areas. However, she brought about considerable change in the music industry and rocked its' very foundations. It also must be argued that she is basically the 'mother' of every female pop artist since her debut (and this generation, in particular). No other pop female artist has had such influence. Hence, she has more than earned her legendary status.
Allow us to propose two artists whom we believe will eventually see legendary status: Beyoncé and Britney Spears. As well as having outlasted many of their peers and having careers spanning almost fifteen years, they have had considerable influence over the latest generation of artists. They have both had several sold-out world tours, massive chart success, numerous notable performances and are already icons of their generation. They have the approval and respect of the legends that have gone before them (with Beyoncé often being touted as 'the greatest performer of this generation', and even 'the greatest performer since Michael'), as well as the general public.
Additionally, Beyoncé and Britney have sold over 120 million records each and, while that cannot compare to the sales of the artists of yesteryear, one must take into consideration the time during which they were sold. They both debuted at a time when CD piracy was at an all-time high and before the start of the digital era which has seen many sub-par artists enjoy considerable success in terms of single sales. Their successful peers, Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera, haven't seen similar sales despite also doing very well, and the Princess of Pop and Queen B are two of the best-selling artists of the last decade.
Conclusively, let us reiterate the importance of not allowing the terms 'icon' and 'legend' to be rendered meaningless through misuse. They also must not be used interchangeably. Icons are representative symbols. They are more easily replaced and indeed often are in the fickle fields of fashion and music. Just five years ago, Agyness Deyn and Keira Knightley were the darlings of the day; cited as fashion and style icons and seated front row at various fashion shows. Today, the likes or Rihanna and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley have replaced them. Tomorrow, who knows?
Legends, on the other hand, are almost impossible to replace. Unlike many icons, their names go down in history, generation to generation. Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, James Dean, Marlon Brando, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, the Beatles, Madonna, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, James Brown: those are legends. They are not only representatives of particular fields and prone to irrelevancy once a particular genre or style falls out of favour; their names are synonymous with the greatness they, themselves, achieved, notable for the change that they, themselves, brought about.
There is a distinct difference between being an icon and a legend, one that must not go ignored, and undeservedly boasting certain people (Katy Perry and Rihanna, particularly, come to mind) as being either is both foolish and derogatory to those that have actually earned such status.