As the crowd filtered into the Wachovia Center tonight to see Beyoncé Knowles, the arena was filled with the songs of Michael Jackson.
One after another - "Billie Jean," "Beat It," "Thriller" - they paid tribute to the singer, who died Thursday and who left a profound mark on Knowles' career. Halfway through the show, she made the debt explicit.
"If you know anything about me, you know that the reason I'm here is because of Michael Jackson," she said. "He taught me just about everything I know."
Her confident stage persona cracked for just an instant, and her voice caught ever so slightly as she said, "He was my hero."
Knowles followed with a version of Jackson's "I Can't Help It," coaxing those in the audience to raise their voices along with hers. As the song neared its peak, she built one vocal run on top of another, climaxing by singing, "Thank you, Michael" - words that echoed back at her from the back rows.
Knowles has never been shy about acknowledging Jackson's influence. In 2006, while presenting him with a World Music Award, she said: "If it wasn't for Michael Jackson, I would never have ever performed. He's made such an impact on my life and every performer's life."
Last year, as part of her "Sasha Fierce" alter ego, she began sporting a titanium "roboglove" on one hand, emulating -- consciously or not -- Jackson's rhinestone-studded glove.
Jackson, a consummate singer and dancer who shifted identities with every new album, exploited the then-nascent medium of music videos to blur the line between art and endorsement; his videos were commercials, and his famed 1984 Pepsi commercial doubled as promotion for his music.
Knowles has taken the full-court-press media strategy to greater lengths, in the process signing a deal with the same soda company as her idol.
Last night, Nia Evans, 15, of Wilmington, wore a homemade T-shirt that read, "Michael Jackson will live forever."
"Michael Jackson was hip-hop and I love him and he's gone," she said while waiting in line with her mother.
"He was the icon of the old decades," she said, casting a glance at her mother, "and Beyoncé is the icon of this decade."