This is a story about two improbably ambitious, singularly driven and world-bestriding women at the pinnacle of an industry that tends to cannibalize its young. So instantly recognizable are these two music icons (and yes, they most certainly are) that they don’t even require the use of last names — or even their real names, for that matter.

In case you haven’t already guessed, the topic of today’s discussion revolves around two singers who require virtually no introduction: Lady Gaga and Beyoncé. Their musical collaborations — and the occasional fisticuffs seeps into various and sundry gossip blogs — has some comparing them to a modern-day incarnation of the rivalry spearheaded by basketball greats Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Both women have been described as music royalty: a flattering New York Times profile bestowed upon Gaga the title “queen”, which is appropriate given that she’s the industry’s reining figurehead of all things outrageous.

As wife of hip-hop’s enthroned king, Beyoncé clearly has her own claim to the crown. Gaga’s latest album, featuring the anthemic (but ultimately derivative) “Born This Way” is being released today, just as Queen Bey scheduled June 28th for the release of her fourth solo effort, 4. The dueling calendar dates have created an opening for many industry watchers to feed a rivalry between the two women.

The career heights spanned by the two singers lend themselves easily to speculative frenzy. Bey and Gaga’s pervasive influence of both Bey and Gaga — both of who seemingly came from nowhere to conquer musical ground that it took artists of yesteryear decades to achieve — that they’ve even managed to shape the cultural lexicon around their outsized personas. The bodacious former Destiny’s Child frontwoman birthed the “bootylicious” neologism; meanwhile, Gaga has managed to completely redefine the word “monsters” in a way that simultaneously brands and empowers her legions of followers.

Despite a penchant for what cultural critic Camille Paglia acerbically termed “compulsive overkill”, Gaga is clearly filling the creative vacuum left by the aging, cougar-esque and increasingly irrelevant Madonna. For her part, Beyoncé has fashioned her career in the image of Tina Turner — vampy, multitasking, and a stage presence (“Sasha”) that belies a demure church-reared upbringing.

While the two basketball icons professed an initial love-hate relationship with each other from the outset, there’s no evidence that either Beyoncé or Gaga ever shared any such mutual disdain for each other. Both women have more in common than anything else. Stefani “Gaga” Germanotta attended the same upscale school as Paris and Nicky Hilton (although she stresses her working class roots), while Beyoncé was raised in Houston by an upper-middle class couple that could afford to channel her singing ambitions full-time. No doubt that a wellspring of friendly competition flows between both Beyoncé and Gaga. However, the musical influences and stylistic flourishes of both women are dissimilar, even though both are prone to missteps that court controversy.
Gaga debut solo album, The Fame, spawned several hits and earned her endless musical accolades, yet her “ostentatious (and often pointless) envelope-pushing antics”:http://www.usatoday.com/communities/entertainment/post/2010/09/lady-gaga-explains-her-vma-raw-meat-dress/1 has managed to raise more than a few eyebrows — even in an industry characterized by bad behavior. Lady Gaga’s most recent hit, “Born This Way”, triggered a ferocious debate about whether it was the sincerest form of flattery based on a 1989 Madonna chart-topper.

For her part, Beyoncé has flirted with overexposure in ways that have made her an all-too-easy target. Her on-stage style choices have placed her in the center of at least one minor controversy. But a particularly egregious decision to entertain Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi and his sons forced the singer to make a donation to Haitian recovery effort as a gesture of good will — and a symbol of her embarrassment.

A few years ago, animal-rights advocates at PETA had a field day after a videotaped ambush at a trendy restaurant featuring Bey went viral online. And a relatively innocuous decision to go blonde triggered accusations that the already light-complexioned chanteuse had bleached both her hair and her skin-tone.

The initial reception for both Beyonce and Gaga’s latest singles suggest signs of exhaustion for both of them. Beyonce’s “Who Runs The World (Girls)” has been met with tepid reviews and an incipient critical backlash, while Gaga’s single “Judas” has drawn sharp criticism from Christian groups — yet another Madonna claim to fame — for its allegedly blasphemous imagery. Both women might yet find themselves on the outs with fickle fans that love you one minute, then become completely exasperated the next.

I, for one, await the inevitable, Jennifer Lopez-esque flameout for one or both. Until then, fans should savor the spectacle of two competitive and uber-creative artists that can at least keep the public guessing.

Like Magic and Larry, both Beyoncé and Gaga bring out the best in one another. Try though they might, gossip scribes are unlikely to succeed in their efforts to pit one against the other in a way that could render them music’s version of cat-fighting, soap-operatic divas. Case in point: Gaga joined forces this weekend with several other high-wattage names to pay tribute to Beyoncé at Sunday’s Billboard awards.

At least for the moment, there’s room for more than one queen at the top of the charts.