Clad in the traditional black cape and spiky circlet of mourning, Madonna appeared at last night’s MTV Video Music Awards to pay tribute to Aretha Franklin. The show’s producers, we assume, wanted to memorialize Franklin, marking the loss of a musical icon by having another famous singer reflect on a remarkable career.
Instead, well, they got Madonna just sort of talking about herself for a little while.
Vulture compiled a set of clips that neatly compartmentalizes a speech meant to remember Aretha Franklin by talking about the Queen of Soul’s most remarkable achievement: performing a song that Madonna sang one time at an audition. Early in her career (Madonna’s, not Franklin’s, of course), “a French disco sensation was looking for backup singers and dancers for his world tour.” Madonna, in the sedate deadpan of a chemistry substitute teacher, recounts how she auditioned because, even if she didn’t get the gig, she would just go back to a life of “getting robbed, held at gunpoint, and being mistaken for a prostitute in my third-floor walk-up that was also a crack house.”
Madonna auditioned by announcing she was going to sing Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” She recounts the skepticism of the French producers, including an unproductive callback weeks later (quoted in a shitty approximation of a French accent), and says she knew she wasn’t being taken seriously because she was a “skinny-ass white girl” taking on Aretha Franklin.
If this is starting to feel a bit meta in the context of the presumably Franklin-themed tribute, don’t worry: Madonna then declares “bitch, I’m Madonna” as part of her story. It’s a decent summary of her attitude toward the memorial, too.
It would be easy to chalk the crumby speech up to an off-day if there wasn’t precedent for Madonna fumbling similar opportunities to talk about lost musicians in the past. Take, for instance, Madonna on Michael Jackson (as he related to Madonna):
There’s also Madonna’s musical tribute to Prince, which, to be fair, wasn’t as immediately disrespectful as rambling on about herself, but involved singing covers she wasn’t able to handle (until Stevie Wonder showed up to save it):
Why Madonna keeps getting calls to talk about—and perform the songs of—recently deceased artists is anyone’s guess. Maybe show producers think the worst that could happen is they’ll disrespect the memory of a musician as talented as Aretha Franklin, lose their jobs, and go back to where they started in the first place: a third-floor walk-up that is also a crack house.
UPDATE: Madonna has said that, actually, she was not paying tribute.
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