Madonna is drawing criticism for her VMAs tribute to Aretha Franklin, and for good reason. Much like how Donald Trump managed to make Franklin’s death about himself (“She worked for me on numerous occasions”), Madonna’s own tribute to the Queen of Soul ended up becoming a tribute to Madonna.
Near the end of last night’s VMAs, the legendary pop singer, who celebrated her 60th birthday last week, shared a long-winded story about an early audition in which she sang Franklin’s “Natural Woman”. Aside from her singing one of Franklin’s songs, Madonna’s story had absolutely nothing to do with Franklin. To illustrate that point, I’ve bolded every instance in which Madonna references herself.
“Aretha Franklin changed the course of my life,” began Madonna. “I left Detroit when I was 18. Thirty-five dollars in my pocket. My dream was to make it as a professional dancer. After years of struggling and being broke, I decided to go to auditions for musical theater. I heard the pay was better. I had no training or dreams ever ever becoming a singer, but I went for it.”
For those counting, Madonna’s opening paragraph contained nine “my” or “I”s, but just one reference to Franklin. It only got worse from these.
“I got cut, and rejected from every audition. Not tall enough. Not blend-in enough, not 12-octave-range enough, not pretty enough, not enough, enough. And then one day, a French disco sensation was looking for backup singers and dancers for his world tour. I thought, ‘Why not? I could go back to getting robbed, held at gunpoint, and being mistaken for a prostitute in my third floor walk-up that was also a crack house.‘ That’s right, I’m a rebel heart.“
“So I showed up to the audition, and two very large French record producers sat in the empty theater, daring me to be amazing. The dance audition went well. Then they asked me if I had sheet music and a song prepared. I panicked. I had overlooked this important part of the audition process. I had to think fast. My next meal was on the line. Fortunately, one of my favorite albums was Lady Soul by Aretha Franklin. I blurted out, ‘You make me feel!’ Silence. ‘You make me feel like a natural woman!’
“Two French guys nodded at me. I said, “You know, by Aretha Franklin.” Again, mm-hmm. They looked over at the pianist. He shook his head. I don’t need sheet music, I said, I know every word. I know the song by heart, I will sing it a capella. I could see that they didn’t take me seriously, and why should they? Some skinny-ass white girl is going to come up here and belt out a song by one of the greatest soul singers who ever lived? A capella? I said, ‘Bitch, I’m Madonna.’ No, I didn’t. I didn’t say that. Because I wasn’t Madonna yet. I don’t know who I was.”
Still with us?
“I don’t know I said. I don’t know what came over me. I walked to the edge of the pitch black stage, and started singing. When I was finished and drenched in nerve sweat. You know what that is, right nerve sweat? They said, ‘We will call you one day, maybe soon.’ Weeks went by and no phone call. Finally, the phone rang, it was one of the producers, saying. ‘We don’t think you are right for this job.’ I’m like, ‘Motherfucker, why are you calling me?’ He replied, ‘We think you have great potential. You are rough around the edges, but there is good rawness. We want to bring you to Paris and make you a star. Well, we will put you in a studio, with the great Giorgio Moroder.’ And I had no idea who that was, and I wanted to live in Paris and I wanted to eat some food.”
“So, that was the beginning of my journey as a singer. I left for Paris, but I came back a few months later. Because I had not earned the life I was living. It felt wrong. They were good people, but I wanted to write my own songs and be a musician, not a puppet. I needed to go home and learn to play guitar, and that’s exactly what I did. And the rest is history.”
So. You are probably all wondering why I am telling you this story. There is a connection, because none of this would have happened, could have happened, without our lady of soul. She lead me to where I am today. And I know she influenced so many people in this house tonight. In this room tonight. And I want to thank you, Aretha, for empowering all of us. R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Long live the queen.”
72 mentions of Madonna
4 mentions of Aretha Franklin
From that point, Madonna went on to announce the winner of the VMA for Video of the Year… while still making it all about herself.
“Another anecdote I would like to share: In 1984, this is where the first VMAs were, in this very building. And I performed at this show. I sang ‘Like a Virgin’ at the top of a cake. And on my way down, I lost a shoe, and I was rolling on the floor and trying to make it look like it was part of the choreography, looking for the missing stilleto, and my dress flew up, and my butt was exposed, and oh my God, quelle horror. After the show, my manager said my career was over… So, I would now like to present the nominees for the video of the year.”
Remarkably, Madonna refrained from announcing herself as the winner.
Watch Madonna’s “tribute” to Aretha Franklin below. And to think, I’ve yet to even mention the accusations of cultural appropriation leveled against Madonna for dressing in traditional African garb.
Banner job, Madge.
Update: In an Instagram post, Madonna said she was intended to do a tribute to Franklin. “I was asked to present video of the year by MTV! And then they asked me to share any anecdotes I had in my career connected to Aretha Franklin! I shared a part of my journey and thanked Aretha for inspiring me along the way. I did not intend to do a tribute to her! That would be impossible in 2 minutes with all the noise and tinsel of an award show. I could never do her justice in this context or environment. Unfortunately most people have short attention spans, and are so quick to judge. I love Aretha! R.E.S.P.E.C.T.”