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People Are Puzzled By Madonna’s Aretha Franklin Tribute at the VMAs

5 minute read

Madonna is no stranger to controversy at the MTV Video Music Awards—and the 2018 show is no exception.

Before presenting the night’s biggest award, “Video of the Year,” the entertainer paid tribute to the legendary Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, who passed away late last week. Much of Madonna’s sprawling tribute seemed to focus on the influence that Franklin had on Madonna’s career trajectory, as opposed to Franklin’s life and music.

This did not sit well with many of Franklin’s fans, who took issue with Madonna focusing so much on herself, as opposed to Franklin. Many fans took to social media during the VMAs to sound off about Madonna’s tribute.

Read the full Madonna VMA speech below.

Aretha Louise Franklin changed the course of my life. I left Detroit when I was 18. $35 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 of ever becoming a singer, but I went for it. I got cut, and rejected from every audition. Not tall enough. Not blends-in enough, not twelve-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?” The worst that can happen is 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.

So I showed up for 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 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, “Mmmhmm.” 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 cappella.”

I could see that they did not take me seriously. And why should they? Some skinny-a– white girl is going to come up here and belt out a song by one of the greatest soul singers that ever lived? A cappella? I said, ‘B-tch, I’m Madonna.’

No, I didn’t. I didn’t say that. ‘Cause I wasn’t Madonna yet. I don’t know who I was. I don’t know what I said. I don’t know what came over me. I walked to the edge of the pitch-black stage, and I started singing.

When I was finished and drenched in nerve sweat. Y’all know what this is, right, nerve sweat? They said, “We will call you one day, and maybe soon.”

So weeks went by, and no phone call. Finally, the phone rang, and it was one of the producers, saying, [French accent] “We don’t think you are right for this job.” I’m like, ‘Why are you calling me?’ He replied, “We think you have great potentials. You are rough for the edges, but there is good rawness. We want to bring you to Paris and make you a star.”

We will put you in a studio…it sounded good, and I wanted to live in Paris, and also 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 luxury 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 back home and learn to play guitar, and that is 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 led 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.

Another anecdote I would like to share: In 1984, this is where the first VMAs were, in this very building. I performed at this show. I sang “Like a Virgin” at the top of a cake. On the way down, I lost a shoe, and then I was rolling on the floor. I tried to make it look like it was part of the choreography, looking for the missing stiletto. And my dress flew up and my butt was exposed, and oh my God, quelle horreur. 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.

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Write to Cady Lang at cady.lang@timemagazine.com