Madonna's VMAs Speech Was Tone-Deaf, But the Real Mistake Was MTV's
If you predicted going into the 2018 MTV Video Music Awards on Monday night (Aug. 20) that the pop star everyone would be talking about afterwards would be Madonna, congratulations. Despite stellar performances from Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj and video vanguard recipient Jennifer Lopez, and big wins for Cardi B and Camila Cabello, it was indeed the Queen of Pop's name on everyone's lips after the show, and not for the reasons she might've hoped for.
Madonna became the VMA trending topic to end all VMA trending topics last night when she took the stage in the show's final hour to pay tribute to soul legend Aretha Franklin, who died the previous Thursday at age 76, as well as to present the award for video of the year. Her speech, as you likely know by now, was long and winding and only tangentially Aretha Franklin-related. The core of it was an anecdote about a time when she elected to sing Franklin's "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" at a moment's notice for what turned out to be a career-making audition. But it was long on needless, often self-congratulatory details about Madonna's pre-fame life, and short on much about what really made Franklin a singular icon. (Consequence of Sound did the math and counted that Madge's speech mentioned herself 72 times, and Franklin only four.)
The backlash was quick and loud. Rolling Stone called the speech "beyond awkward" and "a disastrous mistake." Vulture said she "swung real low and missed big time." Celebrities ranging from comedian Roy Wood Jr. to NBA veteran Jamal Crawford tweeted their incredulity at the speech's self-absorption. It's hardly the first time Madonna did something controversial onstage at the Video Music Awards -- as she herself reminded the audience, her then-scandalous writhing wedding-dress performance of "Like a Virgin" at the first VMAs in '84 was predicted by some to be a career-killer -- but this time, the controversy wasn't about Madonna pushing the envelope, but simply being unable to read the room.
As cringeworthy as the speech was, though -- and for what it's worth, Madonna has since clarified it was never meant to actually be a proper "tribute" -- it's unfair to levy all the blame at Madonna, when MTV's decision to assign her an Aretha Franklin tribute was so misguided from the beginning. Aside from Madonna and Franklin both being from Detroit, both being icons of popular music, and apparently both being fans of the Carole King songbook, they don't really have a ton connecting them: They never collaborated, didn't work with many of the same people or within the same musical moments, and generally didn't seem to intersect much over the course of their storied decades-long careers.
What's more, their biggest strengths are wildly different -- Franklin was a technical virtuoso and a paragon of soul; Madonna is a brilliant pop tactician whose diva-dom was more based on attitude than vocal strength. That's not to say they don't have their similarities: They're both underrated songwriters, they both evolved successfully with the times, they're both legends of shade and they both continuously demanded respect. But there's not a Madonna song you would point to and say, "Oh yeah, you can really hear the Aretha."
That makes Madonna something of a strange choice to be the mouthpiece for MTV's Aretha Franklin tribute -- especially because it hasn't always gone smoothly when she's been selected to tribute musical greats in the past, particularly black artists. Her speech in honor of Michael Jackson at the 2009 VMAs was also largely about her, but it was still mostly a sweet tribute to both a superstar peer and a man she knew and could relate to on a unique level. Her Prince tribute at the 2016 Billboard Music Awards, however, was much shakier -- a low-energy two-song musical performance that was largely criticized for its general flatness, and for Madonna perhaps not being the most logical choice of singer or performer. That choice still at least made some degree of sense, though, as Madonna and Prince were again contemporaneous pop and video icons, and they had both a personal and professional relationship that included collaboration on several tracks from the former's classic Like a Prayer album.
Madonna and Aretha, though? It's hard to explain -- except that Madonna, by her own admission, had already been tapped by the VMAs to present the video of the year award, perhaps as a celebration of her 60th birthday last week and a chance for Madonna to reintroduce herself to the public in advance of her new album later this year. When Aretha Franklin died last week, the VMAs didn't have a lot of time to put together much of a tribute package, nor did they have a lot of other obvious choices among the artists expected to be present at the awards to lead it. Of the big performers and winners in the building last night, none would really be described as a soul or R&B singer, and none outside of Aerosmith had careers near as close chronologically to Franklin's as Madonna. If MTV had to go with an option present for an Aretha tribute, it's not totally illogical that they figured Madonna was their best choice.
But did they need an artist to pay her tribute at all? Obviously, Aretha Franklin was a titan of popular music, but her peak came mostly in the pre-MTV '60s and '70s. A mid-'80s reinvention did make her an MTV fixture for a couple of years, and she's been nominated for two VMAs in her career, but few would consider her a crucial artist in the channel's history, and she's never performed or had a particularly memorable moment at the awards before. Considering some of the legendary MTV-era artists who have died in the past few years -- including Prince, George Michael and Chris Cornell, none of whom got so much as a passing mention at the awards following their deaths -- it's strange that the channel would make such a point of paying extended tribute to an artist whose greatness is rarely associated with her music videos.
Not to mention that if paying tribute to the fallen greats was now a priority of MTV's, there were plenty of other choices from the past year that would've made as much if not more sense. Perhaps the problematic nature of XXXTentacion's career would've made him an awkward choice of tribute for an award show that aspires to wokeness as the VMAs do, but what about Avicii, the late '10s EDM star who'd been nominated for a handful of VMAs in his life -- and by the way, actually won one last night? His posthumous best dance win would've been the perfect opportunity for a short, genuine tribute (perhaps from Rita Ora, collaborator on his winning "Lonely Together"), but the category was inexplicably presented off-air, and it would've gone totally unmentioned on the main show if collaborator Ora hadn't said something while presenting Maluma's performance. And what about Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Tom Petty, who died last October and was not only one of the biggest fixtures of MTV's first decade and a half, but also involved in one of the VMAs' all-time greatest performances? To the surprise of no one, his name wasn't uttered a single time last night.
It's not hard to see the reason why Franklin got a tribute while none of these other artists did: timeliness. Because Franklin died in the week leading up to the VMAs, the producers obviously felt more of an urgent need to pay respects to her than to other stars who passed in the 12 months since the previous ceremonies, even if one or two of them might've made for more natural fits. But while no one could deny that Aretha Franklin's greatness should be honored whenever possible, would anyone have been particularly upset had the VMAs simply played a short video -- like the performance clip of "I Say a Little Prayer" that preceded Madonna's speech -- and eschewed any potential artist speech and/or performance altogether? Considering that the response to the news announcement that the show would tribute Franklin was one of extreme trepidation, it's hard to imagine many would have objected.
But instead of keeping it subtle and simple, MTV swung big and missed mightily by asking a performer whose entire brand in recent years has become self-aggrandizement to give a speech about a legend who she has little relationship with. Is anyone really surprised that the artist who tweeted a photoshopped still from the Carters' "Apeshit" video with her own album covers in place of the Louvre artworks they're admiring -- with the caption "Learning from the Master" -- wasn't going to make herself small in deference to Aretha Franklin? Bitch, she's Madonna. At this point, her public narcissism is one of the things fans love about her, even when it understandably rubs everyone else the wrong way. Asking her to give a selfless tribute to Aretha Franklin would be like hoping Kanye West could give a eulogy for Paul McCartney without talking more about My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy than Sgt. Pepper.
Ultimately, nobody comes away from last night's Aretha Franklin tribute a winner: Not MTV, certainly not Madonna, and not even Franklin, who may have been totally unfamiliar to a large percentage of the young viewers watching -- and now will be known as "that woman who Madonna sang a song by once" to many of them. It's frustrating for many reasons, mostly because it didn't have to go down like this, or at all. If MTV and the VMAs want to start delving back into the past after years of focusing almost exclusively on the present and future, that's fine -- they certainly have the history to make it worth the nostalgia. But hopefully next time, they don't try to both over-extend and under-think a tribute based solely on who's died the most recently, and who's already around that could possibly pay homage. That's how you end up not paying proper respect to anyone.