Whether you’re a fresh new pop star or a bonafide musical legend, no one is important when Madonna is in the room. Never has that been so clear than at last night’s VMAs, when Madge took five minutes of everyone’s time to pay tribute to her own humble beginnings. The problem is she was supposed to dedicate that moment to the late Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.
As Madonna took to the stage to remind everyone how brilliant she is – and, let’s not forget, she is brilliant – a black-and-white image of Franklin, who died last week, appeared behind her. “Aretha Louise Franklin changed the course of,” she began, “my life.” And so began one of the oddest – and, frankly, hilarious – tributes to a legend of all time. Here are the highlights:
The crackhouse story
Madonna’s whole speech is actually a story about how she became famous, rather than the profound influence Aretha and her voice had on music and the world. After leaving Detroit with no money, 18-year-old Madonna decided to go for musical-theatre auditions – after all, “The worst that could happen is I can go back to getting robbed, held at gunpoint and being mistaken for a prostitute in my third-floor walk-up that was also a crackhouse,” she explains in a tone so deadpan it rivals Stewart Lee. What does this have to do with Aretha Franklin? Well, not a lot really, apart from she sang (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman at one of the auditions – and she didn’t get the part.
The French accent
The producers at the aforementioned audition happened to be from France, a detail Madonna delightfully portrays. Not only was this entirely unnecessary and distracting from a tribute to Aretha Franklin, who was not French, but it was also just a bad attempt at a French accent. Unless these men were from France by way of Eastern Europe and summered in the Hamptons every year, it was a misguided attempt. But hilarious.
What does any of this have to do with Aretha Franklin? Well, not a lot really, apart from Madonna sang (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman at one of the auditions – and she didn’t get the part
When those French producers were doubtful of Madonna’s talents, she told them, “Bitch, I’m Madonna!”, drawing a laugh from a crowd who had presumably been holding their breath and worryingly side-eyeing each other through the whole anecdote. Then she ruined the joke by ensuring she didn’t actually have the nerve to say that because she “wasn’t Madonna yet”. Yes, Madonna, we know – you just told us you were living in a crackhouse. Who’s that woman on the screen behind you?
Famously, Aretha Franklin was a fan of Taylor Swift’s “beautiful gowns” – if nothing else – and so it seems an odd choice for Madonna to wear what can only be described as a lace-panelled prayer robe and a wide array of Portobello Road-sourced costume jewellery. She also wore her hair in plaits, because – nope, I just googled “Aretha Franklin plaits” and they’re not a nod to the soul singer in any way, shape or form.
You can see where the VMAs were going with this – having a musical legend pay tribute to another musical legend is a good idea. Franklin died just days before the event, presumably after rehearsals were wrapped up, and the only popstar capable of an Aretha Franklin song, Ariana Grande, was too busy creating a live all-female version da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Plus, she’s already been there, done that. Under the circumstances, VMAs, you did good.
The one thing you should’ve remembered, though, is that Madonna’s USP is that she does not give a fuck. She will do whatever she wants – and she did. So, thank you, the VMAs, and thank you, Aretha Franklin, for another iconic moment: the day Madonna paid tribute to herself.