As the Material Girl delivered a lengthy speech mostly focused on herself — rather than on the Queen of Soul, who passed away Thursday from pancreatic cancer — social media users and award-show viewers expressed their distaste.
Before she presented the Video of the Year award to Camila Cabelo, Madonna, who turned 60 on the day of Franklin’s death, spoke about how Franklin impacted her career.
“Aretha Louise Franklin changed the course of my life. I left Detroit when I was 18,” she said. “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 theatre.”
“I had no training or dreams of ever becoming a singer but I went for it,” she continued. “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. 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 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.’ That’s right, I’m a ‘Rebel Heart.'”
She then went on to describe the audition, crediting Franklin’s (You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman in a rambling story.
“So I showed up for the audition and two very large French record producers sat in the empty theatre, 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,” she said. “Fortunately one of my favourite 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.'”
“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,'” she said. “I could see that they did not 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 that ever lived? And a cappella … I said, ‘Bitch, 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.”
She then attempted to justify why she was telling this story with a gigantic backdrop of Franklin behind her.
“So you’re probably all wondering why I’m telling you this story,” she said. “There’s a connection, because none of this would’ve happened — could’ve 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.”
Within seconds, the internet hivemind began lambasting Madonna. Some asked why a white artist would be chosen to pay tribute to Franklin, a groundbreaking African-American singer.
The VMAs scrambled last minute to honour Franklin, and the show’s executive producer Jesse Ignatovic told industry publication Variety that they sought to do something “organic” and nothing “too kooky.”
Madonna tweeted on Tuesday following the backlash, insisting that MTV asked her to present the award and the tribute to Franklin.
In addition to the Madonna tribute, MTV aired Franklin’s 1970 performance of Dionne Warwick’s I Say a Little Prayer, which she covered for her album Aretha Now. The network also played Franklin’s 1967 hit Respect during the end credits.
(You can watch parts of Madonna’s speech in the video, top.)Follow @CJancelewicz
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