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Madonna’s VMAs “tribute” to Aretha Franklin was all about Madonna

Madonna gave no respect to the Queen of Soul — and viewers weren’t having it.

Madonna at the VMAs MTV
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

In the days since the death of Aretha Franklin, we’ve seen numerous moving tributes to her legacy, including Ariana Grande’s tremendous performance of “Natural Woman.” But Madonna’s attempt to pay her R-E-S-P-E-C-T to the Queen of Soul at the 2018 MTV Video Music Awards was not among them.

Instead, Madonna made Franklin’s “tribute” primarily about Madonna, in an awkward, overlong speech that seemed to leave the audience slightly baffled, if not outright offended.

The actual references to Franklin in the meandering, self-aggrandizing speech were almost nonexistent, despite Madonna’s opening proclamation that “Aretha Franklin changed my life.”

What followed, though, was a rambling anecdote about being an aspiring star (complete with an aside about “getting robbed, held at gunpoint, and being mistaken for a prostitute in my third-floor walk-up that was a crack house”) that only came back around to Franklin as Madonna described (in a weird Russian accent) an early audition in which she wowed a couple of French auditors by singing “Natural Woman.” You can get a feel for the rambling nature of her speech below:

“None of this would have happened, could have happened, without our lady of soul,” Madonna eventually said, seeming to suddenly recall why she was there as an image of a young Aretha Franklin loomed behind her in silent judgment.

While the audience at Radio City Music Hall seemed nonplussed, the audience watching from home was merciless:

And though Madonna tried, in her speech, to lampshade the cringeworthy elements of a white woman claiming Aretha as her own — “Some skinny-ass white girl is going to come up here and belt out a song from one of the greatest soul singers who ever lived?” she asked rhetorically, before saying she did just that because “bitch, I’m Madonna” — Twitter wasn’t having it.

It’s easy to see why in theory, the VMAs thought Madonna was right for the job; she is, after all, known for what is perhaps the VMAs’ all-time greatest performance. The Queen of the VMAs paying tribute to the Queen of Soul at the VMAs? Sure, it could have worked — but only if Madonna had found a better way to, ahem, express herself.

Update: In an Instagram post Tuesday, Madonna responded to the backlash by explaining that the VMAs had not invited her to expressly deliver a tribute to Franklin, but rather to share any personal anecdotes related to her while giving out the award for Video of the Year. “I did not intend to do a tribute to her!” she stated. “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.”