It wasn’t going to be easy for the MTV Video Music Awards to top the Aretha Franklin tribute from Ariana Grande and The Roots on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show last week, but after they promised something “big” it seemed like something truly special might be coming. It was not.
Toward the very end of the two and half hour VMAs, Madonna—who turned 60 on the same day Franklin passed—took the stage to, presumably, speak about what the Queen of Soul meant to her. Instead, she spent several minutes telling the audience a rambling anecdote about her early career that seemed barely related to Franklin at all.
With a large photo of Franklin behind her, the fellow Detroit native began by explaining how the singer “changed” her life. She told the story of auditioning for a job to be a backup singer and dancer and performing “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman” a cappella, because she couldn’t read sheet music.
“I could see that they did not take me seriously, and why should they?” Madonna said of the music producers running the audition. “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, a capella?”
“I said, ‘Bitch, I’m Madonna,’” she told the crowd at Radio City Music Hall to loud cheers. “No, I didn’t,” she added. “I wasn’t Madonna yet. I don’t know who I was.”
Minutes later, Madonna was still talking about how that audition led her to the massive career she eventually had, seeming to forget that she was supposed to be paying tribute to Franklin. Eventually, she brought it back around, but really, it was too late.
“None of this would have happened, could have happened, without our lady of soul,” Madonna said, referring to her own career. “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.”
With that, she moved on to talk about her first performance at the 1984 VMAs of “Like a Virgin” before presenting the Video of the Year award to Camila Cabello.
Viewers, who had been waiting for a real tribute to Aretha Franklin, were understandably baffled. Summing up the general consensus, Charlamagne tha God tweeted, “I thought Madonna was supposed to be paying homage to Aretha but I all heard was her paying homage to herself.”
Madonna received some similar backlash when she was tasked with paying tribute to Prince at the 2016 Billboard Music Awards. But at least then she deigned to actually sing his songs.