VMAs 2018: Madonna's Aretha Franklin story falls short of internet's 'emotional tribute' standards

Christopher Hooton

The main talking point from Monday night’s MTV Video Music Awards was not, as usual, the awards themselves, which serve merely as the substrate for what everyone’s really tuning in for. It’s the viral moments – be they GIF-ready hints of side-eye, or outrageous red carpet “lewks” – which sustain the viewership.

It was not the actual Video of the Year award that sent Twitter into apoplexy. No, it was the mere introduction to it, a meandering and navel-gazing tribute to the late Aretha Franklin from Madonna.

Franklin had died just four days prior to the ceremony, so Madonna had clearly scrambled to rewrite her intro speech, commemorating at length the time she belted out Franklin’s iconic ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’ for two unimpressed French record producers at the start of her career.

It's the sheer length of the speech that has brought down the ire of the internet, coupled with its personal and self-serving slant, which many have found insufficiently respectful if not plain racist.

Vox described her words as “rambling”, “awkward” and complete with a “weird Russian accent”. On Twitter, that reliable medium of uproar, they “summed up how the VMAs treat black artists” for journalist Ernest Owens. One viewer, meanwhile, declared that “our beautiful black queen deserves better”, with another hoping for a public apology from MTV for “allowing Madonna to disrespect Aretha Franklin’s legacy like that”.

Madonna’s speech (full transcript below) was too long, and too granular in its detail. When it reached a sassy “Bitch, I’m Madonna” line, we were all provided with a medium-to-large cringe. But her heart was probably in the right place. By remembering a specific moment when Franklin inspired her to summon inner strength, she was presumably trying to avoid platitudes about Franklin’s talent and legacy by offering something more personal.

“None of this would have happened, could have happened, without our lady of soul,” Madonna concluded. “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.”

The speech may have felt harmless when Madonna wrote it, but she underestimated the demand and expectation surrounding modern eulogies. With every celebrity death (even if not tragically premature and simply the natural ending to a long life), the bar is raised higher, and nothing short of abject sorrow, along with a proportionate hagiography, is expected for the dead. We live in an age where every inspirational female figure is crowned as a “queen”, and Twitter, the hardest taskmistress of them all, demands they be revered as such.

Madonna’s ‘Video of the Year’ award introduction in full:

“Aretha Louise Franklin changed the course of my life. I left Detroit when I was 18. 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 theater. I heard the pay was better. I had no training or dreams ever ever becoming a singer, but I went for it.

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, enough. And then one day, a French disco sensation was looking for backup singers and dancers for his world tour. I thought, ‘Why not? I could go back to getting robbed, held at gunpoint, and being mistaken for a prostitute in my third floor walk-up that was also a crack house.’ That’s right, I’m a rebel heart.

So I showed up to the audition, and two very large French record producers sat in the empty theater, 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. Fortunately, one of my favorite 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.” Again, mm-hmm. 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 capella. I could see that they didn’t take me seriously, and why should they? Some skinny-ass while girl is going to come up here and belt out a song by one of the greatest soul singers who ever lived? A capella? I said, ‘Bitch, I’m Madonna.’ No, I didn’t. I didn’t say that. Because I wasn’t Madonna yet. I don’t know who I was.

I don’t know I said. I don’t know what came over me. I walked to the edge of the pitch black stage, and started singing. When I was finished and drenched in nerve sweat. You know what that is, right nerve sweat? They said, ‘We will call you one day, maybe soon.’ Weeks went by and no phone call. Finally, the phone rang, it was one of the producers, saying. ‘We don’t think you are right for this job.’ I’m like, ‘Motherfucker, why are you calling me?’ He replied, ‘We think you have great potential. You are rough around the edges, but there is good rawness. We want to bring you to Paris and make you a star. Well, we will put you in a studio, with the great Giorgio Moroder.’ And I had no idea who that was, and I wanted to live in Paris and I wanted to eat some food.

So, that was the beginning of my journey as a singer. I left for Paris, but I came back a few months later. Because I had not earned the life I was living. It felt wrong. They were good people, but wanted to write my own songs and be a musician, not a puppet. I needed to go home and learn to play guitar, and that’s exactly what I did. And the rest is history.

So. You are probably all wondering why I am telling you this story. There is a connection, because none of this would have happened, could have happened, without our lady of soul. She lead 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.

Another anecdote I would like to share: In 1984, this is where the first VMAs were, in this very building. And I performed at this show. I sang “Like a Virgin” at the top of a cake. And on my way down, I lost a shoe, and I was rolling on the floor and trying to make it look like it was part of the choreography, looking for the missing stilleto, and my dress flew up, and my butt was exposed, and oh my God, quelle horror. After the show, my manager said my career was over. LOL. So. I would now like to present the nominees for the video of the year.”