Madonna Responds To Backlash Over Aretha Franklin Tribute – “People Are So Quick To Judge”
Last week, the world lost Aretha Franklin to pancreatic cancer. Soon after the tragic loss of an icon, it was rumored that the MTV VMAs would be honoring Aretha in some way. On Monday night, fans sat through the MTV Video Music Awards awaiting a possible tribute to the Queen of Soul. What they got was not at all what they were anticipating.
Instead of a beautiful montage or a medley of songs performed by other soulful singers, MTV enlisted pop icon Madonna to say a few words before presenting the Video of the Year award.
Madonna stood on stage and spoke about her humble beginnings, leaving Detroit, living in crack houses and eventually auditioning for a couple of men from Paris. She refers to herself as a “skinny-ass white girl” who “is going to come out here and sing a song by one of the soul singers that ever lived” and went on to explain that she sang “Natural Woman” by Aretha Franklin. She did not land the audition she wanted, but says that the two men from Paris saw something in her and found other ways to make her a star. She concluded her walk down memory lane by saying that she wouldn’t be where she was today without Aretha.
Following Madonna’s tribute, social media went wild. The pop star was criticized for appearing self-serving, and making the tribute more about her than about the late soul singer. Madonna took to Instagram to defend herself, saying that it would have been impossible to give Aretha a great tribute in 2 minutes and that people are quick to judge. She wrote,
“I was asked to present video of the year by MTV! And then they asked me to share any anecdotes I had in my career connected to Aretha Franklin! I shared a part of my journey and thanked Aretha for inspiring me along the way. I did not intend to do a tribute to her! 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. Unfortunately most people have short attention spans, and are so quick to judge. I love Aretha! R.E.S.P.E.C.T. “
Read Madonna’s full VMA speech below:
Aretha Louise Franklin changed the course of my life. I left Detroit when I was 18. $35 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 of ever becoming a singer, but I went for it. I got cut, and rejected from every audition. Not tall enough. Not blends-in enough, not twelve-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?” The worst that can happen is 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.
So I showed up for 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 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, “Mmmhmm.” 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.”
I could see that they did not take me seriously. And why should they? Some skinny-a– white girl is going to come up here and belt out a song by one of the greatest soul singers that ever lived? A cappella? I said, ‘B-tch, 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. I walked to the edge of the pitch-black stage, and I started singing.
When I was finished and drenched in nerve sweat. Y’all know what this is, right, nerve sweat? They said, “We will call you one day, and maybe soon.”
So weeks went by, and no phone call. Finally, the phone rang, and it was one of the producers, saying, [French accent] “We don’t think you are right for this job.” I’m like, ‘Why are you calling me?’ He replied, “We think you have great potentials. You are rough for the edges, but there is good rawness. We want to bring you to Paris and make you a star.”
We will put you in a studio…it sounded good, and I wanted to live in Paris, and also 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 luxury life I was living. It felt wrong. They were good people. But I wanted to write my own songs and be a musician, not a puppet. I needed to go back home and learn to play guitar, and that is 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 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.
Another anecdote I would like to share: In 1984, this is where the first VMAs were, in this very building. I performed at this show. I sang “Like a Virgin” at the top of a cake. On the way down, I lost a shoe, and then I was rolling on the floor. I tried to make it look like it was part of the choreography, looking for the missing stiletto. And my dress flew up and my butt was exposed, and oh my God, quelle horreur. After the show, my manager said my career was over.
So I would now like to present the nominees for the video of the year.