When it was first announced that Madonna would be the sole performer paying tribute to the late Prince at this year’s Billboard Music Awards, many naysayers balked. Some haters even launched a grassroots petition demanding that she share her stage time with Prince’s entourage members, like Sheila E. or the Time, or with worthy successors like Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, and the Weeknd. However, a solid argument could be made for why the Material Girl was an appropriate artist to lead the BBMAs’ homage to the Purple One. Madonna and Prince were peers, collaborators, and, according to some reports, perhaps even more than that. In 1989, the two dueted on “Love Song,” a track they co-wrote for Like a Prayer (her fourth album, which also featured Prince’s guitar work on three cuts). While the two famously feuded later on, they reportedly made up in recent years, and regardless, their careers were always in parallel. No pop provocateurs ever genre-hopped or pushed sexual boundaries as fiercely or fearlessly as these two MTV icons – both born in 1958 – did in the 1980s, 1990s, and beyond.
Perhaps it was these artists’ overlapping discographies of overtly lovesexy material that had some detractors worried that Madonna’s show-closing BBMAs tribute would be some sort of shamelessly R-rated spectacle. Maybe Madonna would appear in butt-baring yellow chaps or a “Controversy”-era leather thong. Maybe she’d sing “Darling Nikki,” or mash up her own “Erotica” with “Erotic City.” That, obviously, would have been ill-advised. But instead, Madonna gave a tasteful, gimmick-free, uncharacteristically subdued performance that demonstrated great respect for her old friend’s legacy.
Wearing a Wendy- and/or Lisa-worthy ruffled lavender suit and sitting quietly on a revolving purple throne, Madonna was visibly trembling, her eyes already watering, as the number began. It was a rare nervous moment from this usually unflappable consummate professional, the sort of performer who can take an offstage tumble at the BRIT Awards and hop right back up. Also surprising was Madonna’s song choice: “Nothing Compares 2 U,” a Prince-penned ballad primarily associated with Sinead O’Connor, who scored a massive hit with it in 1990. Backed by an orchestra and video screens showing funeral scenes, white doves, and iconic photos of Prince himself, Madonna warbled the tear-jerking classic simply and straightforwardly.
For those still not satisfied by Madonna’s tribute (and there were some disgruntled rumblings on Twitter), it turned out she wasn’t the only artist to take part. Surprise guest Stevie Wonder emerged towards the end to lead a glorious audience singalong of “Purple Rain,” and Questlove, at Madonna’s request, introduced the performance with a heartfelt speech.
“On April 21st, we lost Prince. I say ‘we,’ because it affects us all, and no matter what kind of music we make, no matter how long we have made it, no matter our race, our color, our creed, our sexual orientation – all of us live in the land of music. And his departure from it was an earthquake,” said Questlove. “But his departure leaves behind so much work still to do. And we can follow the trails he blazed. We can follow his example. We can be fierce. We can be uncompromising. We can be experimental. We can also listen to all of the songs that he left for us. He was very generous in that regard. And as we move forward, we will encounter, every single day, more reasons to remember him.” Questlove’s words were followed by a moment of silence that filled Las Vegas’s usually boisterous T-Mobile Arena.
Earlier in the night, the above-mentioned Weeknd, who was the night’s big winner with eight awards, mentioned Prince in his first of several acceptance speeches. “I want to dedicate this award to the late, great Prince. Rest in peace. I was told not long ago that his last TV appearance, he had given me an award, and that was the greatest experience of my entire life,” he said, referring to last year’s BBMAs ceremony, at which Prince was a surprise presenter. “And I love him so much. I don’t know him, but he was very close to me, and he will always be an inspiration. And of course, helped me push the envelope forever – and every artist, I hope. Rest in peace, Prince. Thank you, I love you.”