The pop icon, whose tenuous connection with the legendary soul singer is that they both grew up in Detroit, referred to Franklin as a “queen” who “changed the course” of her life, as she recalled singing (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman at an early audition.
Describing her adolescence in Detroit, Madonna said that auditioning for musical theatre meant an escape from “getting robbed, held at gunpoint and being mistaken for a prostitute in my third floor walk-up that was also a crack house.”
She remembered an incident in which she auditioned to sing backup for a French disco artist, and deciding to sing famous Franklin tracks to get the job. She recalled: “One of my favourite 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, ‘Mmm-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 cappella.’
She continued, “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---- 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.”
Continuing the long-winded anecdote, Madonna went on to say that she booked the job but eventually quit, as she wanted to write her own songs and not “[be] a puppet.” Finally appearing to remember who she was originally speaking about, she added: “None of this would 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.”
The singer then relayed an entirely unrelated anecdote about singing Like a Virgin at the MTV VMAs in 1984, before introducing the Best Video of the Year category.
The speech led to immediate backlash online, critics condemning both the fact that Madonna appeared to have been chosen to give the tribute in the first place, along with her own need to position herself at the heart of it.
“Madonna made Aretha Franklin’s death about herself and her own musical journey, and honestly, this is some of the whitest s--- I have ever seen,” tweeted Bitch Media editor in chief Evette Dionne, while US radio host Charlamagne the God joked, “I thought Madonna was supposed to be paying homage to Aretha but I all heard was her paying homage to herself. Heavy on the Mayonnaise…”
As a lifelong Madonna fan it pains me to say this...but this is what happens when you don't have anyone in your life who tells you that you shouldn't do something or tells you that you're acting out of control.— Yashar Ali �� (@yashar) August 21, 2018
What a touching tribute to Aretha Franklin where Madonna talked about her goddam self for like 30 mins— KFC (@KFCBarstool) August 21, 2018
Madonna talking about guitar lessons, Paris baguettes and her ass hanging out while she looked for a stiletto with the image of Aretha Franklin behind her is everything I expected from the #VMAs— Kingsley (@kingsleyyy) August 21, 2018
does Madonna know Madonna didn’t die— Katie Nolan (@katienolan) August 21, 2018
Others, including Madonna fans, expressed disappointment in her choice of words. “As a lifelong Madonna fan it pains me to say this,” wrote New York Magazine journalist Yashar Ali, “but this is what happens when you don’t have anyone in your life who tells you that you shouldn’t do something or tells you that you’re acting out of control.”
Many also criticised her decision to talk about “crack-houses”, guns and prostitution while apparently paying tribute to a black artist, with journalist and internet personality Tora Shae joking in a tweet: “Aretha’s music inspired me to sing my way out of a crackhouse where I got mistaken for a prostitution-whore – I know all you blacks can understand.”
While Madonna has yet to comment on the controversy, the tribute was true to form for the star. In 2009, she faced similar backlash for peppering a tribute speech to Michael Jackson at the MTV Video Music Awards with references to herself, declaring: “Michael Jackson was born in August 1958. So was I. Michael Jackson grew up in the suburbs of the Midwest. So did I. Michael Jackson had eight brothers and sisters. So do I… I never had a mother, but he never had a childhood.”
“When I first heard that Michael had died, I was in London, days away from the start of my tour,” she later added. “Michael was going to perform in the same venue as me a week later. All I could think about in this moment was, ‘I had abandoned him.’”
She also faced criticism in 2016 for being selected to perform a tribute to Prince at the Billboard Music Awards. The pair had a famously combative relationship despite working together in the Eighties, while observers criticised the ceremony for recruiting a white woman to honour one of pop’s most groundbreaking black artists.
In response, Madonna posted to Instagram: “Anyone who wants to do a tribute to Prince is welcome to,” she wrote. “Whatever your age, gender or skin colour. If you loved him and he inspired you then show it!!!! I love Prince 4-ever.” She then posted a video in which she is seen dancing, adding the caption: “This is my ‘I’m not your b---- don't hang your s--- on me’ dance.”