Graham: Madonna blasted for self-centered Aretha Franklin tribute

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Madonna probably didn't see her Aretha Franklin tribute going down like this. 

Or maybe she did. It's hard to know what the Queen of Pop was thinking when she decided to pay tribute to the Queen of Soul by telling a rambling, meandering story about her own entry into the music business at Monday night's MTV Video Music Awards. 

Here's the short version: During an early audition, a young, broke Madonna sang Aretha Franklin's "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman." She didn't get the gig, but eventually she became a superstar. That's it.

In Madonna's mind, it was the ultimate tribute: Had she not sung the Aretha song, her career would have never happened. But what Madonna — who was dressed in all black and wearing heaps of African jewelry, along with a spiked headpiece — forgot to do was actually talk about Aretha Franklin, who she was, where she came from, what she meant, why she matters, other than that one of her songs helped Madonna become Madonna.

Read more: Madonna responds to criticism: VMA words 'never meant to be a tribute to Aretha'

The online backlash was swift. Critics blasted Madonna's self-absorbed "tribute," citing it for being all about herself. Said Entertainment Weekly's Marc Snetiker on Twitter: "Madonna presents an Aretha Franklin tribute by Madonna featuring Madonna with Madonna and Madonna as ‘Madonna’.” 

The other major flaw in Madonna's story was that the way she told it, she could have sang any song that day, but she happened to know "Natural Woman" by heart so she sang that, and voila. That was the only connective tissue to Franklin. Had Madonna sang, say, Tom Jones' "She's a Lady" and still become Madonna, 98 percent of her speech would have been the same, just sub out the artist and song.

Madonna's been here before. She also led a tribute to Prince at the Billboard Music Awards in 2016, after which many wondered if she was the most appropriate artist to do so, and in 2009 she appeared at the VMAs and honored Michael Jackson. Her speech began like so: "Michael Jackson was born in August 1958. So was I."

Where Madonna did succeed was in creating controversy and getting people to talk about her; it's been several years since the VMAs has created a moment quite as buzzy. Madonna has a long history of creating those types of moments at the MTV show — which, surprise, she also touched on in her speech — so in that way, she was a success. Score another one for Madonna. The difference this time is that the chatter is at her expense, which is probably not the way she planned it.  

Franklin never had much of a presence on MTV or at the VMAs, so the tribute was a bit of a surprise anyway. Until Madonna's appearance, there were slight touches of Franklin in the show: "Respect" was played coming out of one commercial break, and Travis Scott shouted "Rest in Peace to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin!" at the end of his performance. "Respect" was again played over the show's closing credits.

As the first major awards show following her death, there had to be some acknowledgment of Franklin and what she meant to the music industry and to the world at large. There will be better, more fulfilling tributes to come. Just don't expect Madonna to be a part of them.

Twitter: @grahamorama