When it was announced that Aretha Franklin, who died last Thursday, would be honored at Monday’s MTV Video Music Awards, it seemed like only one artist already scheduled to appear at the ceremony was suitable for the job. No, it wasn’t Post Malone, or Shawn Mendes, or Cardi B. It seemed like only the queen of pop, Madonna — who, like Franklin, was raised in Detroit, and whose milestone 60th birthday took place on the day Franklin died, Aug. 16 — could do the Queen of Soul justice.
Standing onstage at New York’s Radio City Music Hall — where Madonna famously opened the first VMAs ceremony in 1984, in a peek-a-boo wedding dress — Madonna started by sharing an anecdote about how “Aretha Louise Franklin changed the course of [her] life” early in her career. She reminisced about attending an important audition and making a last-minute, risky decision to sing one of Franklin’s biggest hits, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” sans accompaniment, then said: “You are probably all wondering why I am telling you this story. There is a reason. 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.”
The problem was, Madonna’s audition anecdote consumed her entire cheeky speech. While it seemed to go over well, for the most part, with the Radio City audience — especially with Camila Cabello, who, when Madonna presented her with the Video of the Year award a few moments later for “Havana,” spent much of her own speech fangirling over Madonna — the internet was not as amused. Many tweeters angrily complained that Madonna had made the “tribute” all about herself, not about Aretha.
This was not the first time that an awards night tribute by Madonna sparked a backlash on Twitter. When she performed in honor of Prince at the 2016 Billboard Music Awards, many detractors, including BET, shaded her brutally.
Read Madonna’s entire Aretha Franklin speech below and decide for yourself:
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 of 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? 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 walkup 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… you make me feel like an actual woman.” Two French guys nodded at me. I said, “You know, by Aretha Franklin.” They looked over at the pianist. [I said] “I don’t need sheet music, I know every word. I know the song. I will sing it a cappella.” I could see that they did not take me seriously. And why should they? Some skinny-ass 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, “Bitch, I’m Madonna.” No, I didn’t. Just kidding. I wasn’t “Madonna” yet. I don’t know who I was. I don’t know what came over me.
I walked over and started. When I was finished, I was drenched in nerve sweat. You know that nerve sweat? They said, “We will call you one day, maybe soon.” Weeks went by. No phone call. Finally, the phone rang. It was one of the producers: “We don’t think you are right for this job.” “Why are you calling me?” He replied, “We think you have great potential. You are rough around the edges. We want to bring you to Paris and make you a star. We will put you in a studio, with the great Giorgio Moroder.” I had no idea who that was, but 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. I wanted to write my own songs and be a musician, not a puppet. I needed to go home and learn guitar. That is what I did. And the rest is history.
So, you are probably all wondering why I am telling you this story. There is a reason, 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.