A History of Madonna’s Questionable Icon Tributes

"I did not intend to do a tribute to her!"

When a music legend dies, it is customary to honour their achievements, glory and influence at an industry awards show. In this setting, the deceased musician is celebrated on stage in a room of their peers—and with millions of people watching from their couches at home. Usually, they tap a living icon to commemorate the dearly departed one. And usually, there are mixed opinions on whether or not the person tapped was worthy of the job.

Such is the case for the frequently-tapped, living icon Madonna, “Queen of Pop.” She’s paid her televised respects to the “King of Pop,” the “The Prince of Funk” and most recently, “The Queen of Soul.” The reactions to each of these tributes have been, well, mixed—at best.

 Aretha Franklin, 2018 VMAs

THE PERFORMANCE: In a final bit of last night’s Video Music Awards, Madonna took to the stage to hand out the Best Video of the Year award. But first, she stood in front of a projection of the late Aretha Franklin to talk about how the Queen of Soul influenced the career of Madonna. Well, briefly. Her extremely detailed, surreally long anecdote mentioned how Madonna auditioned with Franklin’s song “Natural Woman” at the very beginning of her singing career.

“Why not?,” Madonna recalled of her last minute song choice, despite being a “skinny-ass white girl.” She continues, “the worst that could happen is, I can go back to getting robbed, held at gunpoint, and being mistaken for a prostitute in my third-floor walk-up that was also a crackhouse.”

Then there’s a whole bit with baguettes, French accents and an aside story where her butt made an appearance during her first VMA performance. Like we said, surreally long. And then, after talking about her own career for what felt like 30 minutes, Madonna circled back to the Queen of Soul as the end, saying: “None of this would’ve happened, could’ve 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!”


MADONNA’S RESPONSE: “I was asked to present video of the year by MTV,” Madge wrote on Instagram. “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 two 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.”

Prince, 2016 Billboard Music Awards

THE PERFORMANCE: On Sunday, May 22, 2016, Madonna saluted her collaborator and friend Prince with a two-song performance at the Billboard Music Awards. For her tribute, she performed “Nothing Compares 2 U” and “Purple Rain,” which included a surprise appearance from Stevie Wonder.


MADONNA’S RESPONSE: “Anyone who wants to do a tribute to Prince is welcome to,” she wrote on Instagram. “Whatever your age Gender or skin Color. If you loved him and he inspired you then show it!!!! I love Prince 4 ever.”

Michael Jackson, 2009 VMAs

THE PERFORMANCE: Less than three months after Michael Jackson’s death, Madonna opened the MTV Video Music Awards with a long-winded, personal speech lamenting the parallels in their upbringings, MJ’s lack of childhood and a date they shared in 1991. “How do you re-create your childhood when you are under the magnifying glass of the world for your entire life?” she asked. “There is no question Michael Jackson was one of the greatest talents the world has ever known.”

THE REACTION: This performance pre-dated angry Twitter, but here’s what we do know about the response to the somewhat self-indulgent tribute: the Jackson family stood up, and the whole audience cried. This, of course, hasn’t stopped people from reacting to the speech nearly a decade later. It’s never too late to outrage!


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