In a move that screamed “walking Onion headline,” Madonna told what appeared to be an improvised story about her pre-fame years in front of a giant picture of Aretha Franklin during the Video Music Awards. “Aretha Louise Franklin changed the course of my life,” she began, wearing the Berber drag she’s been rocking lately, during what was clearly intended as the night’s tribute moment to the Queen of Soul, who died last week. Madonna’s focus, though, stayed on her own life—not Franklin’s—for the next seven minutes.
The story she told began as she was auditioning as a backup singer for a “French disco sensation” when she was 18, included her French mimicking accents, and only tangentially touched on Franklin (Madonna sang an impromptu version of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at the audition). Over the course of the story, Madonna said “Aretha” four times; she said “I” or “me” over 50 times. Says it all.
The story ended with a generic, impersonal tribute that sounded like something someone would tweet if they’d merely been aware of, but never much cared for, Aretha Franklin but nonetheless wanted to add their voice into the mix: “She led me to where I am today. And I know she influenced so many people... 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.” I think maybe we were supposed to be impressed that the Queen of Pop conceded that there was a queen higher than her—one who could be referred to as merely “the queen.” But maybe I’m giving Madonna too much credit there.
Then Madonna told another anecdote about performing “Like a Virgin” at the VMAs in 1984 and rolling around on the stage in a wedding dress. “After the show, my manager said my career was over,” she recalled. “LOL. Hey.” Please, stop while you still have one! Good night, Madonna!