Madonna's Aretha Franklin Tribute at the VMAs Was Actually Just a Tribute to Herself
On August 20, Madonna took the 2018 MTV VMAs stage to give a tribute to Aretha Franklin, beloved soul singer who had a dazzling 60+ year career before she passed away from cancer on August 16. There was plenty of Aretha’s life to talk about during the tribute, but mostly, Madonna talked about herself.
For some people, Aretha Franklin’s death signified the loss of a musical icon. For black women like myself, she felt like a family member who came to every family function. She made songs that were passed down from generation to generation, played during Saturday morning clean ups, and provided an education on love, womanhood, and respect. In a time where black women were beginning to demand their own liberation, Aretha affirmed us: not just to the family or the outside world, but to ourselves. When she passed, we felt it.
In the four days between Franklin’s death and the MTV VMAs, every mainstream media outlet covered the loss, including MTV. There were talks of funeral processions and possible tributes at the VMAs, and my friends and I were excited. They cared enough to talk about “Auntie Retha’s” death at length — surely they’d honor her with something amazing.
Late in the show, the time finally came. The tribute started with a clip of Aretha, singing “Say a Little Prayer For You.” Then, the camera cut to Madonna, wearing an outfit that seemed to indicate she’d visited a cultural market and picked up every artisanal piece she saw — a large, heavy necklace, a headpiece, and a dramatic robe. With a picture of Aretha displayed behind her, she began her tribute. She talked about moving away from Detroit at the age of 18 and going out to chase her dreams. She talked about being rejected from auditions, getting guitar lessons, and auditioning for French entertainers. She briefly mentioned Aretha — apparently, Madonna sang an Aretha song for the audition that got her discovered. She thanked Aretha for that, and continued talking about herself.
It was a tribute to Madonna, by Madonna.
My phone started blowing up — everyone was texting me the same thing. What the hell was happening and why was Madonna talking about herself? Where was the tribute? We knew there was no Fantasia or Kelly Price coming to belt the sounds of “A Natural Woman” or “Rock Steady,”but surely the tribute would be more than this, right?
The more I listened to Madonna talk, the more I heard a narrative of a black woman’s success used as a pillar of white achievement. Madonna spoke of Aretha’s music, the music I’d grown up listening to, as an extension of her own mythology. Instead of honoring the contributions and influence that the ‘Queen of Soul’ gave to an entire genre of music, she shrunk Aretha down to simply being a black woman who helped her get a start.
While watching, I couldn’t help but think back on a similar moment during the 2018 Golden Globe Awards that took place earlier this year, when female actors wore black gowns as a nod to #MeToo. Many white actors brought women of color, many of them activists, as their dates. Michelle Williams brought #MeToo founder Tarana Burke, for example. Emma Watson brough Marai Larasi, director of Imkaan, a UK-based organization dedicated to addressing violence against black women and girls. The sentiment on this red carpet was pure, but somehow, the women of color in attendance felt like they were props. As white women received praise for “using their voice,” the women of color (even Tarana Burke, who started the movement) simply acted as support for that message.
What happened on the Golden Globes red carpet is hardly as galling as Madonna’s tribute to Aretha at the MTV VMAs, but the message is similar: For white women, the work of black women is something they use on their journey to self-actualization and awareness, but rarely do they step off their own platform and give that work the credit it deserves.
Moments after Madonna’s speech ended, the final award of the night was presented. As the credits began to roll, I heard Aretha’s “Respect” playing over the speakers in the auditorium as people got up from their seats to exit.
“R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” Aretha sang. Somehow, though, it felt like exactly the opposite.