What’s a tribute, anyway? Sunday night’s Billboard Music Awards, the most soul-crushingly cynical of the soul-crushingly cynical music-awards shows, encouraged viewers to take an expansive definition of the word. Britney Spears’s opening set, where she determinedly walked through a medley of her hits and deep cuts, felt like nothing so much as a tribute to her past relevance. Kesha’s powerful version of “It Ain’t Me Babe” was less an homage to Bob Dylan than to her times as a more carefree pop star. Celine Dion doing Queen’s “The Show Must Go On” was an act of personal, public mourning.
But the most divisive performance of the night was the only memorial that was really billed as such—Madonna’s pitchy but pious rendition of “Nothing Compares 2 U” and “Purple Rain” with Stevie Wonder. The performance was, at its most basic level, a tribute to Prince, but like so much of the evening it felt like a statement of futility: Something’s gone forever, and the only, imperfect thing to do is sing about it.
That BET was so quickly able to advertise its forthcoming Prince tribute by bashing the Madonna one that had just aired (“Yeah, we saw that. Don’t worry. We got you.”) was a sign of how opinions around her performance had formed before it began. Madonna and Prince were peers on the charts, gained popularity in part through transgression, and had a real but complicated—and at times bitter—relationship. So it makes sense that she’d memorialize him at some point, somewhere, and an awards show where nominations are largely determined by record sales is, as these things go, a pretty low-stakes venue. But while he always was able to seem like a genuine freak, she has never been able to escape the impression of trying very hard for attention, and as a musician her strengths are very different from what his were. The fears of a catastrophe, something that tried to eclipse Prince’s achievements with Madonna’s antics, were high.