Because it would have been a scandal if Madonna sang. And it sounded like Madonna herself knew that. In the speech she gave instead, she foregrounded the late ’70s and early ’80s period when her desire to be an entertainer ran up against obstacles such as the fact that she didn’t have the octave range that other singers had. Today, the notion that she’s a limited vocalist is one of the great clichés surrounding Madonna’s career, and she hasn’t shied away from it. “I know I’m not the best singer and I know I’m not the best dancer, but I’m not interested in that,” she once said. “I’m interested in pushing people’s buttons, in being provocative and in being political.”
Franklin, by contrast, did pride herself on being the best singer. Of the relatively few controversies she kicked up over the course of her life, many came from her defending her title as Queen of Soul on the merits of her vocal ability. And, of course, she was more than just a singer: She was an all-around cultural, political, and religious leader of lasting and deep influence. Paying adequate tribute to her is going to be difficult for anyone, and it’s certainly conceivable that the Queen of Pop—someone without Franklin’s singing power but with plenty of ingenuity and significance—might have some role to play in the mourning. But as the first big televised memorial? After Madonna famously and clumsily took a crack at honoring Prince, another vocally distinctive black icon? Just … Couldn’t we find someone else?
Probably. But the truth is that an event like the VMAs is one ruled by expediencies. Perhaps the producers looked down the list of people they’d already booked, remembered that Madonna’s the Queen of Pop, and figured they could ask her to do something on behalf of the Queen of Soul. And if she wasn’t going to sing, what could she do? Speak.
Her speech could have been fine, or even excellent. But instead the “tribute” mythologized Madonna way more than it did Franklin. The story she told centered around her own audition, decades ago, to sing backup for the French artist Patrick Hernandez. At the time, Madonna was living in Detroit—the city Franklin loved most—where she was poor, scared, and repeatedly mistaken for a prostitute, she said. She met up with the talent scouts, but hadn’t prepared a song to sing, and in a panic chose a personal favorite, Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Weeks later, the scouts called her and told her she wasn’t right for their gig, but that they had another one for her. That call led to a few months in Paris working with the producer Giorgio Moroder, after which she came back because she “wanted to write [her] own songs and be a musician, not a puppet.”
The point of the anecdote was that Madonna loved Franklin’s songs and drew upon them in a time of need. The take-home message: “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!” As bottom lines go, it’s a heartfelt and true one—but it had been preceded by a lengthy and overly detailed story about a weird time when Madonna was trying and failing to become famous.