Music

COMMENTARY

Madonna didn’t do right by Aretha. Time to say a little prayer for the VMAs

Madonna speaks onstage during the 2018 MTV Video Music Awards at Radio City Music Hall on Monday in New York City.
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for MTV
Madonna speaks onstage during the 2018 MTV Video Music Awards at Radio City Music Hall on Monday in New York City.

Aretha Franklin deserved her propers, MTV.

I get it. MTV has always been a platform for pop music. The Video Music Awards is a lot of fun and fake things but rarely soulful.

But if you’re going to pay tribute to the Queen of Soul, put some respect on her name.

Advertisement

What Madonna did? She gave us a few minutes of self-love while wearing a Hotep Halloween costume. She propped herself up at Aretha’s expense.

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

When Travis Scott’s one-line dedication to Aretha Franklin at the end of his electrifying medley of “Astroworld” hits is the most genuine dedication of the night, it’s clear we need to say a little prayer for MTV.

Madonna is an icon. I never question her presence on any musical stage. But this was disrespectful. More than that, it’s offensive. Think. Seeing a white woman center herself in a tribute to a black woman, Franklin at that, tosses a whole can of Morton’s salt into the wound.

MTV, do better. Or just throw the whole VMAs away because who you pick and choose to award reveals a chain of foolery anyway. (I’m going to let you finish, Camila Cabello, but Cardi B is the artist of the year, period.)

Madonna couldn’t even dedicate an entire response on her tribute to Aretha to her tribute to Aretha. On a photo of her and Camila Cabello posted Tuesday, Madonna starts off praising Camila and then detours to defending herself, writing, “I was asked to present video of the year by MTV! 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!”

Advertisement

She then sends love to her dress. Alright.

I used to love Madonna for not being a do right woman, for following her own rules. But she’s familiar with being a problematic fave. She equated herself to Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. She called her son Rocco, who is white, the N-word. She claimed it as a “term of endearment.” Not for you, Madge.

I get why MTV called on her in 2009 to pay tribute to Michael Jackson. Janet Jackson was performing, and Madonna’s speech seemed right considering that she, Jackson, and Prince were MTV’s original royal court.

She did not have those ties with Franklin. Madonna reduced a legacy into empty sentences in her world. (“Some skinny-ass white girl is going to come up here and belt out a song by one of the greatest soul singers that ever lived?” Madonna recalled of the reaction at one of her auditions when she sang Aretha.) We deserved something we could feel.

This is MTV, home of “Randy Jackson’s America’s Best Dance Crew.” Franklin’s “Rock Steady” is only a classic to b-boys and b-girls across the world.

Advertisement

DJ Khaled couldn’t spin the track while the Jabbawockeez gave us that wild style?

Sherrie Silver, the genius behind Childish Gambino’s “This is America” choreography, accepted his awards for the evening. You think she couldn’t have done a dance tribute set to “Think” or “Respect”? Teyana Taylor was in the audience. You think she couldn’t have flipped that?

It was the MTV VMAs. Musicians were there — people who loved Franklin, worked with her, and understand how what they do is because of her.

Lenny Kravitz was right there, y’all. His tweet about Aretha, who was like an aunt to him, whom he performed with, was more meaningful than what Madonna did. Rather than have him introduce Post Malone and 21 Savage, he could have done a guitar medley of Aretha Franklin’s hits. He would have plucked those strings into the heavens for our grand diva. Even a speech by Kravitz would have had more love than Madonna fake fandom.

Ariana Grande is not the first person who comes to mind when you think about Aretha Franklin. But last Thursday, the day Franklin passed, Grande was scheduled to perform on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” She sang Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” I would have taken it all over again rather than Madonna’s self-aggrandizing speech.

Grande could have worn a fur. She could have snatched off that ponytail the way Aretha would snatch off her own wig.

Even if she just sang, understated and genuine, Ariana would have known a rose is still a rose and not to steal her honey.

Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.