The MTV Video Music Awards would not have been complete without a salute to recently-departed “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin, and there was only one way to acknowledge the long shadow cast by the legendary singer: get Madonna to tell a long, rambling story about how she once sang “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” while she was auditioning to be a background dancer for disco singer Patrick Hernandez in the late 1970s, then recount her 1984 performance at the very first VMAs. Not Aretha Franklin’s performance—Tina Turner performed that year; Franklin did not—Madonna’s performance! Seriously: check out the Franklin-to-Madonna ratio in this opening:
Aretha Louise Franklin changed the course of my life. I left Detroit when I was eighteen, $35 in my pocket. My dream was to make it as a professional dancer. After years of struggling and being broke, I decided to go to auditions for musical theater. I heard the pay was better. I had no training or dreams of ever becoming a singer, but I went for it. I got cut and rejected from every audition. Not tall enough. Not blend-in enough. Not twelve-octave-range enough. Not enough enough. And then, one day, a French disco sensation was looking for backup singers and dancers for his world tour. I thought, “Why not? The worst that can happen is I can go back to getting robbed, held up at gunpoint, and being mistaken for a prostitute, in my third-floor walkup that was also a crack house. That’s right, I’m a rebel heart. So I showed up at the audition, and two very large French record producers sat in the empty theater, daring me to be amazing.
So, first of all, Madonna’s audition for Patrick Hernandez seems to have taken place in 1979, which would be a little early for her to be living in a crack house, but maybe that just goes to show how deeply Aretha Franklin’s legacy is intertwined with different eras of American history. Things don’t get better from there—the story’s climax has Madonna exclaim, “I’m Madonna, bitch,” then clarify that she didn’t actually say that, which doesn’t seem particularly relevant to Aretha Franklin—but she ultimately did spend a few sentences explaining how important the singer was, in that she set the stage for Madonna:
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.
Then Madonna told a story about how she lost a shoe during the 1984 VMAs, accidentally flashed the audience, and was told by her manager that her career was over, but now here she is, so many years later, triumphant, and if you thought this story would have a tighter connection to Aretha Franklin than the first one, or, indeed, any connection at all, you are very much mistaken. Here’s the whole misbegotten thing:
Some may argue that MTV would have done better to just air the entire Aretha Franklin performance of “Say a Little Prayer for You” they used to open the segment, since they’d licensed it already, but it’s actually smart to provide the necessary context for Franklin’s work instead of exposing a TV audience to it directly. If you don’t understand that Franklin is primarily important because of her influence on Madonna, can you really understand her music? Can you even hear her voice at all? In that spirit, we’d like to present what is possibly Aretha Franklin’s single greatest accomplishment: The Columbia Records promotional video for the U.S. release of Patrick Hernandez’s “Born To Be Alive” featuring a very grainy Madonna:
Another legendary performance from the Queen of Soul!