Why Madonna's Prince Tribute Never Stood a Chance

It's not that she didn't turn in a perfectly decent performance, it's that paying proper homage to an artist like Prince is impossible

By Natalie Finn May 23, 2016 8:29 PMTags
Madonna, 2016 BIllboard Music Awards, Lady Gaga, GrammysGetty Images

How do you pay proper homage in seven to 10 minutes to a prolific artist who fit in no one box, had a style all his own, who churned out music for almost 40 years and had a larger-than-life presence onstage?

Well, most likely you don't, because no one's been able to do it yet.

Obviously, no one had any issues in the disconsolate days immediately following Prince's death with Coachella being awash in purple light, every artist from Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen to Little Big Town covering Prince in concert, or radio stations playing selections from his vast catalogue 24/7.

The vibe was the more the merrier, albeit with little actual merriment because of all the sadness.

But last night, the first spotlighted, super-hyped awards show tribute dedicated to the inimitable artist was met with almost nothing but eye-rolls from the Internet.

Billboard Music Awards 2016 Red Carpet Arrivals

Even BET, host of the next awards show that's going to attempt to climb that same mountain, joined the chorus of virtual boos, ensuring that its tribute is going to give the fans what they need.

But maybe first we all accept the fact that there's no way that a dedicated Prince tribute is going to satisfy everybody.

So far it's only been the unexpected moments, such as Chris Stapleton gutting his audience with a cover of "Nothing Compares 2 U" last month or D'Angelo and "Princess" (aka Maya Rudolph) doing "Sometimes It Snows in April" on The Tonight Show, that have won rave reviews.

BET Says What the Internet Was Thinking About Madonna's Prince Tribute at the Billboard Music Awards 2016

It's not that Madonna, who is the definition of Prince's contemporary, was saddled with the wrong song, sang it flatly or gave a low-energy performance (all offenses she has been accused of) at the 2016 Billboard Music Awards. In case those tweeting from home failed to notice, the live audience was happily lost in the moment, the likes of Rihanna singing adoringly along.


Then when Stevie Wonder walked out for "Purple Rain," forget about it. (A must-quote from the Los Angeles Times' Mikael Wood today: "Wonder on autopilot equals basically every other artist in total concentration.")

But though it seemed like a powerful moment in real time, Madonna's performance has been widely panned.

The biggest complaint (other than the lament that Madonna was there in the first place) is that the song choice was wrong. ALL WRONG! Prince was a high-energy performer, he has countless hits that he made famous, where were Sheila E. and members of his band, etc.


Ironically, that's the exact opposite of the biggest complaint leveled at Lady Gaga's tribute to David Bowie at the Grammys in February. That homage was accused of being too hectic, too all over the place. Bowie had so many thought-provoking songs that deserve lingering over, why cram nine or 10 into a few minutes that don't truly showcase his artistry?

Funny how that works.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for NARAS

Lady Gaga is easily one of Bowie's most successful artistic disciples and couldn't be a bigger fan. Yet she got slammed too for supposedly not doing the Starman justice.

But just as Madonna was last night, Gaga was tasked with the impossible.

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Prince was so much like Bowie in the respect that he meant so many different things to people—and he made so much music, in the end there was something for everyone. Your go-to Prince song may not even be on another Prince fan's radar. You may prefer his 1980s output, or you could think that he hit his stride post-Warner Bros. Purple Rain could be your favorite movie, or you've never seen it but the title song still makes you weep.

These schisms do happen.

But that's the reason why there's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all tribute to someone like Prince or Bowie. They could be relied on to be brilliantly unpredictable, so while they could be considered crowd-pleasers, not every crowd showed up for the same reasons.

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

As Questlove, who introduced the performance last night, remarked as part of a series of tweets defending the nature of what Madonna and Stevie Wonder put out there: "Every Prince rendition will not be a life-changing orgasmic xperience. Just to SING his work is brave enough.

"EVERYBODY wants and deserves a chance to say goodbye in their own way. But remember: there will be AMAs, SoulTrain, NAACP, mtv, GRAMMYS. And a gazillion other tributes. But the point is let's not get ugly w playing the 'Prince would and wouldn't approve' game. & this isn't *just about* the Madge/Stevie tribute btw."

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Madonna, who's so generally revered and yet people seem to take such great pleasure in reviling her when the mood strikes, was forced to point out the obvious on Instagram as well.

"Anyone who wants to do a tribute to Prince is welcome to. Whatever your age Gender or skin Color. If you loved him and he inspired you then show it!!!! I love Prince 4 ever," she offered Monday after finding out she didn't nail it in the eyes of the critics at home, who, if it had been up to them, would have produced the perfect Prince tribute.

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