Madonna delivered a speech in which she outlined the role Franklin had played in launching her own career

By Karen Mizoguchi
August 21, 2018 12:05 AM
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The Queen of Soul received a send-off from Madonna at the 2018 MTV Video Music Awards — though not everyone was happy with the sentiment.

Aretha Franklin, who died Thursday of pancreatic cancer at 76, received a brief tribute during Monday’s show.

The network aired Franklin’s Oct. 9, 1970, performance of Dionne Warwick’s “I Say a Little Prayer,” which she covered for her album Aretha Now. MTV also played Franklin’s 1967’s “Respect” for the ending credits.

Before presenting video of the year to Camila Cabello, Madonna delivered a speech in which she outlined the role Franklin had played in launching her own career.

“Aretha Louise Franklin changed the course of my life. I left Detroit when I was 18. Thirty-five dollars 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,” she said.

Madonna
| Credit: Michael Loccisano/Getty

Further discussing her past experience, Madonna recalled her early years as a struggling artist.

“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 12-octave range enough, not pretty enough. Not enough,” she said. “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 at gunpoint and being mistaken for a prostitute in my third floor walkup that was also a crackhouse.’ That’s right, I’m a Rebel Heart.”

“So I showed up for the audition and two very large French record producers sat in the empty theater, daring me to be amazing. The dance audition went well. Then they asked me if I had sheet music and a song prepared. I panicked. I had overlooked this important part of the audition process,” she said. “I had to think fast, my next meal was on the line. Fortunately one of my favorite albums was Lady Soul by Aretha Franklin. I blurted out ‘You Make Me Feel’… silence. ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.’ Two French guys nodded at me. I said, ‘You know, by Aretha Franklin.'”

She continued: “They looked over at the pianist, he shook his head. ‘I don’t need sheet music,’ I said, ‘I know every word. I know the song by heart, I will sing it a cappella.’ I could see that they did not take me seriously — and why should they? 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? And a cappella … I said, ‘Bitch, I’m Madonna.’ No, I didn’t, I didn’t say that. ‘Cause I wasn’t Madonna yet. I don’t know who I was. I don’t know what I said, I don’t know what came over me.”

Madonna and Aretha Franklin
| Credit: Michael Loccisano/Getty

After sharing the beginning of her journey as a singer, Madonna concluded: “So you’re probably all wondering why I’m telling you this story. There’s a connection, because 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.”

Twitter had many opinions on Madonna’s speech with many mentioning Travis Scott, who was the first person to pay tribute to Franklin. “Rest in peace to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin,” he said in the midst of his performance.

In the days leading up to the big event, VMA’s executive producer Jesse Ignatovic revealed in an interview with Variety that the tribute set was their “big focus,” although he admitted that it was “a scramble” to put together at such late notice.

“We have to make sure whatever we do is true to her art,” he said. “We don’t want to do anything too kooky, it’s got to be organic.”

Check out PEOPLE’s full MTV VMAs coverage to get the latest news on one of music’s biggest nights.

Aretha Franklin.
| Credit: Paul Natkin/Getty

RELATED VIDEO: Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin Has Died of Pancreatic Cancer at Age 76

Soul greats like Cissy Houston, Gladys Knight, and her old Detroit friend Smokey Robinson have made public remembrances, as did former President Obama — who invited Franklin to sing at his inauguration in 2009.

The MTV VMAs are broadcast live from Radio City Music Hall in New York City on Monday, Aug. 20 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.