When Doves Cry: The Aftermath of Madonna’s Prince Tribute at the BBMAs

Posted May 24, 2016 by J Matthew Cobb in HiDef

Madonna’s weak tribute to Prince at the Billboard Music Awards left us all in mourning and asking the big question — “Can any one make the perfect Prince tribute?”

I love Madonna. I do. Well, more old Madonna. When she was living on brash youthfulness, passion and sweeping creativity in the first decade of her music. “Vogue.” “Material Girl.” “Holiday.” “Borderline.” “True Blue.” “Like a Prayer.” “Lucky Star.” “Live to Tell.” “Dress You Up.” “Papa Don’t Preach.” “Into the Groove.” “Open Your Heart.” Yeah. That Madonna. She’s done some pretty good stuff in recent times, but nothing in comparison to her reigning zenith, when she conquered pop.

And so, having her on the big stage at the Billboard Music Awards to pay tribute to Prince seemed like a smart choice on paper. She’s probably the lone survivor of the Eighties that reached for superstardom and nailed it. She’s up there with Prince, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston (who are all gone now). We do have a few pop stars from that era still with us in the flesh – Lionel Richie, Janet Jackson and even a few rock band frontmen (Jon Bon Jovi, Bret Michaels, Bono, Steven Tyler), but Madonna is definitely the biggest supernova we have in our possession. So I can understand fully as to why the producers of the Billboard Music Awards agreed to accept Madonna’s request to pay tribute to her “friend.”

After a petition drawing 5000 signatures surfaced from Prince fans asking for other artists to be a part of the tribute and that Madonna was not enough, pop music songwriter Linda Perry spoke about Madonna’s involvement in the Billboard Music Awards tribute on the daytime talk show The Talk and suggested that the decision was important for ratings, since Madge is a draw for TV. In the same breath, she shot down other ideas of bringing Prince-esque legends like Chaka Khan and Sheila E to the table because they were not “relevant.” “In all fairness, Madonna was asked to do this and she was friends with Prince but you also have to think about it’s really the Billboard Awards, they think about who is hot and popular,” she argued. “They’re not gonna call up Chaka Khan and re-put together The Time and Sheila E. because they’re not relevant right now.”

But the performance from the far-relevant Madonna performance, one that The Atlantic wrote was “patchy,” was far from super. It was a tribute, yes. It was also classy (no chapless pants or “Justify My Love” nudity done to remember Prince’s wild side). But one that failed to match the greatness, the grandeur of the fallen Purple One. Heck, it failed to match her own greatness. She sounded lethargic on the solemn “Nothing Compares 2 U,” made famous by Sinead O’ Connor. Her withered and pitchy pipes, now miles away from the type of soul she imagined on “Take a Bow” and now a bit shaken, made the ballad seem like a funeral hymn. Having melisma king Stevie Wonder come out to save the day on a few lines of “Purple Rain” didn’t help matters. Wonder is usually good on his own stuff. Considering that “Purple Rain” could’ve easily gelled well with some of Stevie’s biggest ballads, this mournful rendition, with glimmers of a candlelight vigil in the background, bore a last minute assemblage feel. It felt recycled and stiff, like a sing-a-long at a nursing home. And maybe that’s what so sad about this matter, is knowing that Prince – an equally compelling musician and entertainer – is gone, and that the new generation of performers lack Prince’s spectacularism. His untimely death signals an end of a type of theatrical greatness and musical genius that we will probably not see again.


No wonder Black Entertainment Television responded the way that they did. One hour after the BBMAs went off the air, the cable network dropped a 15 second trailer up of their forthcoming BET Awards program (scheduled to air in June). “Yeah, we saw that,” a statement read at the tail end of the video. “Don’t worry. We got you.” The remarks, of course, came after Twitter and social media lit up with disappointment over Madonna’s performance. The BET ad only added fuel to the fire, causing more negative remarks to flood the net. If one wanted to know what shade was, BET just gave a crash course on the term.

Let’s be very honest here: Unless a true professor with a PH.D in Prince’s #Musicology takes on the task of assembling a top-tier cast of “Super Friends” from the music world – both past and present – there probably won’t be an authentic tribute to Prince during primetime. And no tribute will match up to the brilliance of the originator. But go ahead and call up the ones that should be summoned to the stage – Justin Timberlake, Lenny Kravitz (who performed on “Billy Jack Bitch” on The Gold Experience album), Adam Levine, D’Angelo, Bruno Mars, Usher, Miguel and The Weeknd. Then summon in those that worked with him, who carry the Prince gene: Sheila E, Morris Day, Chaka Khan, Sheena Easton, Rosie Gaines, Larry Graham (along with Drake Graham, his nephew), The Time, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Jesse Johnson (if he’s up to it), The Revolution, members of the New Power Generation. Yes, all the people that Linda Perry claimed to be irrelevant deserve to be on that stage paying homage to Prince.

The feisty Janelle Monae also deserves to be on that stage too. Not just because she’s one of the last new wonders to work with Prince (“Given Em What They Love”), but because her own funky ingenuity mimics his in a big way.

In the meantime, those who were extremely close to Prince and his musicianship are releasing their statements about the Billboard Music Awards tribute.

First there was Sheila E., Prince’s longtime percussionist and one-time romantic interest, who had this to say:

“On behalf of musicians, artists, creators, performers and anyone aspiring to be one of those, YOU ARE RELEVANT,” she wrote on Facebook. “It was exactly that type of attitude and comment, recently conveyed on a talk show by a misinformed guest, that Prince, Paisley Park and those who have been an extension of, continually fought, and still fight, against. The creations and the creators, contrary to fleeting popularity or fame, is what breathes life into art. The lack of understanding, and myopic view of dollars over sense is what perpetuates the ignorance that continually works against the artist, and the industry. I am offended!”

André Cymone, former Prince musician before the Purple Rain-Revolution era, also commented on the matter:

“First of all I love Madonna…That being said I think the industry’s response to THE PEOPLE, and THE FANS wanting to see maybe some musicians and artists who either worked directly with Prince and or who he may have inspired would have been appropriate….This hard line attitude is what’s wrong with the music business and it’s why the industry crumbled and people don’t want to pay for music anymore, they use the same 3 or 4 artists and the Disney artist crew for everything that’s pathetic. They got it fixed so artists don’t make any money…[Prince] gave his all to his fans and he raised the bar high, it’s unfortunate that the industry has no clue how to raise the bar, they’ve done a fabulous job lowering it. No disrespect to Madonna, I’m a big fan, I think she’s a great artist and a great choice but there should have been more.”

Questlove, who introduced the BBMA tribute before Madonna, went on Twitter trying to defend her. But he didn’t exactly distance himself from the rhetoric coming from the Revolutionaries. The prolific drummer, also highly influenced by Prince, suggested that those upset with Madonna’s tribute are probably in a state of mourning, still angry over his passing. “Because of [Prince’s] well known love for the *poof* vanishing act, a lot of us are left feeling incomplete in the act of saying goodbye,” the Roots’ drummer wrote. “For starters it’s hard to accept him no longer being here. [And] in the upcoming award season for ‘17 there will be a gang of tributes. Naturally there will be folded arms & shade thrown because the Purple Standard is hard boots to fill & a lot of us don’t wanna come [to] grips [with] the fact that Prince – (an on the surface) face of health & invincible agelessness – [succumbed] to something so… friggin basic.”

In a session of tweets, Questlove continued:

“Every Prince rendition will not be a life changing orgasmic [experience]. Just to SING his work is brave enough. Again feeling are on high, and 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 with playing the ‘Prince would and wouldn’t approve’ game.”

Meanwhile, Madonna’s legion of fans (especially those who see no problem in anything Madonna does) were rushing to her defense. “Leave Madonna alone,” wrote a Huffington Post writer in the LGBT department. The headline and the tone of the entire article was so reminiscent of another piece of gay herstory — when virtual unknown attention whore Chris Crocker went viral with his cry-baby video defending Britney Spears from the jaws of the tabloid press.

And Madonna’s reply on the matter was all-too politically correct. Safe, just like her Prince tribute.

I guess this is what it sounds like when doves cry.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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