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Madonna’s non-tribute to Aretha; even Mariah would've been preferable

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In 2006, Madonna Ciccone was keen to address the problem of nuclear waste with the use of blessed water. With then-spouse Guy Ritchie, she approached the UK Department of Trade and Industry with a treatment one civil servant forced to endure the couple’s presentation described to The Sunday Times as “bollocks”. Madonna had acquired a British accent at about this time and I remember worrying briefly that she had received a recent blow to the head. Then I remembered worrying re the same when her Sex book was released in the ‘90s. A person who seeks to bring naked pictures of Vanilla Ice to mass market is a person clearly lost for life to reason.
It is, of course, a cheap temptation in the hours following the singer’s dreadful non-tribute to the great Aretha Franklin to declare, “I always knew she was a tool”. But, come on, we really did. Not the pop utility of The Immaculate Collection and not the Gaultier bra could quell our collective will that she STFU with her nonsense. Like a good many artists, she should never have been permitted to speak.

It is not only inappropriate but antagonistic to assign the task of eulogising the Queen of Soul to the high priestess of artifice.

That she should never have been permitted to speak about the recently deceased Franklin ought to have been abundantly clear to producers of the MTV VMA awards. I am hardly alone in this view. Commentators are right to decry a decision that should never have been made. It is not only inappropriate but antagonistic to assign the task of eulogising the Queen of Soul to the high priestess of artifice. And, FFS. Franklin was widely known to understand and support true movements for social change. She posted bail for Angela Davis. Madonna wanted to fling something called “kabbalah fluid” around.
 So, yes. Everyone is quite right. There is little to unite these two artists beyond their attachment to the city of Detroit and someone could have drawn up a list that started with the Knowles girls. If Beyoncé and Solange were busy, try Janelle Monáe, MIA, or, possibly, Adele. Honestly, I don’t think anyone would have minded hearing what Mariah had to offer. Even Mariah on a difficult evening. Even Mariah accompanied by a Mariah soundtrack, as is the diva’s wont, would have been less hostile to the memory of the Queen of Shade than some bint whose noblest achievement is, apparently, the fight against sexist ageism, or whatever. Fuck off. A 60-year-old female body routinely tortured by the boredom of Pilates classes is mildly interesting, but is no kind of inspiration to any lass outside the leisure class. Madonna’s pre-Instagram affinity for looks—a wig-changing habit idiots prefer to know as “reinvention”—is remarkable, but is not a gift comparable to that given to the world by Franklin.
The most wretched moment of Madonna’s speech came in her account of singing Natural Woman. The collective Western unconscious simply could not stop itself from imagining Madonna’s single octave massacre of Carol King’s genius and contrasting it with any Aretha performance, perhaps that at the Kennedy Center in 2015.  I mean to say. Even with the sound turned down, these five minutes on YouTube are sufficient to eclipse old Kabbalah Water’s decades-long career. King looks at Franklin with genuine awe that her genuinely awe-inspiring work could be reified by any human voice. Franklin drops her furs and in this moment, squishy white confused body-positive feminism ought to have received an object lesson in striptease. Fuck this boop-boop-be-doop burlesque of the Madonna type. This is how a woman powerfully takes off her clothes. 

To watch Madonna believe herself equal to the task of remembering Aretha Franklin is to observe a collision.

The entire thing is just awful and, of course, compelling. To watch Madonna believe herself equal to the task of remembering Franklin is to observe a collision. But, it’s also, for mine, to watch another kind of accident: that which is found to occur in an era that so deliriously honours the Moving Personal Story.
Madonna has defended her tribute on categorical grounds, saying that it wasn’t a tribute but a personal story etc.  It is probable that Madonna was asked to give her Intimate Memory and it is probable that any artist, no matter how appropriate, would have been charged with the same duty. Because, that’s what we do these days. We talk about things, no matter how big, with recourse to personal accounts.
Franklin’s talent was arguably too immense to be remembered in the context of one modest life; she was a once-in-a-lifetime type deal. Perhaps it was with this knowledge that Janelle, Solange etc rebuffed the invitation, leaving history’s mediocre material girl to the work. Nonetheless, it is with this knowledge that so many things are “explained”.
Personal accounts of public matters, including the wonder of Franklin, are of limited utility. This is true with the MeToo movement. This is true when celebrities take a temporary turn at poverty. It is true when politicians pretend to speak “from the factory floor” and, heck, it does not matter how much you sobbed when you watched Hannah Gadsby “reinvent” comedy on Netflix, it is also true then that a personal account, no matter heartfelt, of a big political thing is too small to accommodate much more than private pleasure.

Racism, homophobia, even “sexist ageism”—I’m really not sure that’s a thing —cannot be meaningfully countered through personal description.

Madonna is a twit, certainly, and was an exceptionally bad choice, or even last resort. But, even if she were not the type to view the world as her mirror, we have become accustomed to this gaze.
It is time for a moratorium on personal stories. It is, surely, time for us to disdain intimacy as a political weapon and quit hungering for “nuance” when we’re attempting to explain big things. Racism, homophobia, even “sexist ageism”—I’m really not sure that’s a thing and I hope intersectional scholars reject it out of hand—cannot be meaningfully countered through personal description. These things are governed by totalising forces expressed not just in personal exchange and felt not just by the individual but present in the wider world. 
We do not understand Franklin through Madonna, and we could not hope to understand her force, perhaps even through expression by Beyoncé—even though this would have been way more tolerable. We do not understand big things through single lives and, FFS, it’s surely time we set aside believing that we can.

28 responses to “Madonna’s non-tribute to Aretha; even Mariah would've been preferable

  1. For someone in the public domain to state the following “Like a good many artists, she should never have been permitted to speak.”
    Is poor form.
    I think that you need to show some more self censure-ship that you appear to be saying Madonna should be using.
    Everyone in a democracy is permitted to speak. It is up to critics like yourself to critic what they say. Not stop them saying it. It is the height of arrogance to say they should not be allowed to speak at all. Even to think it means you need more introspection.
    What, you want to sew her lips shut?

    1. Oh jeez.
      Must I point out that I have no legislative power? Again.
      You people with your daydreams about a great deliberative democracy that does not actually exist.
      Yes of course everyone should be permitted to speak. Not everyone is, of course. because, omg, some people are too impoverished by present conditions to have the means of communication. Further, at no point in history has our free speech been controlled by so very few corporations.
      All this aside. Think before “freely speaking” next time, sir.
      If I say (in what I believe to be a patently jocular fashion; I don’t exactly adopt a serious tone as a writer) “many artists should not be permitted to speak”, I am obviously not proposing that this should occur. It’s just that a load of them spout shit. E.g. Madonna.
      My god. That’s what you got from this? Could have gone anywhere. Could have spoken about the Black Panthers of which the great Angela Davis was a part. Could have extended my thoughts on personal narrative. But, no. You’re all “boo hoo don’t impinge on the freedom of speech by people who are already free to speak”.
      I just don’t know some days.

    2. Yeah David, Helen wants to sew her lips shut. FFS… Get back to us when you adult better. It seems you suffer from the same foot in mouth disease Madonna does.
      ‘Everyone in a democracy is permitted to speak. It is up to critics like yourself to critic what they say. Not stop them saying it.’
      Are you suggesting Helen didn’t proffer any critique? Or maybe just one you disagreed with perhaps? Did and could Helen (want to) stop her from speaking?
      Not only do you and Madge share footinmouthitis but you also both comment on things you scant have the wherewithal to do. Honestly, what’s next? Effing Ke$ha’ personal story eulogising of Paul Robeson? And now before you search YouTube for that clip, why don’t you have a think about how absurd it is that an artist that was on the artistic roll call for 3 minutes and banked off it for 3 decades (the sex book is titillation at most) and traded her soul for money accept an invitation to speak about a genius like Aretha Franklin…
      Oh and Dave, everyone is permitted to speak? Are they? Just look closely at the live cross to a politician on a factory floor and count the amount of airtime given to the workers on that floor. Right. Permitted? Let’s permit that then…

      1. I don’t think Helen & Santouche ought to be beating up on David; or Betty Boop or Marilyn Monroe or Madonna.
        I think Helen couldn’t take David’s criticism, resents femininity, & is an intellectual snob.
        And Santouche is a groupie.

        1. I think you should eat my arse, actually. If we’re to be all open about our subtext, here.
          Hate femininity.
          Is every woman an example of femininity? As such, would every critique of a man be a critique of masculinity.
          Grow a faculty for thought you twits.

          1. None better than Betty Boop. That’s why Marilyn borrowed from her. She borrowed from Lana Turner too. She walked like a cat in Some Like It Hot. She was a student of beauty.
            Madonna saw a good formula and took from Marilyn. She sang a couple decent songs too.
            Some of us have beauty &/or intellect; some of us are twits. And some of us establish a hierarchy based on these.
            As for me; I’m a goddam truck driver. I don’t need to grow a faculty. Not to take you on at least. (Sorry.I couldn’t help that.)

          2. Jesus. No one actually reads much.
            Too eager to tell a Personal Story. Mine, apparently, being that I don’t appreciate beauty and that I hate women. And all that I offer is derived from these mental disorders.
            Mate. You’re seeing some crap that’s just not there. And determining that any idea of the world a person had, if it counters yours, us down to personal misery.

    3. “We do not understand big things through single lives and, FFS, it’s surely time we set aside believing that we can.” How can you c;aim such an arrogant stance, speaking for the collective “we”, Helen Razer? Indeed it is through “small loves, small people. small stories” we do understand “big things”. Anyway by arrogant what means do you feel you can qualify and quantify what is “big” and what is “small?”

      1. Jesus. Read it again. Or once.
        The idea that tiny narratives of personal lives is the only way humans can understand the vastness of a world beyond their control is very widespread. It has now been widely accepted and is the primary means of communicating all types of things. Including national humanitarian emergencies to the United Nations.
        And yet, for all these moving storirs, we have never seen so many stateless, dispossessed, starving or otherwise denied basic rights.
        So maybe now we should question the usefulness of the tiny story.
        Do I need to explain this with a moving work of narrative documentary, or can you cop an idea not discussed intimately?
        Some days.
        Some effing days.

        1. I agree with you most of the time Helen. Tiny stories are the primary means of communicating things, because that’s human. People talk about themselves and build collective consciousness etc. I disagree with you in that I think it’s a pretty important process. Stories are sometimes just given too much weight, interpreted as representing too much. In this example, it’s because Madonna is a celebrity. Not because she’s an idiot, even though she might be. She talks about the personal in a rehearsed way (like everyone), and her fans and media do the rest..

          1. There’s an ocean separating communication between people and public communication.
            Of course I share stories and understand others’ stories in life and political action. I don’t make my public accounts all about that stuff. I could say only a very little and then only about myself.

  2. Albert Facey’s walk through the Gold fields to get water on the first day of the Commonwealth of Australia is more meaningful to the true study of history than the show put on in Melbourne that day. If you think that a lurch to the Trotskyist revisionist position at the third Soviet Congress might mean more than how people’s hearts are uplifted by a Wedding dance, or how they smile during “material girl’ or cry during ‘Natural Woman’, then maybe you don’t understand much at all. Sad when someone who was at the centre of culture once just seems to no longer get it, but at least we have their music….

  3. I agree with all of this as usual, except for the suggestion of MIA as an alternative. I feel her skillset is more similar to Madonna’s. She just puts it to better use.

  4. It wasn’t a tribute and she never said it was. She was there to present an award, and was asked last minute by the VMAs to share a story about Aretha which she worked into her speech. They were the ones who stuck up a huge photo of Aretha making it look like a tribute. Do your homework first next time!

    1. F Me! Your were THERE?!?!?! You know what was discussed between Madders and the person/ people who spoke to her JUST before she went on? My goodnesss that means you were BACKSTAGE!!! Adders I knew you are Important. Like really Important but i didn’t know this. WOOOWWWWWW>>>

    2. It was a shit story. And she might have said no. And any public statement about a major artist in the days following her death is a tribute, whether one says it is or not.
      Further, I do not buy that Madonna does anything “last minute”. She’s so painfully over-curated.
      It was a terrible moment.

  5. Yeah me neither. I was just bathing in the intellectual relief in this piece; drawing a big idea from the particular event. Exactly the opposite of the personal confession. Exactly the opposite of a sound bite plucked from the argument’s context. Thanks Helen.

  6. Just because millions listen to her doesn’t mean she has anything of consequence to say. It’s rock’n’roll disease.

  7. Helen, I’d agree with much of what you have to say about Madonna. The world knows that vanity and ego are her main weaknesses. And while I’d go so far as to criticise her speech this week ( I’d also say that you’re being too harsh. Try as you might to dismiss the artist as someone who just throws around ‘holy’ water, she has done a hell of a lot to free up the proverbial shackles of women who have endured a history of chauvinism and repression when it comes to all things sexual. And don’t make me have to list her humanitarian efforts. I’d like to see you adopt four children from a developing nation – and yes, we know she has the benefit of nannies to help out but it’s still a major responsibility – and then come tell us what you’ve done to better humankind and to demonstrate human kindness. Cheers, Antonino Tati, Cream Magazine

    1. I cannot afford to purchase dear little children. And, honestly, if I had Madonna’s wealth, I would not wrench them from their “developing” nation-states (note, this is a bullshit term that actually means: in debt to Western banks, or, to be old-fashioned, “Colonies”) but I would fund an armed attack on the World Bank. So that people born in a territory could stay in that territory and not be subject to the cultural imperialism of the West.
      JK. JK, ASIO.
      As for your assertion that some perfectly acceptable beauty Did SO Much For Women. Spare me. Your “media effects” theory is a load of crud. Women may be harmed by the popular culture’s maintenance of the status quo (how anyone doesn’t see this is the purpose of much popular culture is beyond me) but they are not frigging helped by it.
      My “liberation”, as a child of the Madonna era, did not come from her writhing about on a bed in a putative display of irony. I’m not saying this hurt anyone, particularly. But helped? Oh, prithee, great feminist. How is this effing possible. Because you say so, right.
      And. Again. This is not really about the “humanitarian” (lol) Madonna. It’s abotu the claim that One Person or One Person’s Story can make a difference.
      Guess what. It can’t! This is the great lie of our greatly atomised age: the most important people are individuals.
      No. The most important thing is a political consciousness. Aretha had one. Madonna has little side projects that make her feel good and give her some atomised, individual excuse to claim she is “humanitarian”.
      War is humanitarian, son. AT least, so the US says when it pops off to kill people and immiserate the continent of Africa. From which Madonna stole her children.

  8. This speaks to something that was pissing me off this week – those appalling “X is a thing – and I SHOULD KNOW” editorials that come out periodically, as if one person’s contrary experience is in any way compelling evidence.

    1. I know. Anecdata are a virus.
      The smallest story stands in for complex problems felt with force by entire population groups.
      The problem with this approach is obvious when Warren Mundine, for example, is seen by ultra-right shit bags as All Aboriginal People.
      You valorise the personal, you kill the possibility of the truly political.

    2. 100% Alicia. Its like seeing yet another book on ‘I had anxiety / depression and beat it through personal hard work and you can too if you buy my book’. A complex interplay of environment, genes and circumstance aren’t to blame for your feelings – you just need to chin up and work harder, you failure!
      Madge eulogising Aretha was a step too far for me this week (and its been a week of awfulness). As a young musician, Aretha had me transfixed – even though her work was decades older than me. Its nursed me through good times and bad and its not *just* the music but whole story of who she was and what she did – and how she effected broader social change. Madge has always attempted to fashion herself in the same vein, but honestly, its just awful when bluntly put side to side. I’m not sure even her most committed of fans (including those who purchased the last two albums) could justify her being on stage to give that speech.
      Once again Raze, nailed it.

  9. I’m thinking only Bono could have been a more poor choice over Madge.
    But then he doesn’t have breasts and today that could not be overlooked.
    Twenty years ago they likely would have tapped Bono for the task – so perhaps we can read into this a small win (for something.. anything) Helen?

  10. I like this piece a lot, particularly because of the way in which you have captured an ontological shift from the general to the personal (as opposed to the old general to the particular that marked modern discourse in the mid-late 20th century). I see the prevalence of reading experience through the personal as not only symptomatic of a certain type of post-phenomenological philosophy, but also as a way for late market capitalism to discombobulate organised thought and action. The personal experience goes hand in hand with individuality, but it’s more insidious, because it masks itself so carefully in the subjectivity of feeling and defends itself through rubrics of psychological empathy. Sorry for all the wanky language! In plain terms – it is so much more natural to defend the personal perspective as (a) subjective, (b) part of our 21st century experience of how we exist in the world, (c) intrinsic to human rights (to hold our own opinions) and (d) if you disagree on grounds other than opinion, then you are judged incapable of empathic understanding. Thanks as always for your excellent words.

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