Since it was announced that Madonna would be paying tribute to Prince at the 2016 Billboard Music Awards, fans have been highly critical. With a collective thumbs-down from social media, and even a petition demanding that Madonna be forced to relinquish some of the tribute to other artists, it was clear that the public didn’t really want Madonna handling the first major awards show recognition of Prince’s life since his shocking death on April 21st.
But Madonna gets what she wants. And Madonna wanted this. It’s a shame that no one else seemed to; but an even bigger shame that the performance wasn’t more moving or memorable.
The performance itself proved to be anti-climactic. After a few moments of the opening seconds of Prince’s classic “Let’s Go Crazy,” Madonna emerged dressed in a Romantic-era paisley purple suit sitting in a purple throne. As an orchestral intro for “Nothing Compares 2 U” quietly began, Madonna stood, clasping her cane, as she sang the mournful ballad that Prince wrote for his side project The Family and that ultimately became a monster hit for Sinead O’Conner in early 1990.
Madonna performed a rendition of the track that could be most generously described as “adequate,” and brought out the always-accommodating Stevie Wonder for an awkward a capella singalong of “Purple Rain” that led to superstars in the audience feigning enthusiasm as they chanted the closing chorus. There have been worse ways to close an awards show, and this wasn’t exactly a train wreck–that would imply that it was at least interesting. It was a flat note, a DOA performance. And it was a woefully missed opportunity–squandered for the sake of sucking up to a superstar.
This was a disappointing way to celebrate the life and legacy of one of our greatest artists. As has been stated often, a much bigger tribute–featuring artists connected to Prince either directly or musically–would have been more appropriate and engaging. Madonna’s association with Prince was tenuous; they dated briefly and they collaborated in the late 1980s. “I’ve always been a fan and I think he’s incredible and I also admire…he’s very courageous and he causes lots of controversy, too–which is great,” she told an interviewer after they’d worked together on “Love Song” from her Like A Prayer album. “And I think he’s a brilliant musician.”
But the relationship became adversarial in the 1990s. Madonna told Rolling Stone in1994 that Prince was a “little troll.” “He was just sipping tea, very daintily,” Madonna said, reflecting on shared time between them. “I have this theory about people who don’t eat. They annoy me.”
In a 2013 interview with Billboard, Prince also criticized Warner Bros for being preoccupied with Madonna even when Prince was selling more records for the label.
“It was always about Madonna,” he explained. “She was getting paid, but at the same time we were selling more records and selling out concerts on multiple nights.”
The often-contentious history between the two made Madonna an awkward choice for a tribute, despite their having reportedly quashed any bad blood years ago. But the final product wasn’t fitting the stature of either artist and definitely didn’t serve as even an adequate tribute to Prince’s music.