When it is announced that Madonna, of all artists, is giving the first major Prince tribute at a music awards show—and, hell, that yet another of the industry’s roughly 53 music shows is happening (I swear one country music awards aired each week the entirety of last month)—you expect the worst.
What you don’t expect is a highly emotional night packed with enough show-stopping performances interspersed in the endless telecast to make other awards shows’ batting average laughable i comparison. And with regard to Madonna and Prince, you don’t expect a touching, understated, intimate and respectful homage.
What a pleasant surprise that Sunday night’s Billboard Music Awards was a glaring, celebratory spotlight on the ferocity with which music’s female superstars are outselling, outperforming, and outslaying their male counterparts. Britney Spears, Kesha, Celine Dion, Rihanna, Pink, Demi Lovato, Ariana Grande, and more all contributed performances ranging from rousing to triumphant to brave to groundbreaking to surprising to, in the case of Kesha, vindicated.
More pleasant was the easing of the tension in our shoulders and release of our cringes when Madonna was finally called to the stage for the Prince tribute. Her “Nothing Compares 2 U” cover and “Purple Rain” duet with Stevie Wonder was about as lovely as you could hope for from the legendary button-pusher.
When it was announced that it would be Madonna delivering a special performance in honor of Prince at Sunday night’s awards, there was a backlash so loud—a Change.org petition against the decision was even launched—that the show’s executive producer was compelled to release a statement defending the whole idea.
“Listen, I think everybody is entitled to their opinion and everyone can have their own opinion, but I will say that we are honored and could not be more excited for Madonna to be on the show and to pay tribute to someone that was her friend and her peer and her colleague,” executive producer Mark Bracco said. “I think it’s going to be fantastic.”
While there’s still validity to argument that there may have been artists who would have been more suitable—and more poignant—choices to perform the tribute (specifically, artists of color whose paths into the industry were trailblazed by Prince, his success, and his stands against record companies), the truth is that Madonna and Prince have a long history together.
Madonna’s rise just a few years after Prince’s breakthrough was a direct benefit of his rabble-rousing, put-on-a-show interpretation of pop music as both a direct line to the heart and middle finger to the establishment. But the two were also longtime friends and, at one point, even lovers.
The relationship is outlined in pretty good detail by People magazine. In 1989, they collaborated on “Long Song” for Madonna’s Like a Prayer album. Before that they had a brief, but passionate relationship, and were friendly exes when it ended. According to People, Prince even came to fix a hole that a jealous Sean Penn had punched in Madonna’s wall because, according to Madge, “you’re responsible for it, after all.”
Their relationship cooled throughout the ‘90s—his quirky behavior reportedly irked her, and he felt competitive in landing a record deal that trumped hers—but amends were made by the time this past decade rolled around. Just last year, The Current reported, Prince took Madonna and her camp back to Paisley Park after a show and serenaded her while she sat at the end of the stage.
And so when Madonna emotionally thanked “my friend” Prince Rogers Nelson on stage Sunday night, it may not have been as controversial as some originally had thought. In fact, neither was her performance.
As the opening swells to “Nothing Compares 2 U” started, a purple throne in which Madonna was seated, holding one of Prince’s signature canes, turned to reveal the singer in one of his iconic suits with a ruffled shirt. As she walked down a staircase, she sang a simple, frills-free version of the tearjerker, which was written by Prince before being made even more famous by Sinead O’Connor.
There may have been better singers for this, sure. Certainly, Madonna’s voice sounded thin, to be generous, and was often pitchy. But as an entertainer, and one skilled at capturing the gravity of a moment and grounding an audience in the immediacy of that moment, she excelled.
The emotion was there. The poignance was there. She stood still center stage during an orchestral break while photos of Prince flashed behind her. That stillness means something in an age of frenetic, showboating tributes. Having Stevie Wonder on to bring home “Purple Rain” was a classy touch, and a necessary crutch—she was barely hitting those notes.
But when you fully expect an attention-grabbing, spotlight-seizing spectacle from Madonna, and she instead delivers something this lovely, you can’t be that mad.
Especially when it comes at the tail end of a night that was as vibrant as this for the kinds of stars that she—and certainly Prince, too—had helped usher in.
The night began with a kind of performance from Britney Spears that most of us didn’t think she could pull off anymore. In all of her lip-synching glory, she rocked some fabulous hair choreography and walk-back-and-forth-with-’tude dance steps.
Performing a medley of her hits, she stood in stark contrast to the MTV VMAs’ “Gimme More” disaster that still keeps fans’ blood pressure skyrocketing any time she’s set to appear live. Flaunting killer abs and, more importantly, a joyous confidence, it was a redemptive moment befitting an icon.
Speaking of redemption, Kesha’s first televised performance amidst her ongoing legal battles with Dr. Luke was so anticipated that it came with its own hashtag in the bottom left-hand corner of the TV screen as she performed.
She was not allowed to overtly address the allegations of sexual abuse she’s made against Dr. Luke or the contract with him that she’s fighting to be released from. But with a poised, restrained performance of Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe,” she didn’t have to. The power behind it spoke for itself.
It was a night of emotional comebacks, with Celine Dion performing on TV for the first time since her husband, Rene Angelil, died in January. Performing Queen’s “The Show Must Go On,” Dion was in her power-pose and power-voice element. The amount of emotion she’s able to wrangle with that tornado of a voice is still unbelievable all these years later.
As she, typically so composed and polished, stood holding her young son’s hand crying almost uncontrollably while accepting the Icon award, we were all weeping like it was 1997 all over again. It was a much-needed reminder. She might, because of her camp and earnestness, at times find herself the butt of a pop culture joke. But Celine Dion is timeless.
The entire night was an onslaught of women dominating the stage.
As usual, Pink’s feet hardly touched the ground during a high-flying performance of “Just Like Fire.” Every performer’s got a shtick. Who are we to yawn when hers is literally belting while upside down?
Demi Lovato continued to prove her arrival as pop music’s next thrilling vocalist, with the added thrill of danger that, at any time, her vocal chords might come hurtling from her throat she’s pushing so hard.
With a mesmerizing performance of “Love on the Brain,” Rihanna doubled down on her intent to be a serious artist—not just pop star—showing off the most impressive vocals she’s ever had at an awards show performance and, simply standing at a microphone and belting, proving more dynamic than any of her contemporaries with their expansive sets and intricate choreography.
Ariana Grande, Meghan Trainor, and Fifth Harmony all gave solid, polished performances of irresistible pop songs. Adele debuted a new music video and took home an armful of awards. The women, for lack of a better word, ruled.
Truth be told, no one really knows what the Billboard Music Awards are or why they exist. (Apparently it’s to honor the best-selling and most-played musicians?) But by sending an indisputable message about the power of the industry’s women, it proved it’s worth and not only defied expectations, but demanded that the rest of the industry pay attention.