Madonna let us down again.
Although she may not have been everyone’s first choice, it made a certain amount of sense to have Madonna perform a tribute to Prince on Sunday’s Billboard Music Awards.
After all, they were born the same year and wrote and recorded a tune together (“Love Song” on her 1989 album “Like a Prayer”). They were both big stars in the ‘80s who have continued to command huge respect. And he went to see her in concert last year in St. Paul, and then he performed for her later that night at his Paisley Park studios.
But Madonna’s performance on Sunday said more about her strengths and weaknesses than it did about Prince’s prowess or legacy.
Madonna looked the part. Emerging on a purple throne, she was dazzling in a silver-and-lavender paisley suit, complete with lacey gloves and an ornate cane. Madonna always looks fabulous.
The sentiment of the song “Nothing Compares 2 U” – which Prince wrote for his 1985 side project the Family but Sinead O’Connor made famous in ’90 – certainly was apropos.
But asking Madonna to sing a ballad only shows that she doesn’t have the vocal chops to pull off a highly emotional tune that demands considerable range.
Furthermore, watching Madonna slowly descend a staircase with the aid of a cane wasn’t in the best taste. It summoned images of Prince, wracked by pain that we’ve learned about since his death on April 21, hobbling with a cane.
Madonna has always been at her best on dance numbers. Prince, of course, dazzled on dance numbers, ballads, medium-tempo tunes, rockers – pretty much all kinds of things.
Pairing Madonna with Stevie Wonder on the ensuing “Purple Rain” was a more prudent move for the Billboard Awards. Dressed in a black suit with a prominent purple scarf tied around his neck, Wonder took the first line, “I never meant to cause you any sorrow.”
Madonna picked up with “I never meant to cause you any pain.” From there, the duet progressed, with audience members eventually waving special wristbands with purple lights in unison. The moment felt right, even without a spine-tingling guitar solo -- and with Madonna sounding a bit insincere when she proclaimed at the end, “Most of all, thank you Prince Rogers Nelson for all that you've given us."
Perhaps more fitting words were spoken by Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson when he rhapsodized before Madonna emerged on her throne. Fighting back tears, he said, "All of us live in the land of music and his departure was an earthquake."