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Why Madonna’s Prince Tribute Failed to Impress

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When legendary musician Prince died on April 21, scores of fans—celebrities and non-celebrities— flocked to social media to express their grief. In the process, a multitude of tributes have surfaced in the form of murals, paintings, articles, stories, magazine covers, fashion shows, dance routines, impromptu memorials and, of course, musical performances. Naturally, it’s the latter of these things that has tended to come under the harshest scrutiny.

This is understandable considering the extent of Prince’s genius and the protectiveness that many feel toward his art. After all, it was common knowledge that, in life, the Purple One himself wasn’t keen on others covering his music, so why should it be any different in death? Therefore, fans have been anxiously awaiting any news regarding wide-scale tributes to the fallen Prince, nervous as to whether the chosen artists could possibly do the man and his music justice.

For this reason, many greeted the news that Madonna would be performing a tribute to him at the Billboard Music Awards with shock, disbelief and outrage. In addition to vocally protesting the selection online, several fans went as far as to launch petitions to either remove her from the tribute or add other artists to the set. Unfortunately, these appeals did little good; on Sunday, May 22, Madonna went ahead with her tribute performance with a little help from Stevie Wonder, and the reviews were, shall we say, rather mixed.

Before I go any further, I want to state that I think Madonna’s heart was in the right place. I truly do believe that she wanted to celebrate her friend. In addition, there have been countless reports that she was very emotional before, during and after the show, which could account for her less than spectacular vocal performance. Nevertheless, a heart in the right place doth not a great tribute make. Let me explain.

When it comes to Prince, there are a range of songs from which artists can choose, if they are daring enough to climb up his creative mountain. Each of these songs is designed to showcase different aspects of his talents and, in turn, can showcase others’ talents as well. Unfortunately, Madonna’s first mistake was song selection; she chose songs that were out of her vocal league and range, making it seem like she was barely holding on by a thread the entire time.

To make matters worse, she chose to perform the Sinead O’Connor version of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which confused casual fans and angered members of the Purple Army. For those that don’t know, “Nothing Compares 2 U” is a song that Prince wrote in 1985 for a band called The Family, who recorded the original version. However, it was Sinead O’Connor who made the song famous with her cover of it in 1990—against Prince’s wishes, I might add. Nevertheless, starting in 1993, Prince regularly performed his original arrangement of the song in concert and even included a live version of it on the Ultimate Prince compilation in 2006.

Therefore, there is a Prince version of the song available to anyone opting to pay tribute to him using it, something of which Madonna may have been unaware. Although she kept Prince’s original lyrics (in his version, the first line is “It’s been 7 hours and 13 days”; for some unknown reason, Sinead changed that line to “It’s been 7 hours and 15 days,” perhaps so that she could claim some sort of writing credit for it), she used Sinead’s musical arrangement and even included images from her iconic music video, something which I didn’t catch on the first watch. This left many viewers wondering to whom exactly Madonna was paying tribute and slightly peeved that the performance seemed to be heavy on the Sinead and light on the Prince.

From there, she decided to transition into a lukewarm rendition of “Purple Rain,” with Stevie’s help. And although the audience swayed in the purple light and stood in honor of the genius behind the music, disappointment was already dawning on several faces (I’m looking at you, The Weeknd; your face spoke volumes about the quality of the performance). Then the performance was over, and fans who had been hoping for more were left completely unsatisfied.

The fact of the matter is that Prince’s musical legacy is more than “Purple Rain.” With the amount of tributes covering only that song, one would think that was his only hit, which is far from the case. There are many other songs which also embody The Purple One: “Little Red Corvette,” “Raspberry Beret,” “Kiss,” “Cream,” I Wanna Be Your Lover,” “Controversy,” “Adore,” “When Doves Cry,” “The Beautiful Ones,” “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World”—the list could go on and on. His musical career spanned several decades, and any worthy tribute would reflect that.

However, maybe we are being too harsh. Maybe we should see any tribute to Prince as Questlove sees them: as falling short of The Purple Standard. As he so eloquently stated in a series of tweets, not every tribute is going to be heart-stopping or moving. The very decision to perform a Prince song, according to Questlove, is brave, so we need to be more lenient in our critique. But do we?

Perhaps I could agree with Questlove if we hadn’t already seen other artists perform tributes that would have made The Purple One proud—for example, D’Angelo’s performance of “Sometimes It Snows in April” with the help of “Princess” on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Grace Potter’s cover of “Kiss” at the New Orleans Jazz Festival and Beyonce’s cover of “The Beautiful Ones” on her Formation tour. And then there have been the various covers of “Purple Rain” that have knocked it out of the park from the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Adam Levine, although Adam’s cover of the song was performed before Prince’s death. So, it is fair to expect more, to want more and to ask for more. Prince deserved the best, nothing less.

What does this mean for large-scale tributes moving forward? Hopefully, they will pay close attention to the artists asking to contribute and the songs on the roster. Hopefully, they will strive to include the musicians with whom he worked closely and whom he inspired and mentored. Hopefully, they will include more than one performing artist, because that is what it will take to capture the vastness of Prince’s talent.

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