The wrong goodbye: rewatching the strangest award show tributes ever

Madonna’s VMAs ode to Aretha Franklin has been labelled a self-indulgent disaster but it’s not the first time an onstage tribute has gone wrong

Let’s get this out of the way from the get-go: Madonna’s rambling spiel about Aretha Franklin at the MTV Video Music Awards earlier this week was just about as weird as award show tributes get. Dressed as a berserk cross between a scarecrow and a dreamcatcher, Madonna took Franklin’s legacy and forced it through a prism so utterly self-regarding that even the jazzed-up kids in the audience looked like they were losing the will to live. It was just about as strange and awful as these things tend to get.

But, hey, if we treat this as an excuse to show you a bunch of other dreadful award show tributes, maybe we’ll start to feel better about it. Maybe Madonna will even read this and realise that she is simply a thread in a rich tapestry of terrible tributes. So let’s do that.

Madonna’s Michael Jackson tribute, MTV VMAs, 2009

Actually, I hope Madonna isn’t reading this, because it turns out that she’s responsible for the second-weirdest awards show tribute too. Admittedly her 2009 tribute to Michael Jackson lacked the self-conscious performance art nature of her most recent work, but nevertheless it was still long and rambling and more about her than Jackson. She does these speeches once every nine years now, it seems. I’m already strapped in to see what she says about whoever dies first in 2027.

Johnny Depp’s Lemmy tribute, Grammys, 2016

It’s important to remember that not all tributes take the form of shapeless monologues. Most of the time, an awards show will just hire a vastly unsuitable act to perform some of the deceased’s best loved songs. That’s what happened at the Grammy a couple of years ago, when it hired the Hollywood Vampires – a supergroup comprising of Joe Perry, Johnny Depp and either Alice Cooper or Steve Carell doing a bad Alice Cooper impersonation – to sing some Motörhead songs after Lemmy died. It’s hard to know what was worse; the fact that the music uniformly sounded like the Biker Mice from Mars theme tune, or the godawful stench of midlife crisis emanating from the stage.

Christina Aguilera’s Whitney Houston tribute, AMAs, 2017

The fastest way to undercut the sincerity of a tribute – as proved by all the shots of puzzled kids during Madonna’s Franklin lecture – is with an audience cutaway. So it went when Christina Aguilera performed a medley of Whitney Houston songs at the American Music Awards last year. At the high point of I Will Always Love You, when for some reason or another Aguilera made a noise like a buffalo falling down the stairs, the camera cut to Pink. Pink was pulling a face like Larry David inspecting something that displeased him. She pulled it together into a smile by the end, but that one split second was excruciating.

Sheena Easton’s James Bond tribute, Oscars, 1982

James Bond hadn’t died in 1982, but he was certainly on the ropes. Looking back, it is incredible that this wasn’t the final nail in the coffin. Sheena Easton was booked to perform her Bond theme For Your Eyes Only at the 1982 Oscars, but whoever designed the set had clearly never seen a Bond film. Easton arrived in a spaceship. A high-kicking James Bond in orange satin fired a laserbeam at a wall. Jaws was decisively murdered with a grenade. And then, at the climax, Bond got off with Easton in what I think was meant to be a time machine. This is the worst thing that has ever happened, and I will take any excuse to share the video online.

All-star Abba tribute, Brits, 1999

Sadly, all trace of this performance has been wiped from the internet. However, this monstrosity of a tinny, joyless Jive Bunny medley of Abba’s greatest hits – featuring a none-more-1999 line-up that included Steps, Tina Cousins, Cleopatra, B*Witched and Billie Piper – was eventually released as a single. It reached number four in the UK music charts, possibly the most damning indictment of humanity as a species in all of history.

Lady Gaga and Intel’s David Bowie tribute, Grammys, 2016

Hey, Madonna, I take it back. This is perhaps the most awful tribute ever seen at an awards show. It’s Lady Gaga dressed as Kate McKinnon dressed as Lady Gaga dressed as David Bowie performing 20 seconds of several David Bowie songs in a performance that was co-credited to – and preceded by a commercial for – a multinational semiconductor chip manufacturer. It’s about as tasteless as a performance can get, and none of us should ever speak of it again.


Stuart Heritage

The GuardianTramp

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