Stevie Wonder and Madonna

After an intense week of fan furor over the Billboard Music Awards’ choice to have Madonna perform a tribute to Prince, the pop icon closed the show with a solid, not-terrible tribute — and showed why she was a smart choice for the job all along.

She didn’t exactly sound wonderful — pitchy at times, screeching at others. But Madonna’s never really been a vocalist. She’s a performer and entertainer, and that’s where she succeeded. Madonna didn’t match the purple one’s vocal prowess, but she did give us a feeling (almost) worthy of Prince: dramatically revealing herself in a purple throne; wearing a shimmery purple suit; and white lace that harkened back to the era when he became a megastar.

“Nothing Compares 2 U” was the perfect choice of opener, and the montage of gothic, cemetery imagery flashing words including “Immortality” and “Brother” helped convey the appropriate (if a bit creepy) level of sadness. Their closing rendition of “Purple Rain” was decent, unremarkable even, but the fact is that very few people on the planet can do justice to a Prince song, especially now.

But what Madonna most got right was sandwiching herself between Questlove and Stevie Wonder. She was in a tricky spot, since the people who petitioned against her felt Madonna had little in common with Prince, versus more skilled musicians/vocalists. Friends of Prince including Wonder, Chaka Khan and Sheila E. came to mind. Accusations of “whitewashing” (when a white artist becomes the face of a form people of color invented) were bubbling up — a charge Madonna herself had heard before, especially after “Vogue.”

The controversy got so intense that Billboard Awards executive producer Mark Bracoo felt compelled to release a statement: “I think everybody is entitled to their opinion… but I will say that we are honored and could not be more excited for Madonna to be on the show.”

Madonna had to do something to silence the haters, and bringing out Questlove, who DJ’d for Prince and became a friend, to do a touching intro; and then living legend Stevie Wonder was a masterstroke. She got to do what she wanted (as always) and put other artists who have the cred she lacks (again, as always) into her work.

In the end, she deserved to be there. Madonna invented the blueprint for pop music celebrity alongside Prince and Michael Jackson. Apart from Janet Jackson, she’s arguably the only living performer even in that league still alive. To boot, they were actual friends: Madonna was on stage at a Prince concert just last year, and according her manager, she was enthusiastic about touring with him. She’s earned her place and right to do whatever the hell she wants, including standing on stage to sing a song in honor of her friend.

Prince’s bands were racially mixed, intentionally. His tradition of playing with boundaries and fixed identity (“Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?,” he sang on “Controversy”) suggests that he’s probably in heaven shaking his head at racial fighting, when the entire point of his musical catalogue was enlightenment and people coming together out of love.

So Madonna proved herself, and silenced the haters. The better question, though, is why there was only one Prince tribute. Prince had at least 40 – 40! – Hot 100 Billboard hits, at least 10 of them songs we all know well enough to sing in our sleep. Prince literally helped change the music business, Billboard’s primary area of focus.

Surely the “greatest musical talent of his generation,” as the magazine called him in an April tribute issue, could’ve got a little more time to shine. Surely Justin, Rihanna, Ariana, Britney, Pink and all the other young performers at the ceremony know they owe Prince a massive debt for his influence on their music, marketing and look. It’s a shame producers didn’t show they felt the same way.

TVGUIDE