Monday, August 20th, 2018

Aretha Franklin


Aretha Franklin was one of the pillars of the modern world. There were other soul singers, other musicians who brought the music of the Black midcentury church into the worlds of rhythm & blues, pop, and rock and roll; but there were none who so demanded, with such unmatched authority, to be heard. And not only to be heard, but to be respected. It can sometimes seem, especially given the way history can be collapsed in retrospect, that Aretha Franklin having a #1 hit was as important a civil rights milestone as anything achieved by Dr. King or the Black Panther Party. Pop is not a synonym for politics; but to the degree that pop is political, Aretha Franklin was undeniably and unequivocally a force for liberation. More liberation would and will be required; none of us are free until all of us are. We have lost the truest voice we ever knew. Thanks be for the miracle of records, that we can hear her still.

Jonathan Bogart on “Never Grow Old”:

Her first recording session took place when she was fourteen. She was already a mother. She had been performing publicly since she was seven. Her voice already has the strength, if not yet the resonance or the control, which everybody in the world with access to mass media knows. She already plays with tempo and extemporization — the entire two minutes and fifty-three seconds of her debut single is a surging, indefinitely-delayed riff on the old Baptist hymn (written 1914, published 1930) rather than the notated stanzas and strophes of the hymn itself. She practices the exact same technique that she will in 1972, when the same song is the overwhelming climax to the greatest gospel record ever made.

Jonathan Bogart on “Won’t Be Long”:

At eighteen, she embarked on a secular recording career. John Hammond, the producer who had “discovered” Billie Holiday, Count Basie, and Bob Dylan, signed her to Columbia. Her improvisational skill and intensely flexible vocals made her a natural fit for jazz, so it was as a jazz singer with a gospel inflection that she was first marketed. This wasn’t brand-new: Ray Charles had taken much the same trajectory a few years earlier, and this, with her own rolling piano and shuffling drums, was not unlike a Ray Charles song, specifically “I Got a Woman.” If it had been the crossover hit it deserved to be (it went to #7 R&B), it might have pushed her down a bluesier path, her gospel squalling mistaken for rock n’ roll howling. But instead she was smoothed down, turned jazzier: her 1964 performance of the song on the Steve Allen show, with Herb Ellis on guitar, is more sophisticated and dynamic than the original, the fuller sound matching her all-out vocals. Yes, of course when she went to Atlantic things changed: not just for her, but for the world. But even if she never had, if she had died in 1966 at the age of twenty-four, she would still be a legend whose ten LPs would be pored over by jazz, gospel, and R&B fans forever.

Jonathan Bogart on “Skylark”:

The anecdote from David Remnick’s two-year-old New Yorker article, which spread far and wide on social media this past week, in which Sarah Vaughan told Etta James that after hearing Aretha Franklin sing “Skylark” she never would again, was gleefully pounced on as yet another instance of Franklin snatching a song from its originator, the way she took “Respect” from Otis Redding or “I Say a Little Prayer” from Dionne Warwick. But Sassy had never recorded “Skylark” — it was just in her repertoire, same as in any jazz singer’s. Which Aretha was too, although she was a gospel singer first, which is where that sudden octave leap almost two minutes into the song comes from. It’s still not my favorite version of “Skylark,” though I’d be a fool not to recognize the consummate skill with which she makes it part of her canon; for me it’s a reverie song, which means her explosion of emotion is too much of a jolt: a cooler, more limited singer like Anita O’Day more closely approaches my ideal rendition. But of course it’s a jazz song, which means there is no definitive rendition: it’s a broad tent, welcoming saints and sinners alike. But if your Calvinist musical theology has no room for pluralism, if it’s organized purely by brackets, cutting contests, snatched wigs and GOATs, then this may well be, by the terms under which Aretha is undoubtedly the greatest of all time, the best “Skylark” ever.

Edward Okulicz on “Runnin’ Out of Fools”:

Sure she could turn anything into a hymn, but she could also do spectacular things beyond singing big, and there is so much to adore about the way she sings this song. On “Runnin’ Out of Fools,” Aretha scorns herself for having been the fool but saves the most contempt for the man who wronged her. If she had a target in mind when she sang the song, he’d probably have died of shame around the line “have yourselves a dime’s worth of talking,” the line and her performance (especially how she almost laughs on the word “dime”) reducing the song’s subject’s worth to a single coin. And it’s all in Franklin’s reading, because the lyrics when written make the song’s narrator seem small. Franklin makes hers large and full of conviction, with strength that comes from nuance as much as hitting every note flawlessly every single time, or going for power. Even in a relatively modest song, you can hear why her renditions of so many songs are the definitive ones. If Aretha laid claim to any single word in the musical canon, it would obviously be “respect.” But if she had a second, it’d have to be “fools” — she has the ultimate take on “Chain of Fools” and she has this. The word sounds so good coming out of her. Most words did.

Ian Mathers on “Respect”:

I mean, let’s be clear: Otis Redding was no slouch. I outright adore a lot of Otis Redding’s work. But such is the sheer force of the artistry, authority, and just star power of Aretha Franklin that there is doubt in almost no-one’s mind (I hate using absolutes about subjective things like taste; this is the most I’ve been tempted to do so in years) when you listen to it that “Respect” is Aretha Franklin’s song. The combined talent, importance, bearing, and, honestly, majesty of Aretha Franklin’s life, art, and career, that combination of things that yeah do leave us reaching hopelessly for terms like “diva” (here less meaning someone talented but demanding and more harkening back to the Latin divus, one deified after death) doesn’t care one whit for the fact that technically, according to such petty concerns as history and linear time and logic, Redding wrote and first performed a song called “Respect” that, all right, we can admit has a lot in common with Aretha Franklin’s epochal “Respect.” He did it first, and we can accept that he in a sense made it possible, but the priority and the prominence goes to Aretha, in a way that beggars the force of calling her “Respect” (for example) ‘the greatest cover of all time’. It is one of the greatest songs of all time, full stop, for any number of reasons (Carl Wilson has a good start on those here), and again Aretha makes it 100% her own, not just because of any rearrangement or additional writing by her (the idea of singer and songwriter as one unit is often overrated) but the sheer incandescent, blinding brilliance of the demand and self-knowledge and inexorable joy on display in “Respect,” the real “Respect,” the one Aretha Franklin sings. The one that can make you feel like Otis Redding’s version only exists so Aretha could do this, even if you don’t believe in fate or destiny. I’ve been listening to “Respect” for well over 30 years and I still forget that any version that isn’t Aretha’s exists. It can be overplayed, overcovered (and how many of those pale imitations are covering the original version of “Respect,” vs. the real version?), you can hear it so many times that it comes to seem as necessary but unexciting as the bedrock beneath your feet (especially for those of us not alive when it originally came out and had some real effects in the world), it can be misused in pretty much any context you could think of, and the magnificence of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” is ultimately undimmed. For hers was the queendom, the power, and the glory. Give Aretha her propers when you get home.

Leonel Manzanares de la Rosa on “Dr. Feelgood (Love Is Serious Business)”:

Aretha Franklin is mainly known — and universally praised — for her renditions of soul, gospel, blues, jazz and even pop standards, songs that had a certain proven status and that, with the addition of the greatest voice of the Rock & Roll era, become solidified as all-time classics. However, the single piece that most moves me from Aretha is the self-penned blues, “Dr. Feelgood.” You see, it’s no secret that the greatest display of her music’s true power is on the stage, her live records being absolutely her most iconic, and Franklin’s interpretation of this tune at the Fillmore West floors me even to this day. The pacing, the passion, the incredible tenacity, the way her voice conflates the experience of erotic ecstasy with the religious kind; all of these should be studied in music classrooms and rehearsal spaces for centuries to come. This is how true Soul should be done.

Jer Fairall on “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”:

Watch this clip from the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors. It’s the one where Barack Obama famously wipes away a tear as Aretha Franklin accompanies herself on piano to one of her most famous and enduring hits, where Carole King loses it watching Aretha perform the song she wrote a half a century ago with Gerry Goffin (at the behest of Jerry Wexler), where Aretha herself steps away from the piano halfway through the song, tosses her fur coat aside and brings the audience to its feet with a show stopping finale. It is a performance that radiates warmth, generosity, love and triumph, and the famous crowd repays Aretha with gratitude. How could they not? While many others, including King herself, would attempt versions of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” the song can only ever be Aretha’s. Because of Aretha, it remains that rare combination of timely and timeless, a song in which the singer’s gospel roots help literalize what was at the core of rock and roll, of sweet soul music, and really, of the whole of Western popular music in the second half of the 20th century: the merger of the spiritual and the carnal. Where so many of Aretha’s peers and followers, from Elvis to Prince (and well beyond), would mine this duality for a tension whose expression unquestionably favoured the sexual half of that equation, Aretha’s performance of the song feels as if it is moved every bit as much by spirt as it is by desire, with no comprehension of why the two could not coexist. It is an expression of pure, guiltless elation, and more than 50 years on, it still feels like a gift.

Stephen Eisermann on “Chain of Fools”:

Growing up in a primarily Spanish-speaking home, I heard mostly older Mexican music rather than oldies or disco or genres of American past. Aretha was different, though. I still remember my first encounter with her music: my grandmother — who to this day doesn’t speak a lick of English — was humming the chorus of this song. I always admired and loved my grandmother’s voice, so I immediately had to know the name of the song. “Vita,” the name we call my grandmother, “que tarareas?” She quickly answered, “no sé, mi cielo, cuando estaba cambiando los canales en la tele, escuché una voz maravillosa cantándola, pero no la conozco.” My grandmother, basically, shared that she stumbled onto Aretha’s stunning voice by complete accident, but despite not understanding what the song said, her voice transcended the language barrier.

Ever since then, that’s always been how I’ve remembered and appreciated Aretha — a queen with a voice that anyone could admire, whether they understand the language she sings in or not. “Chain of Fools” is always the song I go back to when I’ve been slighted in a relationship, specifically because of the way Aretha sings with not anger, but disappointment — in both her man and herself. The song has a self-awareness that is admirable, but above all it’s the painfully soulful delivery that brings it home. Rest easy, Queen, your legacy will live on forever.

Julian Axelrod on “I Say a Little Prayer”:

In Dionne Warwick’s hands, “I Say a Little Prayer” is a song of humility. A woman goes about her workday, keeping her lover in her thoughts as she follows her routine. (Hal David wrote the song as a lament for a soldier fighting in Vietnam, but I’ve always interpreted it as a straightforward expression of gratitude. After all, isn’t it more beautiful to keep someone in your prayers when they don’t need it?) But Aretha takes the song and transforms it completely, because she was incapable of doing otherwise. The biggest shift comes in the bridge, when a simple plea for devotion becomes a showcase for our hero’s cyclone powerhouse siren call. There’s still fear and love and disbelief, but it’s impossible to hear that voice and not be bowled over by its power. She imbues this devotional hymn with agency through sheer might: while Warwick calls out to God, Aretha becomes God, an almighty being of mercy waiting beside us at the bus stop. Her presence looms so large that it’s easy to forget her backup singers handle most of the hook. But Aretha’s call is unmistakable: “forever and ever,” repeated like an incantation until it ascends into the outer reaches of space. It’s impossible to condense an icon into a single word, but “forever” is a pretty good place to start.

Jacob Sujin Kupperman on “Spirit in the Dark”:

“Spirit in the Dark” is perhaps the definitive late 60s-early 70s soul slow burn, rising (on the studio version) from a gorgeous and yearning piece of gospel to a full-on dance jam over four expertly played minutes. In live versions (as documented in both her Live at Fillmore West and Oh Me Oh My: Aretha Live in Philly, 1972), she could stretch it out for even longer, reaching 5 or 6 minutes for the full release. But a slow burn only works through an excess of control — otherwise, it’s just a mess of different tempos and feels with no cohesive whole. And on “Spirit in the Dark,” Aretha is always in control. It’s not just in the obvious things, like in how she stretches out those first notes before the band even comes into formation — it’s in subtle little touches, like how she works more and more call and response into her rapport with the background singers on the live versions until that defining break, where she responds to their gleeful “I think I got it” with a triumphant “I do too,” or in how even on the Fillmore West reprise of the song, an 8-minute jam with the addition of Ray Charles for a duet, Ray Charles himself is in such a clear subservient role that it’s almost like he is doing fealty to her in every note she sings. Her dominance over “Spirit” even carries beyond the song itself — of all the many soul classics Kanye has sampled, his use of “Spirit in the Dark” on 2003’s “School Spirit” is maybe the most distinctive. That’s partly because Aretha made Kanye censor all of his profanity on the album version of the song, but it’s also in how “School Spirit” sounds — Kanye’s less sampling her, using her as one part of a full composition, as he does on songs like “Through the Wire,” than singing a duet, letting her take control of the whole track.

Pedro João Santos on “Spirit in the Dark”:

In 2011, asked by Wendy Williams to hypothetically anoint a future Queen of Soul, Ms. Aretha Franklin cut straight to the point: “Aretha!”, she affirmed, with a smirk, neither feigned to undercut the statement’s immodesty nor villainous, but irrepressibly aware of her timelessness — Aretha, now and forever. Her name has echoed in my system for ages before my ears were sufficiently mature to comprehend her — the singer of “Respect,” the woman reduced to a legend. It was through Nick Marino’s review of “Spirit in the Dark,” published earlier in the year, that I came to fully ascertain Ms. Aretha’s sublimity and raw prowess, striking a chord within my body that few voices have. The 1970 record is one of her most peculiar, successful triumphs, mixing blues guitars and a salutary kick of feverish percussion with her customary piano, all united through her luxuriating portent of a voice. (It remains a mystery to me how quiescent everyone is on this album, which hasn’t seen a repress on wax since 2002.) The title track is a forceful tribute to something intangible, a phenomenon that’s as unquantifiable as magnetic (and one that runs through the entire album, effectively), subsuming everyone around, subjugating them to deliriousness. It’s not immediate from the beginning, the soft cradling of a piano and a sparkling hi-hat, while Aretha gently croons about the “spirit,” but it soon reveals itself as a wholehearted hymn in celebration of whatever you desire it to. It’s a performance of fervor and gusto, a rapturous song about a rapturous sensation, as pervasively consuming as charming. If it’s not a pure, exemplary testament to her voice — “Pullin’” from the same album accomplishes that better — it’s a testament to her perpetual power of uniting souls through sound.

Leonel Manzanares de la Rosa on “Mary, Don’t You Weep”:

There’s a reason why Amazing Grace, the gospel record she made live at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles during January of 1972, stands not only as Aretha Franklin’s highest-selling album, but also as the single biggest-selling gospel record in history: that reason being that Aretha is such an engaging performer and such a powerful presence that every word that comes out of her golden voice gets etched in your mind forever.

Let’s talk about singers for a while: I’ve been a musician all my life, and I’ve been a singer in some groups as well, and from that experience I can certainly gather that everyone who takes a microphone aspires to the level of ineffable greatness that Aretha shows in this record, particularly during album opener “Mary Don’t You Weep,” not only because of the serious scope of gospel music, but because her voice goes to a higher spiritual consciousness, connecting the worldly with the divine with every high note, with every turn of phrase. She’s a perfect singer, and the biggest reason why is that she’s NOT a perfect singer. Recently, music scholar Scott Interrante has pointed out that, even when some writers try to portray Aretha as the epitome of clean, pitch-perfect singing that never needed Autotune or any kind of digital studio wizardry, the reason why she’s such a great singer is because she is never trying to be clean at all; a great singer (especially at this time in recorded music history) intentionally bends and slides around the notes to give the performance more color and emotion. Digital recording technology, and the ultra-narrow temperament that came with it, forced singers to be more pitch-precise, ultimately resorting to digital tuning, which is what we hear in all pop records now. So, in a way, if we count the technological advances to recording music — yes, even live music — and the focus and scope of today’s singing approach, and the direction the industry itself has taken in the past thirty years, we will never have a performance like this again. And you know what? All the better for it. Aretha is unrepeatable; it was a tremendous blessing to have her in this world for such a long, wonderful time.

Anthony Easton on “Old Landmark”:

This song always intrigued me, for a wide variety of reasons — the ambitious piano, the hand clapping, the vocal that flirts both with blues shouting and with Pentecostal glossolalia (though no one here is Pentecostal), the ecstacy of the call and response… but I think what intrigues me even more than those things is the schematics of power playing throughout the song.

Aretha was a singular genius. She was a singular genius within a explicit tradition, and so listening to her sing gospel is to hear all of the black church run through her voice (literally, considering her father and her initial training in church, considering Mahalia Jackson knew her from birth). However, she is singing here with James Cleveland, or at least Cleveland is directing the choir. By the choir, I mean his choir. The genius of this track is the intersection of Cleveland and Franklin — it is them working sometimes together, and sometimes at subtle odds to work through this choir.

Cleveland, gospel singer and composer, pushed what the genre could be. The stew of R&B, soul, pop and jazz that became another kind of music was done on his watch. He was so successful at it that he ended up with a world famous choir and a Los Angeles church with ten thousand members. Listening to his work — the updating of traditional hymns in the 1950s, with the Gospelaires; later in that decade, folding that shouting into work with The Gospel All-Stars and The Gospel Chimes; eventually arranging songs for the Queen of Gospel, Albertina Walker; and in 1959 arranging Ray Charles; and after he moved to Los Angeles in the early 1960s, having Billy Preston play keys for his Gospel choirs — Cleveland knew how to get sounds, how to Sanctify.

It’s not like Franklin didn’t know any of this, but listening to the song with Cleveland, a formal set of negotiations about how to make music, a deepening and complicating of extant tradition, all of the arguments about her as natural, or about talent being God-given — even Gospel had ambition, and skill and hard work. This track on the monumentally successful work is a summit, and it reminds us of all those things.

Leonel Manzanares de la Rosa on “Rock Steady”:

Two very important, very true things have been recently discussed when it comes to paying the right tribute to the great Aretha: The first is that we, as a culture, still have a hard time recognizing Black women — and women of color in general — as musical geniuses, which Aretha undoubtedly is. The second is that we tend to associate musical genius solely with songwriting and producing, and that we only see incredible, skillful, powerful performers and vocalists as “great singers/interpreters.” Aretha Franklin was all of the above, which means that she can be a mean songwriter as well; her compositions have incredible range, going from slow, pained blues to sun-kissed dancefloor-ready numbers. “Rock Steady” is proof that Miss Franklin can deliver a true funk jam, with the groove and the hooks to make James Brown himself green with envy. And horny as hell to boot.

Jonathan Bradley on “Spanish Harlem”:

Ben E. King’s “Spanish Harlem” was his first hit as a solo artist, and in his hands, the track was grown man music: stately and sophisticated R&B characterized by a rich string arrangement and a delicate marimba riff. A love song, it is a promise by King of security as well as limitation. “I’m going to pick that rose and watch her as she grows in my garden.” A decade later, in 1971 — the entire Sixties having passed in the interim — Aretha Franklin visits the neighborhood. Her “Spanish Harlem” hasn’t lost King’s poise, but she allows an entire community into the tune’s rhythms, which are now girded by a stiff funk groove. She has rewritten the lyric, expanding its uptown purview: the rose belongs to “Black and Spanish Harlem,” a flower in a bustling and lively Manhattan of African American and Latino peoples living among one another, their music — soul, gospel, flamenco guitar, rock ‘n’ roll organ runs — piled together. King sang the song as a solitary figure, with the woman of his affections presented as a secret he was sharing with the listener. But for Franklin, the women of this community aren’t alone, and they aren’t waiting for King to come along and pluck them from a crack in the pavement either. Franklin’s voice expands wonderfully, and the song becomes one of feminine resilience: “It is the special one,” she sings of the rose. It is a flower so hardy that it can thrive in concrete; it has coal-black eyes that can stare into a man’s soul and set it on fire. Franklin has better-known songs that upended men’s voices when she took them on as her own, but “Spanish Harlem” was not just an effort in giving voice to a femininity made fragile and silent, but an act of bringing in a whole population of voices, and of finding strength and life in the connection.

Nortey Dowuona on “Spanish Harlem”:

Aretha Franklin was an institution when I was a kid. My dad would play her music on those lazy Sundays when he would read the Daily Graphic and Ghanaian Times while I sat by his chair and read them. My mom would play her music as she drove us to school. I would hear her on Atlantis Radio 87.9 FM during the drive late at night or early in the day. There was never a world in which Aretha was an aspiring or growing artist, she was an influence by the point I was born and being raised when her hottest, brightest period had set and she had become a legend who didn’t walk the ground and sang for the first black president and shrugged off sables and shaded Taylor Swift for not being able to sing and made Kanye West cut out the cursing in “School Spirit” (which actually made it a lot better in retrospect).

But by the time I began burning my dad’s music to my own laptop, Aretha was just another legacy artist I felt no connection with. So when I first played “Spanish Harlem,” It felt like a tunnel into the past, a baptism of fire into the pop music of my father’s time from mine. The bass played by Chuck Rainey swum underneath the river’s surface, Dr. John’s keyboards dipping toes into the water, dashes of flutes and drizzling acoustic guitar on top of the waters surface while Aretha and her singers sang of Spanish Harlem on the docks, with a piano drifting on by with Dr. John playing on it. But Bernard “Pretty” Purdie’s shuffling drums were what really did it. They felt like rumbling tyres which I rode along the streets of Harlem, watching people basically go along their days, speaking Spanish and English without even noticing they were doing it. I became a fan immediately. It became my favorite Aretha song and one of my favorite songs in general. It felt just like Harlem was back in those days when Aretha was a cultural behemoth who made a cover of a B-side of a Ben E. King single soar to the top of the R&B Billboard chart and #2 on the Billboard pop chart for three weeks, starting on 9/11 (before it was 9/11).

When I did actually come to America, I thought: “Harlem looks busted.” Then again, in 2014, New York was gentrifying quick; the Spanish Harlem Ben E. King and Aretha sang of would soon no longer exist — or more accurately, soon it would morph into something much different, something the inhabitants of Spanish Harlem would be disappointed but not surprised by. But there was no burrowing inside fantasy of the past anymore. There was only the song. There were only Pretty’s tyres which I once rode, piled carefully in a corner for the day they would be used again, rolling down the streets of Harlem, reading a iPhone instead of a Daily Graphic paper.

“A rose in Black ’n’ Spanish Harlem!…”

Rebecca Gowns on “Day Dreaming” and “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I Am Going to Do)”:

These are two of my favorite songs. Not just the favorites of a certain era, or a certain genre, but two of the best songs, period. Aretha’s whole catalogue is full of songs like these, but these two, together, are exemplary of what she did best. “Day Dreaming” shows off her songwriting, “Until You Come Back to Me” shows off the way she could take other people’s material and make it uniquely her own, and they both show off the incredible knack she had for attracting musicians that could create magic together. On “Day Dreaming” we have Donny Hathaway on keyboard and the legendary Hubert Laws on flute; on “Until You Come Back to Me” — written by Stevie Wonder — we have Donny Hathaway on keyboard, Chuck Rainey on bass, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie on drums, Joe Farrell on flute, and Cissy Houston on backup vocals. Only Aretha could conjure up these combinations. And when it all comes together, it flies — both of these songs are so day-dreamy that they put me into a reverie. You know, I just found an old mixtape that I put together for an ex-girlfriend, and I played it in-between my non-stop Aretha playlist I’ve been playing since she passed. Just hearing that mixtape again instantly brought me back to that feeling of being 21 and crushing hard and knowing, in the back of my mind, that it just wasn’t going to work out. I was overcome by the memory, so bittersweet. I recalled the look on Aretha’s face in this “Soul Train” clip when she’s talking about “Day Dreaming,” not willing to talk about her subject, but the pain and hesitation that flits across her face speaks volumes. Her voice conjures up all of that. These songs are sweet love ballads, but you can also hear the thorns. I want us to remember Aretha not just for her power, not just for her “diva” qualities, but also for her deep well of tenderness. She didn’t just belt out a song. She made it dynamic, personal, nuanced, real.

Alfred Soto on “I’m in Love”:

In 1972, Aretha Franklin scored a hit with “Day Dreaming,” a self-written ballad that for once eschewed anxiety and accepted comfort; she even allows herself to sound smug, as if she had to project her delight at having found a man worthy enough to daydream about. Two years later she covered Bobby Womack’s “I’m in Love,” a hit for Wilson Pickett in the late ‘60s. Untroubled by pain or the memory of loss, Franklin interprets “I’m in Love” as confession: “I wake up smilin’,” she testifies over the ripples of Cornell Dupree’s guitar. Donny Hathaway’s piano offers accompaniment, not counterpoint. Nothing disturbs this narcotized groove until Franklin’s blood-curdling scream at 2:05 — no artist but Aretha could remind listeners of how terrifying love can be when you, to paraphrase another song, let it in your life.

Mallory O’Donnell on “Freeway of Love”:

I imagine I was around 9 or 10 when I heard and (crucially) saw Aretha for the first time, in the stylishly B&W video for “Freeway of Love.” In the vanilla suburban commuter world of my upbringing, MTV represented nothing less than liberation ideology. Nearly everything that happened to me musically (from hip-hop to goth) until college age was a result of the odd 80’s entity that was this channel — a blend of mainstream hits and bizarre one-offs that someone desperately made a video for, thinking “some wack kid in New Jersey will love this.” Seeing a potent, joyous, non-sexualized black woman hamming and camping it up like this quite clearly appealed to a broad stripe of music fandom at the time, but I had the nerve to take it to heart. It turns out “Freeway of Love” wasn’t to induce a lifelong obsession with soul and R&B (that came later), nor was it to create in me a feeling of sensitive and joyous empowerment (that’s impending, surely), but it did expose me to an eclectic and accepting vision of pop music in which any space seemed viable for pollination. At the intersection of smooth jazz / post-disco, 80’s synth-driven rock(ish) and unrepentant pop I submit this absurd number — a song that doesn’t so much loom as haunt, less it lingers — rather it mingles. It’s silly, irresistible, awkward, and gleefully free of anything resembling pretension or far worse “authenticity.” It’s as fake as a pink Cadillac, chunky and funky as those fat-bottom keyboards and as deliciously overripe as Clarence Clemons’ sax solo. One doesn’t exactly “sing” this kind of song, but merely ride (sorry) along and let it do its cheesy duty. For someone gifted with a voice that would make most singers stab baby rabbits to possess, Aretha never really uses it here to draw attention to the fact that it is Her doing the singing, while her personality still manages to imbue every damp synth stab. This kind of restraint (and I use that word advisedly in a song that contains the line “how’d ya get your pants so tight”) exercised directly in the face of such musical excess is what lesser artists lack. To turn that restraint into a pan-cultural, non-judgmental, bankable sense of fun and empowerment is surely the divine right of a Queen.

Kat Stevens on “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves”:

The S5E10 episode of Xena: Warrior Princess (“Lyre, Lyre, Hearts On Fire”) sees a visibly pregnant Xena and a troupe of Amazons performing a fully choreographed “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves” in an Ancient Greek health spa. With the baby’s paternity a mystery, Xena’s aim is to convince her mother that despite her vigilante lifestyle, she is fully capable of raising a child single-handedly and has no need of any man’s help (let’s gloss over the fact that Xena’s last child got unfortunately murderised by a vengeful demigod). Certainly she has no plans to settle down in Amphipolis with her mother, who eventually admits she’s always been powerless to stop Xena doing whatever the fuck she likes, and gives her blessing. I suppose it helps your argument when you have a literal army of feminist warriors backing you up? At first it might seem like an oddly male-gaze-pandering choice to stage the song in style of Peggy Lee’s “Fever” (with a hint of Stomp dustbin lids), with the bikini’d Amazons vamping around in steamy showers, but there are no men here to gaze. By series 5 the show’s attitude to gender politics — plus the queer coding of the two leads — was well established: men are firmly optional, even for procreation.

Aretha was adaptable across decades and genres, easily bubbling to the top of the 1980s Levi’s-advert soul-nostalgia jacuzzi, reminding us how to do it properly. In 1985 the Eurythmics were riding that bandwagon via Stevie Wonder synth-gospel on “There Must Be An Angel,” and the Motown-revival stomper “Would I Lie To You.” But the stadium rock of “Sisters” has no patience with pastiche — there’s work to do here and now. In the video we see two women (one of colour, one androgynous) confidently performing together at the top of their game, rallying a women-only audience, with footage of activists, scientists, wrestlers, astronauts, doctors, parents, nuns, soldiers and politicians playing behind them. Aretha and Annie grudgingly accept that men must share the universe too, but right now they can sit down and wait their turn. (Dave Stewart is confined to a spare room somewhere, making an utter tit out of himself: firmly optional). Like “We Are Family,” “Sisters” has suffered over the years from becoming a hen party cliche — and as I write that phrase, my internalised misogyny magically appears! What’s wrong with a group of women claiming songs for themselves? “Sisters” may seem like corny idealism, but it’s not a cliche when depressingly, over thirty years later we still do not have equality. Give all women (and I mean all) free access to education, healthcare and birth control. Lift women out of poverty. Put our works on the reading lists. Pay us the same goddamn wage. Stop killing us for saying ‘no.’ Let us ride through Macedonia while 8 months pregnant to stop warlords ransacking the Temple of Artemis. Let us tell men to sit the fuck down for 4 minutes and 28 seconds, so we can get on with saving the world.

Jonathan Bradley on “A Rose is Still a Rose”:

In 1998, Lauryn Hill stood at the forefront of contemporary black music — as an artistic force, a commercial one, even an intellectual and spiritual one. It was a role Aretha Franklin herself had occupied at times in her career, and “A Rose is Still a Rose” bears Hill’s unmistakeable imprint. But what it doesn’t do is bestow Hill’s validation upon Franklin: there is no sense that Hill was, in lending Franklin her sound, was also loaning her currency or helping an older woman back into the pop present. Franklin sounded like she belonged naturally next to hip-hop beats, fitting in as comfortably with an ex-Fugee as she had into the post-disco of the 1980s, the funk of the 1970s, the soul of the 1960s, or the gospel of the 1950s. “A Rose is Still a Rose” recalls in motif Franklin’s “Spanish Harlem,” but it also anticipates Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing),” which would be released about six months later. Both songs touch on the impact that reckless masculinity can have on the women that bear brunt, but Franklin’s response is notably generous and empathetic, finding grace and innocence. “Without him your life goes on,” she sings, while Hill backs her up, turning Edie Brickell’s “What I Am” into an affirmation of self-reliance. It is restorative to celebrate the greats as history, but it is thrilling to hear them again and again stamp themselves into new musical landscapes.

Rebecca Gowns on “Rolling in the Deep”:

She kept performing, all the way up to the end. Her last major hit had been in 1987, but that didn’t stop her from performing and recording, relentlessly. “Rolling in the Deep” is an Adele cover from her last studio album of original recordings, Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, which was released in 2014. Do you remember seeing this performance? I remember it so clearly — all of a sudden, it was everywhere. People were sharing this all across social media, telling each other, in awe: “Oh my God, check this out. Listen to her. She’s 72 years old. She sounds incredible.” Not just incredible, but powerful. Listening to it now, she still sends shivers down my spine. Adele clearly channelled Aretha when she wrote this song, consciously aiming for the sound of a classic gospel choir-swaying foot-stomping righteous power ballad. But even if she had not been aiming for a pastiche of Aretha, Adele was just one more singer in the wide scope of popular American music who could not do what they do without Aretha’s specific influence. So when Aretha sings this song, it feels good, deep down to the bones, because it’s not just a good singer singing a good song, but because this the godmother of modern vocal pop/rock/soul coming back to reclaim what is hers, what has always been hers. The inventor reunited with her invention. Sure, the new singers have their tricks, and their vocal cords are still young and supple, and when you watch Aretha singing in the last years of her life, you can start to see the effort at the seams of something that used to look effortless for her. But the passion, the talent, the soul of this music, is undeniable. This performance brought her back into public consciousness for the younger generations; it actually made it to #1 in the US Dance charts, her first #1 song in 27 years. Her last #1 single. She was a queen, and this was her homecoming.

One Response to “Aretha Franklin”

  1. I made a Spotify playlist: https://open.spotify.com/user/cryptosicko/playlist/49umJQPCEEu8konNoQ71y7?si=ANgC5TCtQmutIPTAIJ_b8w

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