We didn’t deserve Aretha Franklin.
That’s not necessarily an indictment; how can anyone deserve what she gave us in her 76 years on Earth? Franklin, who passed yesterday after a lengthy battle with pancreatic cancer, was more than a singer of soul, pop and gospel music. She was more than the Queen of Soul, a title bestowed upon her almost immediately and rightly never disputed. She transcended genre. She transcended everything that was supposed to limit her: gender, race, the intersectionality of both. Her influence can be charted through every sphere of popular music. Generations of singers claim her as an indelible influence, and yet could only dream of reaching the base of her zeniths. Those who don’t directly claim her are either laughably foolish or woefully ignorant of musical history. Aretha Franklin was the most important female voice in the history of American music.
That voice was an unprecedented instrument that could communicate a broad spectrum of emotion that was also grounded in a disarming sense of strength and truth. Soul was a nebulous concept before Franklin, with her stratospheric highs and sizzling lows, arrived to fully embody it. She could quake the Earth with her growl; she could calm raging oceans with soft, sensuous runs. Whether she was demanding respect and freedom, discovering love lost and found, or praising the Lord, Franklin sang with an intimate intensity that could simmer or erupt in equal measure, but could always sear down to the innermost core. She was trained in the church tradition, but the divine origins of her range and power didn’t render her inflexible. She could wade through different musical waters with aplomb, but her gospel roots ensured she never lost what made her such a singular presence. Such a presence was Franklin that she was effectively trusted with the American experience, especially the Black American experience, giving remarkable voice to our greatest triumphs and tragedies. She bore that respo
As superlative as her voice is, the true genesis of Aretha Franklin was her innate musicianship. She was a genius of musical arrangement. She could bend any song, regardless of genre or tempo or lyric, to her indomitable will. There is a reason why people often associate “Respect”, “Say a Little Prayer”, “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman” and others to her before their original artists. From Burt Bacharach and Hal David to John McCartney and John Lennon, she plumbed the depths of the songs she covered and surfaced new interpretations that she claimed wholeheartedly. Most times, she elevated the original material to her level. Other times, Aretha moulded her voice to the original vision as much as possible. If not the most faithful adaptations, these unions yielded their own unique kind of magic, like when she stepped in for the ill opera legend Luciano Pavarotti and sang the aria “Nessun Dorma” at the 1998 Grammys, a performance regarded as an all-time great. All the originators could do in Aretha’s wake was acquiesce and be grateful for the opportunity that she offered them: immortality.
Her interpretative brilliance, coupled with her otherworldly vocal prowess, drove the most enduring, prolific and celebrated careers in entertainment history. Aretha Franklin didn’t just record hit singles (112 of them, to be exact). Her records are standards of the postwar American songbook, monuments of musical excellence and cultural resonance. “Respect”, her signature record, was an anthem of the civil rights and feminist movements, inspiring a generation to rise up against injustice. “Natural Woman” and “Until You Come Back to Me” were joyous declarations of devotion, while her iconic cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” crackled with transcendent spiritual energy. Franklin didn’t let the turning tide away from her brand of ebullient soul stop her, finding renewed relevance with slick R&B like “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” and effervescent pop like “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me”, her unforgettable duet with George Michael. As agile as she could be across genres, it was gospel that ran deepest through her veins; her greatest critical and commercial triumph was Amazing Grace, a live album that is regarded as the greatest gospel recording of all time.
When she wasn’t recording the soundtracks to multiple generations’ lives, she was on stage delivering one legendary performance after another. She was a Grammy favorite, and her performances consistently ranked amongst the ceremony’s best. She was beloved by presidents, performing at the inaugurations of Carter, Clinton and, most famously, Obama in 2009, with an iconic rendition of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” (capped off with an equally iconic hat). Her reign as Queen of Soul warranted several tributes for or featuring her, and she was the undisputed highlight of them all. VH1’s Divas Live benefit concert was ostensibly a celebration of multiple women in pop, but Franklin ultimately held the court, leading into an electrifying vocal showdown between her and Celine Dion over “Natural Woman”. Amongst her many incredible live moments, Aretha’s appearance at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors, where her rendition of “Natural Woman” for songwriter and honoree Carole King left Obama in tears and whipped the audience into a frenzy halfway through, may stand the test of time most of all.
Truthfully, there is much more that can be written about Aretha Franklin. In some ways, words are inadequate to grasp the scope of her incalculable value to the American tradition. Civil rights icon, musical genius, style trendsetter, diva supreme, American legend: it all seems too small for the omnipresent force she was. So despite all of the rapturous praise given to her in life, and will certainly follow in death, it just doesn’t feel like enough.
We didn’t deserve Aretha Franklin, but maybe that was by design. Maybe a presence like hers, a talent like hers, could never fully be appreciated of us; maybe we are physically incapable of it. Maybe true recognition could only be achieved on the celestial plane she has now been granted access. Let us then acknowledge the blessing that we were deemed worthy enough to serve as an intermediate audience; we were so much greater for it.
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