She’s a singular figure at a key moment in American music. By mid-century the major styles of African American music—jazz, gospel, blues, rhythm & blues—had gained a strong cultural and commercial presence. Same with African American pop singers and classical composers. What’s new about people like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin is they could move among these genres, sometimes in a single song, in ways that connected with a range of audiences. Aretha likened this to being multilingual.
Aretha was a “multimusical” album-oriented artist with a highly identifiable sound and approach and had what a 1970s fan called “the genius of combining all forms of black culture into music.”
When she moved to Atlantic Records in 1967—a smaller label committed to R&B and soul, and savvy enough to let Aretha be herself—she became a star who could show audiences the depths, the reach, and the heterogeneity of black music. She presented African American music as a repository of ideas—ideas about politics, culture, and being-in-the-world, about love, sex, and romance, and also about the flexibility and force of song.
Above all, Aretha was a singer with power and precision who could ad-lib on a melody like nobody else, give a lyric new meanings, make time flow in impossible ways, and put a tear in your eye at the drop of a dime.
All this is why it’s exciting to discuss her in courses like my soul-music seminar, where we can unpack records like “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and hear how she creates these effects. But we also talk about how as an African-American female artist Franklin paid a steep tax on her creative output.
Even after she was crowned the “Queen of Soul,” white-male critics called her vocal strength “shrill”; they heard her sensitivity, delicacy, subtlety, and capacity for negotiating with a song as tentativeness or lack of confidence. She responded to this criticism in two ways: by being her own biggest critic and by directly addressing the people who mattered to her, especially black women.
Unlike her white-male contemporaries—and more than anyone else of her stature—she often talked publicly about the work of self-improvement: both as an artist and entertainer—her sound, her body, her stage presence—and in her relations with collaborators, audiences, friends, and family members.
In an early-’70s interview she suggested that “being black… means searching for one’s place among others.” It’s pretty clear she saw this as a task that African American women were both burdened with and uniquely capable of.
Aretha was very aware of how people were “growing up to my music” and she modeled the task of “searching for one’s place” for listeners who were struggling. That’s one of the biggest reasons why she mattered like she did.
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