Rest in peace to Aretha Franklin, the truest soul diva, pop queen, gospel belter, and cathartic medium ever to fuse those roles into a single spirit. Franklin’s has been no ordinary celebrity death — the consequent outpouring of love has been flowing for weeks, from fans, experts, industry professionals, anyone whose feelings have ever been illuminated by the sound of her voice, anyone ever touched by her influence, anyone who has ever paid the slightest attention to soul or pop music.
There’s no stopping now. Mourning Aretha Franklin is a long, messy, raw, cleansing affair. Mourning Aretha Franklin means struggling to understand immense scale. Not just the scale of her influence, which we should all know by now, or the size of her discography, one of the more sprawling catalogs in pop, certainly packed with goodies neither you nor I have heard. Comprehending the mere size of her voice, and the scale of the emotions she channels in song, is challenge enough. Mourning Aretha Franklin means confronting depths of feeling unlikely to surface again.
Although the ups and downs of her discography daunt, Aretha recorded excellent music in every decade of her career. Her long-canonized late-‘60s albums on Atlantic define the sound and sensibility of classic soul music: the piercing quality of Aretha’s cries and declamations against the gritty counterpoint of the Muscle Shoals rhythm section’s spry, layered mesh of jagged horns and driving backbeat. The stylistic experiments she began in the ‘70s match their immediate predecessors in vision, elegance, and ambition, as does the gospel-inflected late-night soul of her Sparkle (1976) soundtrack album.
Her Luther Vandross-produced attempts at pop crossover in the ‘80s, embracing the slicker then-contemporary sound of chart pop-R&B, are slyly efficient and immersive examples of how an ideal singer-producer collaboration can conjure magic. The neosoul synthesis of A Rose Is Still a Rose (1998), featuring any number of contemporary R&B and even hip-hop guests, is a rare example of an older legend inserting herself wholesale into the evolved music of the younger generation while compromising neither herself nor the new style. The recent Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics (2014), her final album, includes fabulously amusing takes on such vocal chestnuts as Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and Alicia Keys’s “No One.” These are among the highlights I’d pick. You have others. One could spend years unpacking the riches in the trove that is her catalog.
Listening to Aretha Franklin is also exhausting. Even as soul singers go, she’s not background music; when she’s on, she commands your full attention. Aretha sings as if she wants the listener to fall back with her in well-earned fatigue once the song is over. A song should be a cathartic event, a draining experience. As this high, sharp-voiced singer soars and thunders, hearing her shouts! and cries! and exclamations! and power screams! dazzles and enervates, leaving you winded at the thought that a human voice could expand so widely and blast with such force.
One reason Sings the Great Diva Classics delights is because there would be no Alicia Keys or Adele without Aretha’s model — she’s the original belter, having invented an overwhelmingly emphatic, energetic vocal style based in an immediate need for self-projection, schooled in gospel technique engaging a church audience. She exemplifies how, as Carol Cooper wrote in the Village Voice, “Church singers, in imitation of a skillful preacher delivering a sermon, were supposed to change volume, intonation, phrasing, vibrato—even lyrics and emotional intensity—according to what each theme or rhetorical moment seemed to require.”
Aretha sang as someone keenly aware that songs are sequences of rhetorical moments. In the middle of the title track on her classic commercial breakthrough, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967), a favorite moment of mine is when she raises her voice to emphasize the beginning of the second line: “The way you treat me is a shame/HOW COULD YA hurt me so bad?” before coming back down again to normal pitch.
As inflections go, it’s both naturalistic, reflecting where actual human speech might place the emphasis, and a surprise, contradicting the usual expectations regarding meter and delivery, turning it into an affirmation rather than a question. As read, the line is hurt and defiant, but she sings it as a triumph — the glee of a self-delighted singer savoring her vocal ability, along with the hard-won joy of shouting your suffering for all to hear.
You can hear her indomitability on “Get it Right” (1983), one of her shiniest productions with Luther Vandross, and a gorgeous example of the shimmering synth ambience that characterized so much ‘80s R&B. The liquid propulsion of the percussive rhythm guitar and snaky synth bass matches the impression of stacked keyboards, as ripples across the glassy electric surface imply endless depth beneath. The backup singers, mixed like a gospel choir, cry out with strategically timed exhortations (“Make it shout! Toss it turn you inside out! Never stop! We could take it to the top!”).
“Get it Right” is structured less as a progression between verse and chorus than a constantly shifting groove, layers upon layers of rhythm chants, drum fills, shouted demands, communal urges given collective voice. The track is an echo chamber, a hall of mirrors, the type a singer could easily get lost in, disappear into, you wouldn’t even notice, but Aretha won’t let it happen. She fights her way to the top throughout the whole song, clamoring to out-sing the backup singers, struggling to make herself heard as the aural center. She does so elegantly — another singer might have bellowed, but her soar is natural and assured. She feels the music’s energy and exceeds it with her own.
Describing Aretha’s vocal strategy in 1974, Robert Christgau wrote: “Aretha isn’t content to interpret a song. She has to possess it […] There is something desperate in her inspiration; she doesn’t have time for niceties, she just has to get it out there.” A product of gospel and the church, but also of her own musical and emotional instincts, that sense of triumphing over deprivation resonates in her singing, at the core of her mass appeal; it’s this quality that made her a superstar and then an icon in tandem with the civil rights movement in the ‘60s. To listen to Aretha Franklin is to observe a model of performed struggle. The energy she puts into her singing, the swooping dynamics and shouts, suggests the existence of something to overcome, and Aretha sings from a place of implicit insecurity and hardship. She lacks restraint because restraint is a privilege. Rather, her dignity and grace as a singer stem from her determination, her fervor, her strength of purpose, the totality of her commitment to giving every performance her all. It is one of American popular music and American black music’s miracles that her exuberant airing of suffering touched so many people and persisted for so long.
For newcomers to her catalog, who have a lot of exploring to do, I’d like to suggest a starting place. The canonicity and influence of her late-‘60s deep soul records is self-evident; if you know what soul music is, they’ll sound familiar even if you’ve never heard them before. My two favorite albums of hers directly followed that period, in the early ‘70s, when she was beginning to experiment with styles, playing around with her vocal approach, stretching the boundaries of her own voice and, by extension, the soul genre. Spirit in the Dark (1970) and Young, Gifted and Black (1972) are as beloved as her late-‘60s work among Aretha fanatics. As the love and the accolades and the hyperbole keep pouring in, these are ideal gateways.
Spirit in the Dark casts Aretha as a lounge singer, sitting at the keyboard in the corner of a hushed jazz club, singing wounded laments about heartbreak while savoring the slow burn of her pattering, blues-inflected piano playing. Perhaps it’s the fictional club she describes in “Try Matty’s,” an homage to a crowded dance club and/or barbecue joint where everyone wants to go, presumably because Aretha is playing there. Rocking energetically while cultivating a warmer, jazzier, more intimate vibe than before, Spirit in the Dark is above all a showcase for her piano — jauntily rockabilly on “Honest I Do,” simultaneously mournful and cheerful on “Don’t Play that Song,” driven and propulsive and constantly shifting on “Pullin.” She smolders with furious calm on “The Thrill is Gone” (“The thrill is gooooo-oooooo-oooo-oooone, YEAHHHH”), stabbing the keys with concealed rage that halfway through morphs into defiant elation. Throughout the album, you can envision the dark room, people dancing, sweat pouring, emotions on the brink.
The title song “Spirit in the Dark” is an ode to uplift itself. It simmers for several midtempo verses, piano and organ chugging, angelic backup singers cooing. Aretha repeatedly declares that she’s “getting the spirit in the dark,” asking her audience: “Are you getting the spirit?” Suddenly, she exclaims “I think I got it!” Everything breaks down! The tempo speeds up! The song charges and clatters forward, suffused with gospel’s ecstasy. The titular “spirit” here means everything she’s about — religious rapture, musical delight, the passion of performance, the unpredictable, unreplicable bliss of a moment when everything comes together in all the right ways. “Move with the spirit!” chant the backup singers, and the song fades out. It’s her career’s most euphoric moment.
Two years later, Young, Gifted and Black was a steeper departure — her starkest, weirdest, most enraptured album to date, more racially conscious, more delicately romantic, a pan-genre fusion of countless black pop styles united under the banner of spiritual yearning. Gone is the spiky percussive density of her deep-soul phase. Behold now a sweeping spareness, adorned by sporadically deployed strings, flutes, swelling horns, tinkly organ; often she and her piano stand alone.
Behold too her sweetest, most sumptuous vocal overkill. Young, Gifted and Black resonates because the expanses of empty space written into the proto-neosoul arrangements give her voice room to fill; it’s as if the need to live up to the cultural history implied by the album’s musical synthesis inspired her wildest recorded vocal performance. Her way of holding syllables and hitting high notes and singing with a smile is a form of bestowing love on all her listeners.
On “All the King’s Horses” she slips into hypnotic singsong; on “A Brand New Me” she demonstrates how a belted note can contain just the right proportions of rasp, sugar, warmth; on “April Fools” she spirals further and further upward, her wails getting more and more breathless, as if love’s pull is sucking her into the sky.
My favorite moment on Young, Gifted and Black comes early, in the opener’s second verse. One of Aretha’s signature moves as a singer is to add her own affirmative commentary after a line, just to signal that she liked that line especially. In “Oh Me, Oh My (I’m a Fool for You Baby)”, she outdoes herself: “We’ll blow a genie from a cigarette/and then we’ll take a magic carpet ride,” she sings, grandly, affectionately, over blossoming strings and piano chords. Only then, she can’t help herself, her heart is just swelling too much — she throws in a flourish: “Yes we will!” The glorious daftness of ad libbing literal affirmation to the most fanciful of metaphors, if a magic carpet ride can even count as a metaphor, captures something beautifully illustrative about Aretha Franklin. She will survive in the human need to sing our pain and our joy.