Had she lived, the Queen of Soul would have been 80-years-old this month. For at least 60 of her 76 years, Aretha Franklin shared her vocal gift all over the world. In addition to bringing her both critical and commercial success, her voice became a symbol for a new generation of Americans.
Older generations rooted in staid and static smugness frowned upon popular culture for breeding new forms of entertainment and activism which promoted an expression of unique, differing and contrasting ideas.
Utilizing the appeal of her voice, Aretha would challenge numerous pre-conceived notions, and the acceptance of her music would push boundaries that had previously limited others based upon race, sex, religion and politics. She created a following that was first attracted to her vocal virtuosity but later came to accept her change agent status.
After her birth in Memphis, her family joined the throngs of the Northern Migration to Detroit to escape the overt racism of the day and embrace the promise of greater economic opportunity. Her first performances were at the church that her father pastored, and while she considered Detroit her home, she never became part of the “Motown” sound. Commenting on her life, Barry Gordy recalled seeing her sing and play the piano as a little girl. How she escaped Gordy’s talent search is remarkable.
Initially, her commercial success was not readily apparent as her first records under the Columbia label failed to chart. It was only when she switched to Atlantic records and the influence of Jerry Wexler that her career took off. After almost 10 lackluster Columbia albums, Wexler paired her with Rick Hall’s Fame Studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. After that providential decision, her career took off and she never looked back.
Remembering Aretha requires focusing on more than just the appeal of her music; it is also about her as a person, the times in which she lived, and the influence she had. For most musicians, having a voice with a range of Aretha’s would be enough, but she also understood the nuances of music and how to write songs from her life experiences that conveyed strong emotions with a powerful cadence and drew people to her.
She was also talented enough to realize that she could take the works of others, change them, and make them her own. In fact, her signature song, “Respect,” was written and initially recorded by Otis Redding. Aretha’s interpretation changed the song and the meaning to not merely ask for respect, but to demand it.
This respect was not limited to Redding’s spousal relationship, but was about American society at large, the dignity of the individual and being accepted as an equal. After all, what most people really want is respect; an acknowledgment that they are significant and that they matter. In the 1960s, that was strong medicine.
Her songs increased the acceptance of the civil rights movement among baby boomers but also caused friction in families caught in the middle of cultural and social change. It is hard to believe now, but initially, her record covers avoided featuring her photo so as not to offend parents of white youngsters. But Aretha, like Miles Davis and other black artists, demanded this “white washing” cease, and the album covers that followed removed another vestige of racism in the recording industry.
Aretha’s support for social change was more subtle in that she crashed through racial barriers because her music appealed to all audiences. The clear implication of her concerts and the success of her records was that racial discrimination had no place among the new generation. Her support for racial equality would become more pronounced as she used her broad appeal to advocate for change and equal opportunities.
And the breadth of her success and the popularity of her music would support the notion that raw talent could defeat discrimination. Her acceptance in the world at large helped spread American popular culture and promoted American values not only among our allies but also our enemies.
In fact, it was a custom among Russia and its Soviet Union to dwell on issues that divided Americans. The Kremlin was a master at sowing seeds of discord among and within western democracies. Popular culture was one vehicle to highlight the shortcomings of the West in general and America in particular. But culturally Russia was unable to compete with American post-war pop culture. In the past, it was a matter of strategy to invite a Paul Robeson or Marian Anderson to perform and point out how they were mistreated in their home country, but Soviet youths, much like American teenagers, were ready for something different. Not everyone accepted Soviet entertainment, and any Soviet pop culture had a sell-by date of 1930 something.
Aretha, among other artists, was their worst nightmare. From her style of music to her success and acceptance, there was nothing to exploit. The Soviets would try to create their own statist Russian pop culture, but it simply could not compete with Aretha and America. The sounds of young America flooded the worldwide airwaves, and there were not enough jammers to stop the infiltration of these new sounds and innovative musicians.
Initially, there was an attempt to ban the music, but few could resist Aretha and so many others. But worst for Soviet ideology, she represented the democratic spirit of America that accepted musicians based on performance ability and popular appeal. There was no way to use Aretha as an example of talent suppressed based on race to contrast America and Russia. Even their young people liked what they heard and attempted to imitate the music and style of Aretha, but under the Soviet system, there was no chance for a Russian popular artist to achieve similar success.
While there are myriad causes for the end of the Cold War, Aretha and other scions of American popular culture helped win the global culture war one note at a time.
Will Sellers was appointed by Gov. Kay Ivey to the Supreme Court of Alabama in 2017. He is best reached at firstname.lastname@example.org