FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

The Aretha Dialogue

Photo: Atlantic Records.

It wasn’t an emotive voice.

Wait. Stop there. The “Queen of Soul”? What’s “emotive” mean?

“Able to arouse intense emotion”

Respect” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” Shall I go on?

Maybe I mean it could arouse emotion but didn’t … convey it. Or contain it.

I’m listening.

Compare what she did to Nina Simone, Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday. For all of them, there’s a sense – almost note by note – of a range of feeling. Listen to Aretha cover Dinah (there’s a whole album), and it’s an amazing voice in its range and its dynamics, but there’s none of the sadness, the sense of being surprised by happiness or overwhelmed by love.

She was a different kind of singer. Different times, too.

Absolutely. But isolate her voice on almost anything she’s recorded, and it isn’t …. for lack of a better word, “emotive.” Nina groans and growls and gets breathy like a child. Billie slings from the hip.

Part of the difference is Aretha never sounds like a victim. Or not often. Part of what we hear in those others is the sound of a woman surviving abuse. She doesn’t go there.

That’s part of it for sure. So where does she go? “Respect”: signature tune. From the opening horn riff and twangy country guitar, we know we got a beat. The arrangement’s incredibly strong. She sets her voice way up high from the start. Its inflection is mostly aimed towards confidence. She will – in the astonishing break – spell it out for us: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” Within the machinery of the arrangement, she’s lead singer, but lead singer might best translate as punctuator. She bangs off the back-up singers; she slides this and that in the slot between the beats. What she doesn’t do is emote.

Yea, but the song! The song emotes. You can’t sit still.

True that. I’m trying to get at what she did, what her voice did. Maybe this helps: I’ve been re-reading John Berger on Picasso. And he makes the point that Picasso was a prodigy. From his teenage years, he was an acknowledged master or master-to-be. And that affects his later work. Because there isn’t that slow apprenticeship, that accumulated learning. You’re treated like an adult almost from the start. Listen to the early gospel recordings of Aretha, when she was fourteen, and you hear exactly that. “Precious Lord,” sung in her father, C.L. Franklin’s church. She had the tools early. She can’t possibly know the emotions yet, but she can make the sounds that equal the emotions. It’s almost a technical exercise.

I give you Mozart. Or Stevie Wonder.

But she was never primarily a composer like those two. She wrote some great songs, but she was more an interpretive artist, right? I think it’s a different ballpark. She’d take a song like “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” and she’d find stuff that the writers, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, maybe never knew was in it.

Which makes it less hers? I don’t think so.

Oh, it’s hers. But how’s she do that? First, she pitches the opening statement in a low register to get the feel of being “uninspired.” Then playing off the back-up singers, she climbs to the chorus, to where “you” make her feel natural. There’s emotion in her voice when she says “I didn’t know what was wrong with me,” but just enough to make you realize it isn’t elsewhere. What’s carrying the song is the way she structures the chorus climb. That, more than feeling in her voice, provides the release — like suddenly coming out on an open vista.

It makes us, listening, feel … natural. Whatever that means. It does what the songwriters wanted.

I know what natural doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean “instinctual.” It doesn’t mean “easy.”

That’s always the danger, right? Ted Williams studied hitting, but Willie Mays was a natural. Etc. etc.

Yep. There’s an acute musical intelligence behind her voice, her piano playing, her arrangements, each choice she made. “Think.” Right? She did write that one. And from the stuttering opening piano chords into the deep groove, it’s about using your brain. It’s insistent about that. And maybe because her voice isn’t bent-note/deep growl emotional, it’s perfect. Even when she’s admitting “You need me, and I need you,” there’s a kind of independent pride to it. Her voice is finger-pointing, declarative. The song’s almost a chant. A chant that rises to the call of “Freedom!” – like that’s where thinking leads.

Dancing’s an enormous part of it. I don’t think you can overestimate that. All these songs go straight to the hips. Dancing equals thinking equals freedom.

Amen. It’s the same dynamic as gospel. The child prodigy keeps coming back to it. In gospel, the road led to the Spirit, but the steps are the same.

“Spirit in the Dark”

Exactly! Which she wrote and, as she performs it, might almost be her fourteen-year-old self warming the congregation before her father’s sermon. “Are you getting the spirit?” Yes, we are, and we get it through the instrument of her voice within that amazing setting: the “hoo-hoos” of the back-up singers, the slip of the organ, the drums knocking at the door. Song builds from just her and piano at slow tempo through mid-tempo groove to the classic gospel release where things go double time, and we enter the dark, meet the spirit. It’s joyful. It’s almost a clinical dissection of how joy works.

OK, you can take it apart like that if you want. But in the end, isn’t her voice, her piano playing, her sense of where and how to punctuate the melody, really her sense of who she is and we are? Aren’t they part of a larger whole, a back and forth?

A community? A dialogue?

Well, finally.

More articles by:
bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
April 09, 2020
John Davis
Freedom Virus
Vincent Emanuele
The New Normal: Cascading and Multilayered Crises
Jeffrey St. Clair
Bernie’s Last Tape
John O'Kane
Remove the Boomer Virus and What Virus Remains?
Kevin Bixby – Daryl T. Smith
The Border Wall Risks Us All
Nick Pemberton
Could COVID-19 Count Fox News Among Its Victims?
Howard Lisnoff
American Exceptionalism in the Face of Covid-19
Charles Pierson
We Are Living (And Dying) in Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death”
Sam Husseini
Sanders Suspends: What Happened? What Now?
Binoy Kampmark
Banal Terrors: Pandemics and the Ordinary Business of War
Ted Rall
Why We Need a New Progressive Party and How We Can Create It
Walden Bello
Martin Khor: the Making of a Global Activist
Ariel Dorfman
COVID-19 and the Lessons of Life in Exile
Merriam Ansara
John Lennon in Quarantine: a Letter From Havana
George Wuerthner
Politics and Corruption at Grand Canyon
Eugene Schulman
Lost in the Pandemic: the Forever Wars
Dean Baker
Basic Economics for Economic Columnists: a Depression is a Process, Not an Event
George Ochenski
The Dishonest Mr. Daines
Mike Ferner
Love in a Dangerous Time
Brian Horejsi
Beware Government Secrecy in Times of Pandemic
Sam Pizzigati
No Fennel in the Sausage, No $600 for the Jobless
Jason Christensen – John Carter
Conservation Groups Oppose the Nature Conservancy’s Cattle Grazing Development Project on the Border of Canyonlands National Park
April 08, 2020
Melvin Goodman
The Impact of COVID-19 on the Body Politic
Eve Ottenberg
Amid Plague, Sanctions are Genocide
Vijay Prashad, Du Xiaojun – Weiyan Zhu
How China Learned About SARS-CoV-2 in the Weeks Before the Global Pandemic
Bill Quigley
Seven Disturbing Facts About COVID-19 in Louisiana
Joyce Nelson
BlackRock Takes Command
Geoff Dutton
Coronavirus as Metaphor: It’s Not Peanuts
Richard Moser
From Strike Wave to General Strike
Gary Leupp
Could COVID-19 Kill Capitalism?
Thomas Klikauer – Nadine Campbell
Corona, Capital and Class in Germany
Tom Crofton
Aspirational vs Pragmatic: Why My Radicalness is Getting More Radical
Steve Kelly
Montana Ballot Access Decision Suppresses Green Party Voters
Jacob Hornberger
Muhammad Ali’s Fight Against the Pentagon
Phil Mattera
The Rap Sheets of the Big Ventilator Producers
Manuel García, Jr.
Why Remdesivir and Hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19?
Rick Baum
When “Moderate” Democrats Lead the Ticket and Win, Down-Ballot Candidates Soon Suffer Losses
Jake Johnston
Tens of Millions Will Be Pushed into Poverty Amid COVID-Induced Recession
Kim C. Domenico
Healthy and Unhealthy Fear in the Age of Coronavirus
John W. Whitehead
Draconian Lockdown Powers and Civil Liberties
Binoy Kampmark
University Bailouts, Funding and Coronavirus
Luke Ruediger
BLM Timber Sale Increases Fire Risk, Reduces Climate Resilience and Harms Recreation
John Kendall Hawkins
Slavoj Žižek’s Virulent Polemic Against Covid-19, and Stuff!
Nyla Ali Khan
Finding Meaning and Purpose in Adversity
April 07, 2020
Joel McCleary – Mark Medish
Paradigm Shift by Pandemic
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail