The first time I heard of Aretha Franklin was when I was watching “School of Rock” at a sixth-grade sleepover. As Jack Black’s character told one of his students that “everyone wants to party with Aretha,” I was instantly curious to know who she was. After all, I was not popular — and I was definitely not someone who everyone wanted to party with.
When I began dabbling in Franklin’s music, I didn’t know why I was attracted to it. “Respect” rang through my headphones from a CD my mom burned for me, launching me into a groove I had never quite experienced before. The song, as well-known as it is, was a revelation for me. It was the gateway to Franklin’s full collection of music. The jovial rhythm of the drums, the memorable chorus and the climax of her vocals, heightening more and more as the song plays on, created not just a fun listening experience, but a visual one.
I could see Franklin onstage. A blue chiffon dress draped around her as beads of sweat dripped down her forehead. I saw her pointing at the audience members as she sang, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” bringing them into the exuberant performance.
I realized quickly that her music did make me want to dance. It did make me want to party. What took longer to realize was that it could also make me want to cry.
Though I had never experienced love before, “Ain’t No Way” made me feel like I had, and that the love I felt like I had experienced was tumultuous. In this song, her voice sorrowfully spills about her struggle to love a man who won’t let her in. Like silk over the trill of the weeping saxophone, the lyrics shake one to the core and — though outdated with lines such as, “I know that a woman’s duty / Is to help and love a man” — the sentiment behind them is powerfully heartbreaking.
Even a more upbeat love song such as “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)” plays with the idea of trouble in paradise. Franklin’s ability to temper lyrics of confusion and love for a problematic man with a bluesy beat that keeps you blissfully snapping along was a further emblem of her genius.
The song features the ironic contrast of a positive beat and downtrodden lyrics — a dissonance that still occupies my thoughts.
Franklin has died and the world has lost a figure grander than life. Her voice defined the 20th century. With a voice like butter melting on a hot stack of pancakes and the ability to control that voice in such a precise way, she created some of the most satiable music.
With a magnetic energy and exciting presence, that music brings people in and creates a community. She broke down barriers, devoted herself to her craft and crossed that rickety bridge to success.
I was once unaware of the “Queen of Soul” and her reputation. The hearty joy and vast energy that comes from her music was once absent from my life. Now, my head is full of the beautiful ballads that can always get me on my feet. Now, I can confidently say that I know what Jack Black meant. Her music isn’t your typical party music and it isn’t necessarily for everyone. But she could leave an impression on anybody.
While her music will live on, anyone who listened to her soft voice sing liquid gold will feel this loss. And though I do not believe in God, I know that Aretha did. So in her honor, and in her memory, I say a little prayer for Aretha Franklin.