MY ARETHA

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(Editor’s Note: When James and I originally were batting around ideas for stuff for him to review, he told me I should just try sending him whatever, without him knowing ahead of time, and then having to find a way to review it. It was a challenge of sort, a way for a writer to tackle something they weren’t already planning on writing about. I had recently gotten in a copy of Aretha Frankin’s Knew You Were Waiting, which looks at her ’80s output1 For many fans of Aretha’s earlier, iconic ’60s material, they never seemed to gel that well with her ’80s and I was curious how James might tackle a catalog that I didn’t presume he was inherently a fan of. He did not disappoint. This is a long essay and it’s really more than just a meditation on Her Lady of Soul. I’m privileged to run it. -O.W.)


One of the great personal struggles of my adult life has been the struggle to keep my relation to music from hardening, to keep what began so beautifully as a relationship of abandon from ossifying completely into a relationship of control. Of course I can no more reclaim the goggle-eyed wonder born of a childhood spent listening to the radio and to my parents’ stereo and to other music made wonderful by the fact of its being utterly beyond my control than I can rid myself of the obsessively cultivated entitlement born of the subsequent decades of record collecting and internet access, and you can’t go home again and you can’t put the genie back in the bottle and all that shit, so I have to believe that peace is contingent upon reconciling the two.

The greatest detriment to my cause is that I’m a record dude, and record dudes traffic less in reconciliation than in compartmentalization. And not just in the obvious ways—dividing by genre, label, year, format, aesthetic, etc.—but a deeper, more developmental sense, too. Most record dudes would trace their evolution in a three-part arc suggested by Dante (no, no—the other one): first the inferno of their musical ignorance (“Dude, I was buying absolute shit”), then the purgatory of semi-informed experimentation, reaching only finally the paradise of a perfectly manicured collection. (It may be noted that many record dudes have more romance for their middle passage—in which they were largely clueless but were learning, beginning to realize themselves as enthusiastic citizens of the world of music [if not necessarily of the world at large]—than for their current, more refined state, a hermetic heaven in which almost no one is as happy as they used to be or listens to as much as they used to. This is, however, maybe for another time.) I think, though, that the civil war within every record dude in particular and within every music nerd in general boils down even further, to two parts, products of a single schism: there is The Real Stuff, and there is The Before Times.

There is the stuff that you actively sought out, dug for and into, or that trusted sources put you up on; the canonical stuff recognized—by them, and now by you, too—as the material that represents the true heart of an artist’s work. The skinny-Elvis material. And then there’s the other stuff, the stuff before all that, the stuff you didn’t choose so much as absorb by osmosis, back when someone else was at the wheel, back in that dumb, sunlit time before the shadow of reason crept in. Every one of us holds two versions of our self—on the left hand is the self we were born/defaulted into, and exalted on the right is what we think of as the real self, the self we’ve built—and we project this divide onto the music we love and onto the people who make it, mapping the lines above or below or before or after which an artist just isn’t as good, locating the exact points at which we can consider them to be doing their real work, and charting their passages into and out of this tightly and individually circumscribed territory.

I became conscious as a music listener—recognizing artists, titles, making the necessary connections, etc.—in the white suburbia of first half of the 80s. In its way, it was an interesting time. The Baby Boomers were ascendant, bringing with them to the white mainstream some ideas about “classic soul music,” ideas that had gained clarity, palatability, and market leverage in the years following The Big Chill. As a result, lots of 60s and 70s r&b artists were getting another bite at the apple of pop success. The interesting part is that despite being rooted in a very specific stripe of consumer entitlement, it was an oddly undemanding model: The Boomers’ sense of nostalgia seemed to couple with their giddiness at what they perceived as their ballooning cachet in the current culture, meaning that these resurgent soul acts saw full magus status granted to them without any requirement that they deliver anything more than contemporary gloss.

The presence of these artists was a pleasant reminder to Boomers of how good music was then, while the artists’ commercial currency (via said gloss) was a pleasant reminder that Boomers were also running the now. Put differently, the actual quality of whatever music James Brown, for example, was putting out in 1985 was ancillary to the fact that one could turn on a Top 40 station twenty years after 1965 and still hear James Brown, man!, ancillary to the possibility that James could conceivably show up at a Bruce Willis gig at a Hard Rock Café somewhere, an occurrence that would be ratified ten to fourteen days later in a capsule item in the “Random Notes” section of the issue of Rolling Stone on display at the grocery-store checkout.

These were performers utilized mostly as legitimizers, cosigners, and vessels for some really awesome iconography, their roles as functioning artists superseded by their roles in the memories of white people of a certain age who used to listen to their old records. James Brown didn’t have to sound good or be doing anything interesting or sound like he was getting his horn parts from anywhere besides a can, he just had to stick around and be James Brown, plus occasionally make himself available to rubber-stamp various Boomer endeavors. This, they seemed to feel, was victory enough.

So, this is the context in which I first became aware of Aretha Franklin. I knew her mainly as a relic, one of the old, famous-for-being-famous people whose music I mostly didn’t like and who had no artistic currency with me but who folks nonetheless seemed to feel great affection for. And it would not be until sometime in the 90s—when my inaugural abuse of the Columbia House system netted me selections including her 30 Greatest Hits—that I had any sense that there existed another Aretha–a Real Aretha.

Real Aretha, the Aretha of the 1960s and 1970s, had a voice that, despite how much was made of her coquettish upper range and her heart-stopping power, was draped around a midrange that was easily one of the most erotic ever. My Aretha, on the other hand, the Aretha of the 1980s, had a voice that seemed to exist only at the extremes, with a kind of noncommittal sing-speak at one end and horny, sawtooth-wave belting at the other.

Real Aretha built a spiral staircase of “I love you”s just to climb and ask, “Will you call me the moment you get there?”, forgoing the ear entirely and placing the question directly in your heart, like a jewel in a case. My Aretha was the one braying, “Oooh, how’d you get your pants so tight?!” Real Aretha was a pillar of song and a symbol of strength and talent, black and beautiful and unadorned. My Aretha was the subject of a class-long tirade from my high-school teacher Ms. Mack, who fumed that Aretha—with her perversion of Fontella Bass’s “Rescue Me” as a shill for Burger King, in particular the way she so gleefully crowed “Can’t you see / that I’m hongry?!”—was setting the race back twenty years.

Real Aretha was nothing less than elemental; a seminal, inescapable figure in the emergence of soul music, vital across the decades. My Aretha was the black-and-white, disembodied head hovering into view for a second in the “How Will I Know” video, deferred to so briefly (“I’m asking you / ‘cause you know about these things”) by a full-color Whitney Houston, in what I’m sure was intended as a tribute but which in my young mind effectively flattened Aretha into a purely historical figure, casting her out of the musical culture she helped invent; the fact that Aretha was probably busy going platinum at that very moment could not have been more irrelevant—Whitney might as well have been singing to a picture of Abraham Lincoln. Real Aretha mattered. My Aretha was pretending. Real Aretha was undeniable. My Aretha was embarrassing.

I remember the first time I heard, I mean really heard, Real Aretha hit that first “never” in “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)”—her voice exploding, shoving the sound into some new red, the red of everything, the red of Atlantic labels, the red of a human desire I was only beginning to understand—the way I remember the first time a girl called my house. And I don’t know how many times I’ve replayed that part toward the end of “The Thrill Is Gone,” when, after almost four minutes of pure immolation, Real Aretha licks out “I just wanna / wish you well like the fishhook in the flower. I can’t decide whether Real Aretha’s “First Snow In Kokomo” is just an inside-baseball trifle (Stevie Wonder inner-sleeve notes set to music?) or something deeper—all I know is that it still hunches beguiling and sphinx-like in some little recess of my mind, twenty years after first hearing it. Once in a while I’ll hear Real Aretha’s “Take Me With You” gliding through some steppers set at a park or something, and it’s like a smile from Big Shoulder to Big Shoulder.

But the fact is that for all of these things, when I think about my love for them and trace that attachment back as far as I can, there comes a point where they dead-end, a depth at which whatever they mean to me reflects only the fact that I was looking for music that would mean something to me. Uninterested in the version of a particular artist dealt to me by my own time and circumstance, but having seen and heard enough to know that said artist was capital-i Important, and not wanting to seem like a rube, I went looking for the version that all these other people must be talking about, the critically and culturally agreed-upon version, the Real version. The paradox runs pretty thick here : Only through deliberation, acquisition, selection, and curation did I arrive at a version that felt “natural”; only through my enthrallment to the opinions of others did I find a version that I was okay calling “mine”; only through a retro-fixated embrace of the classic and a subsequent rejection of the version that had some genuine contemporary connection to my actual life did I reach the “real.”

And I don’t mean that as sneeringly as it may seem. Of course not every exposure to music can be purely serendipitous or organic; we all listen to all kinds of stuff that we would never have heard had someone else or something else not told us to listen to it, and the manner of that first encounter, no matter how influenced or orchestrated or poorly reasoned it may be, doesn’t automatically negate our response to the music in question. The important thing is that I discovered Real Aretha’s classic body of work and have over decades developed an abiding and personal attachment to it; that my initial connection to it owes largely to affectation and received ideas doesn’t matter.

Except that it kinda does.

As much as I love “I Never Loved A Man” and “The Thrill Is Gone” and “First Snow In Kokomo” and “Take Me With You” and “Share Your Love With Me” and “One Step Ahead” and “Rock Steady” and all the rest, they will never take me all the way back. They will only ever take me back as far as when I started deciding what kind of music I wanted to listen to, and—by extension—what kind of person I wanted to be; they’ll never get me back past decision, back past control, and back to the uninformed ecstasy that prepared me to love them in the first place. Simply put, I don’t think I ever listened to Real Aretha without knowing on some level that I was, holy shit, listening to Real Aretha. That it has for me never existed outside of this knowledge limits it.

And you know what’s unjust? The stuff that isn’t limited in this way, the Aretha that does take me all the way back, is precisely the part of her catalog that, musically speaking (why does that feel so idiotic to say?), I like the least: her radio hits from the 80s. That long drizzle of Arista-label clock-punches, many produced by Narada Michael Walden in sheets-still-warm imitation of other tracks he’d recently produced for other, younger people. The fast ones hit with a big splash but end up clattering like handfuls of thrown coins, while the slow ones spend minute after minute groaning their way out of recording-studio brochures.

The music seems dead, vaulted, and preexisting. Often the tracks make no real structural room for Aretha’s vocals—they just get clipped a couple of dBs during the verses so that she’s temporarily a little more audible—leaving her sounding like she’s singing along with some terrible little radio. The brazen aerobicizing of “Freeway Of Love,” the tinny New Jack Swing cash-in “It Isn’t, It Wasn’t, It Ain’t Never Gonna Be,” with Aretha and Whitney locked in full-on Electra-complex battle to see whose street talk is less convincing (“What are you trying to say, Miss Thang?” v. “Don’t dis me, gurl.”), and—perhaps worst of all—things like “Jumping Jack Flash” with Keith Richards and “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves” with The Eurythmics, backward-looking collaborations where you can hear 1980s Aretha cannibalizing the image of her peak-period self for a mess of pottage while a well-meaning if overly reverential England dances awkwardly to one side. It’s awfully hard to take.

But then I look at something like “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” and think about a particular cultural moment around like ’86 or ’87, where there were a number of high-charting duets between white male singers and slightly-to-markedly older black female singers: Aretha and George Michael on this one, Eddie Money and Ronnie Spector on “Take Me Home Tonight,” Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald on “On My Own,” et al. I was around twelve or thirteen during this time, and I remember registering these songs as presenting a new dynamic, one that I had difficulty figuring out.

It was difficult because I’d grown up with the idea that when you heard a man and a woman singing a love song together, part of your role as a listener was to believe—or at least pretend to believe—that the man and the woman were in love or in lust or in whatever kind of romantic relationship with each other, and while by the mid-eighties I probably wouldn’t have thought much of a differing-ages duet or a differing-races duet, something about both at once threw me for a loop. I began thinking about how exactly I was supposed to understand these songs as displays of attraction (to be fair, the ostensible Money/Spector attraction factors into the video much more than the song, but by ’86 I was making that kind of distinction less and less). It was an aspect of music that I’d never really thought about before, and trying to parse it all had a ripple effect. Is this song convincing as a relationship between the singers? Does that matter? Why is there no real romantic spark in any of these songs? Would they be as popular is there was? Is the fact that most people wouldn’t believe that Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald were ever boyfriend and girlfriend part of the reason that people can like the song?

See, I was at an age where I was interested in girls and understood where all that stuff led, but I was still hazy on how everything was supposed to go, exactly. My nervousness about this left me highly attuned to any cultural product anywhere’s slightest allusion to the secret, adult knowledge that I felt sure must undergird everything; I felt excluded and paranoid, certain that every time I left the room or closed my eyes or turned my head the whole world was having s-e-x. The insecurity was exhausting. Thus, even if I didn’t like the music they came in on, the way these duets combined surface romance with utter sexlessness made me interested in them as possible fellow travelers.

Especially Aretha. Her voice was being pushed into all these unsubtle songs, but she always projected a warmth and a richness that was reassuring, even as it undercut the material. No matter how feline she tries to get in the margins, the buoyant, every-ready tone she keeps at the center of cuts like “Who’s Zoomin’ Who” or “Jump To It” is the same thing that makes them fail as, respectively, man-eater victory laps and booty-call anticipatories. They both sound great, but neither is anything you’d mistake for actual seduction. There is an absence in her voice, and that thing, that carnality that she used to put across so effortlessly, that’s a room she just doesn’t go into anymore. And even on a less robust, more sophisticated thing like “Ever Changing Times,” her coattail duet with the aforementioned Michael McDonald (and the weedy timeshare to “On My Own”’s penthouse suite), there’s such a chaste vibe that the song’s attempts at evoking the relationship’s bygone romantic depth all stop short, like those dreams you have when you’re six wherein you meet your true love and the two of you hug…because you’re six, and have no concept of things going any further than that. Aretha was too boss to ever let herself sound too uncomfortable, but she so often sounded out of place: lines not working, slang outdated, development arrested. She sounded most in harmony with songs where she was regarding her role in love and attraction from outside the action, away from the other person and behaving less like an active participant in whatever the two of them have and more like an observer, a rememberer.

Maybe that’s why her most convincing, fully inhabited work from this time has to me always been “Jimmy Lee.” The whole song is Aretha mooning over a long-gone adolescent fling, and there’s not a single original thing about it, but it’s clear that in this one she’s found exactly the level of slight, jazzy remove she’s looking for; she’s singing about romance, yeah, but the romance is buffered by its location in the past, by its being sealed safely in youth. Freed from having to make the relationship believable in any kind of adult, present-day context, she allows herself to let slip her ill-fitting mantle of world-weariness and instead attacks the song with childlike ebullience and bewilderment. It still stands as one of the most joyous and genuine things she’s ever recorded. You can hear her delight in no longer having to pretend that she’s burdened by some complex conception of mature love. And as a fraught pre-teen obsessing over those very complexities, I found this new possibility of eventual liberation from them a very hopeful and companionable idea.

All of which is just to say that this decade-long streak of mostly really not very good Aretha Franklin records is interwoven with who I am to a degree that surprises even me. I mean, as truly bad as some of these songs are, they play a small but irreducible role in my formative conceptions of elemental things like love and sex and relationships and black and white and real and pretend and what adults know and what they don’t know and what they put out there and what they hide from. And compared to that, my affection for Aretha’s records from the decades previous, while deep and considerable, ends up feeling pretty academic. There is, of course, a place for the canonical, for the quality stuff that we seek out in our dissatisfaction with the shit that’s been foisted on us. This music is important in the same way that it’s important to not just have family, but to have friends; to not just represent where and what you come from, but to also represent the choices you’ve made on your trip outward. But while the Aretha of the 60s and 70s is the stuff that I loved first and still love best, is the stuff that, in the parlance of my people, Changed My Life, the 80s stuff is a part of what gave me a life to change, and is something of whatever keeps my heart from hardening. I don’t like it as much, that’s for sure, but it feels more necessary. And I don’t mean “necessary” in the cliché manner of, “Oh, one must make sure to keep a child’s heart! don’t lose your sense of wonder, your belief in how you used to be! Always be that person you were back when you were buying records because they had funny covers! Stay gold!” No, I mean that I think it’s necessary for every music nerd, when thinking about whatever music it is that they’ll admit to listening to these days, to also ask themselves: What versions of the artists you love have you had to deny? What versions of yourself have you had to move past, discard? What have you had to do to become what you are?

For years and years, I couldn’t really listen to 1980s Aretha. All I could hear was its brassy gloss and its dumb bounce and its easy fakery and think about how horribly far it seemed beneath the woman once capable of things like “Dr. Feelgood,” where she raised an entire body in the song’s very last syllable. I was moving through my late teens and had the zeal of the newly converted, and my devotion to her classic material led me to affect—as only a late-teen can—a near-physical revulsion to her MTV-sanctioned bullshit, dude. Now, though, I hear its awkwardness, its struggle, and its inability to convince, and in it my own clumsiness, my own unease, and my own self-doubt, all of which I was crippled by back then, and some of which I will carry with me forever. I’m no longer embarrassed for this music or embarrassed by it, but am embarrassed right alongside it. What can I do but sigh and smile. I’ll take you home now, dear. My Aretha. The real Aretha.

Aretha Franklin: It Isn’t, It Wasn’t, It Ain’t Never Gonna Be
Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves
I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)
Jimmy Lee
From Knew You Were Waiting: The Best of Aretha Franklin 1980-1998

  1. I’d call it the “most-maligned” part of her career but that’d actually be her mid/late-’70s disco-era material.

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