Let’s face it, the established canon of popular music, especially from the mid-20th century on, is dominated by rock and white male artists: the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones. How does Aretha Franklin fit into this canon, and what challenges can she pose to it, as one of the few women of color whom it has unequivocally embraced?
Franklin fits within a prescribed framework of artists of color and female artists, as tied to specific contexts, including social movements for the rights of marginalized groups, while artists like the Beatles and Dylan often get constructed as having created “timeless” work. Within the context of race, musicologist John J. Sheinbaum writes of how in rock historiography, ’60s-era African American soul musicians, including Franklin, are more likely to be called “craftspeople”, whereas white rock greats of the time are more often considered “artists”, tied to supposedly superior conceptions of art. As Sheinbaum points out, however, these constructions are full of contradictions (see Sheinbaum’s essay, “‘Think About What You’re Trying to Do to Me’: Rock Historiography and the Construction of a Race-Based Dialectic” in
Rock Over the Edge: Transformations in Popular Music Culture, edited by Roger Beebe, Denise Fulbrook, and Ben Saunders, Duke University Press, 2002). Further, I argue that instead of ostensibly elevating the work of African Americans to the status of timeless art, we should strive to better contextualize their work—as well as the work of white artists.
The rock canon tends to view canonical popular music—especially that by white male artists—as separate from its larger social, political, historical, and especially economic contexts. However, as a woman of color, Franklin’s music
is viewed and made intelligible through certain lenses, particularly those of African American freedom struggles and the burgeoning feminist movement in the ’60s. However, it is often studied through one lens—race or gender — not both. Much history and criticism of popular music, then, whether or not it is centered on (singular) identity politics, would benefit from an awareness of intersectionality.
The term “intersectionality”, coined in the ’80s by legal scholar
Kimberlé Crenshaw, highlights how “the intersection of racism and sexism factors into Black women’s lives in ways that cannot be captured wholly by looking at the race or gender dimensions of those experiences separately,” as Crenshaw writes in her article, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color”. It is the overlap between different axes of oppression—in Crenshaw’s case, that by race and gender—that can determine a different kind of shared experience for a group—for example, African American women—than if one just focuses on race or gender by itself.
To apply this point to Franklin’s work, in the late ’60s, Franklin was demanding R-E-S-P-E-C-T, not only as a woman, not only as an African American, but as both. Though Crenshaw’s work also details the experiences of, for example, nonblack immigrant women of color, it’s important to stress how Franklin’s life and work as an African American woman fit better within the framework of intersectional analysis than within a discourse centered on race or gender alone.
As contexts of race and gender are often unaccounted for in writing about canonical white and male rock artists, which makes race and gender seem unimportant in these artists’ careers, I encourage studying context to decenter and dislodge hegemonic whiteness and masculinity. However, I also recommend studying contexts of the work of people of color, women, LGBTQ people, working class people, the disabled, and other intersectional groups from intersectional perspectives. We can also examine how privilege and oppression overlap in the careers of, for example, white female artists, male artists of color, and so on. In other words, viewing Franklin’s work through a focus on race, gender, and other categories of analysis can challenge us to do the same with all music, acknowledging how multiple points of oppression and privilege impact the production, consumption, and reception of a wide range of music.
One reason why I encourage this perspective is because, for example, Franklin’s immortal reworking of Otis Redding’s song, “Respect”, is both tied to its contexts and seen as transcending them. Indeed, to my ears, there’s never been an entrance in the history of popular music as when Franklin started singing on “Respect”; we shouldn’t leave the interpretation and analysis at that, however.
That entrance, also as the first song on her first album for Atlantic Records, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967), is better appreciated not only in terms of her goal for self-expression—right away you can hear how much more passion is in her singing compared to her recordings from Columbia Records not long before—as well as in relation to social movements, but also as commercial product. The record fit within popular styles of southern soul music at the time, but it also stood out because of Franklin’s astonishing performance.
Franklin herself would have agreed. In Mark Bego’s biography, Aretha Franklin: Queen of Soul (St. Martin’s Press, 1989), Franklin is quoted about her move to Atlantic from Columbia: “I was being classified as a jazz singer, and I never, ever felt I was a jazz singer. I can sing jazz, but that was not my format to begin with. I think the move from Columbia to Atlantic was about commercial success.” So, while her gospel roots certainly came through on Atlantic in a way that they had not on Columbia, the move was about commerce, not only about a singular artistic vision.
That said, that vision and the uses to which it was put can also be accounted for. You might hear her on oldies radio today, detached from her larger contexts, but make no mistake: Franklin’s voice and music were political, and not just in the sense of “the personal is political”. Though in his book, The Death of Rhythm and Blues (Pantheon Books, 1988), critic Nelson George called her voice “apolitical and preoccupied with struggles of the heart”, which is understandable given the lyrics of most of her recordings, the sheer force and passion in her voice were considered revolutionary—and I don’t use that word lightly—in the ’60s and ’70s. Poet Nikki Giovanni famously wrote in her “Poem for Aretha”, published in The Women and the Men (William Morrow, 1975), “aretha was the riot was the leader if she had said ‘come/ let’s do it’ it would have been done.”
While Franklin wrote in her autobiography, Aretha: From These Roots (Villard, 1999-), “I don’t make it a practice to put my politics into my music,” her music was clearly put to political uses. An African American soldier in the Vietnam War, quoted in scholar Craig Werner’s Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul (Crown Publishers, 2004), spoke of how he and his fellow soldiers found much-needed joy and release in dancing to her song, “Chain of Fools”. Furthermore, according to music historian Colin Escott in the liner notes to the box set Let Freedom Sing: The Music of the Civil Rights Movement (Time/Life, 2009), Ebony magazine famously called the summer of 1967 the summer of “‘Retha, Rap [Brown], and Revolt”, associating Franklin’s work with a summer of unrest, including uprisings in Detroit, where she grew up.
With “Respect”, she wrote in her autobiography about touching “the need of a nation, the need of the average man and woman in the street, the businessman, the mother, the fireman, the teacher—everyone wanted respect. It was also one of the battle cries of the civil rights movement. The song took on monumental significance. It became the ‘Respect’ women expected from men and men expected from women, the inherent right of all human beings.”
So, of course, popular music can be overtly political and commercial at the same time, but that fact can be ignored in music criticism. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with appreciating “just the music”, but to get a greater appreciation of Franklin, I have found that appreciating her music and her activism can be better achieved by studying its larger musical, social, political, historical, and economic contexts. I would even suggest that the defense of ignorance of such contexts often seems to come disproportionately from straight white men. Therefore, it is fair to argue that even decontextualizing art is contextual, often dependent on specific social, political, and economic circumstances—because ignoring context is a privilege.
One of the biggest ideological culprits of ignoring context comes from fans and critics that can be described as “rockist”. Rockism as a way to listen to music, according to critics like Kelefa Sanneh, in his 2004 New York Times article, “The Rap Against Rockism“, is the domain of straight white men, and it especially prizes straight white male artists upholding certain values: writing their own songs, playing their own instruments, separating themselves from the marketplace, playing live and not lip-syncing or using Auto-Tune, and sticking to their own original artistic vision.
One problem with rockism, among many, is that everything is tied to commerce and the marketplace; nothing is completely “authentic” or autonomous from the larger mainstream; and ignoring these very real issues creates an elitist culture of music fans and critics that excludes not only fans who are not the prevailing and presumed “straight white men”, but artists and representative styles who don’t fit into this category of identity, as well. Most relevant to this discussion, however, is that rockism tends to view music as devoid of context, only to be appreciated “on its own”, while ignoring the contextual forces of privilege that often shape such viewpoints.
With this in mind, this essay is aiming for an intersectional, anti-rockist reading of Franklin’s work, one that acknowledges the complexity of the overlapping lenses through which her music was produced and received. In my experience, Franklin’s individual genius is best appreciated in a larger, multidimensional context of history, politics, business, music, race, gender, class, religion, and more. This runs contrary to many critics who portray her unmistakable voice as separate from larger social forces or as connected to only one perspective—for example, one of race or gender.
In How Music Works (McSweeney’s, 2012), musician David Byrne argues that context often determines the production of music. He even looks at architectural contexts and how the acoustics of buildings impact the music that comes out of them. While I don’t look at as many layers of context in this essay, I encourage readers to listen and learn actively to create contextual studies of their own. This work can involve researching, reading literature (scholarly and otherwise), watching documentaries, and other means of active learning—while asking questions of different sources, rather than taking them at face value.
I’m not suggesting that every listener must conduct research in order to enjoy a song like “Respect”, but it has helped me to study histories of, for example, racism and sexism in the mid-20th century to better appreciate what she was doing in her interpretation of that song. Franklin wasn’t only reworking Redding’s song about respect in a romantic context; she refigured it into an anthem for black freedom and feminist liberation. In appreciating her music, it’s important to note her voice’s unquestionable uniqueness, but that voice was also situated within, though it stood out from, the larger contexts of the ’60s and ’70s.
One lens with which to examine Franklin’s most acclaimed work is, of course, musical. Analyzing the status of African American women in the popular music industry at the time of her ascent to stardom is an important endeavor. When Franklin switched from Columbia Records to Atlantic Records in 1966, African American women were in a particularly difficult position. A few years before then, as scholars Reebee Garofalo and Steve Waksman have written in their textbook, Rockin’ Out: Popular Music in the U.S.A. (6th ed., Pearson, 2014), they captured a significant portion of record sales, often as part of the “girl groups” scene, before Beatlemania and the British Invasion hit the US charts.
But the girl groups, including the Shirelles, the Crystals, and the Ronettes, were often controlled by male producers, most famously Phil Spector, and their songs’ lyrics, contrasted with those on Franklin’s classic recordings, often portrayed women as submissive as part of romantic relationships that were free of conflict (though there were exceptions, like the Ronettes’ “Is This What I Get for Loving You?” and the Crystals’ “He Hit Me [It Felt Like a Kiss]”). Aretha Franklin’s earliest hits at Atlantic, including “Respect” and “Do Right Woman – Do Right Man” highlighted women as strong and assertive, though sometimes struggling with dependence, as historian Brian Ward argues Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness, and Race Relations (University of California Press, 1998), regarding her first Atlantic single, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).”
At the same time, in the early and mid-’60s, Motown Records—based in Detroit, like Franklin—was making unprecedented inroads on the pop charts for African American artists based in gospel music, as scholar Charles K. Sykes writes in Issues in African American Music: Power, Gender, Race, Representation (Routledge, 2017). Of course, Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr., was aiming for the pop mainstream, including with his slogan, “The Sound of Young America”, and it is this part of Motown that is more often remembered. There were numerous African American female artists who became stars at Motown, especially Diana Ross, on the way to long-term success in a way that artists in the earlier girl groups phenomenon could not imagine, as Garofalo and Waksman note.
Soul music, especially the southern soul scene that included Franklin, was also making a significant dent in the pop market, largely because, as Garofalo and Waksman argue, the African American civil rights struggles had created an environment in which seemingly unadulterated, heavily gospel-influenced music by African American artists could be accepted and could reach broader audiences across racial lines. But, as George notes, many commercially successful African American women in both the Motown and southern soul scenes were limited by the control of male producers and record executives, as well as by their own limited vocal talents. Franklin, however, was able to use her astonishing vocal and emotional range for both self-expression and greater control of her career and life, though early in her Atlantic career, there was much conflict with her manager and husband of the time, Ted White.
Simultaneously, the ’60s is also known as the decade when rock ‘n’ roll transformed into the more ambitious, white-dominated rock, as authors like Jack Hamilton, Maureen Mahon, Garofalo, George, and myself have noted. This is where rockism, with its lack of emphasis on context, took root historically, as did the institution of rock criticism. As Hamilton notes in Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination (Harvard University Press, 2016), when Jimi Hendrix died in 1970, the international press perpetuated the idea that an African American man like Hendrix playing an electric guitar in rock was an oddity. Something had shifted, though, when, as Hamilton writes, Chuck Berry and other African American guitar heroes were considered more common in rock ‘n’ roll a decade before. Groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were considered more indicative of rock and its possibilities, whereas a decade prior, artists like Elvis Presley were protested for mixing styles constructed as black and as white. The emergence of rock’s construction as a white genre marginalized many an artist of color, including African American ones, from a scene enabled especially by African Americans’ contributions to rock ‘n’ roll.
The policing of which artists and sounds represented “true, authentic” rock started in the ’60s, with roots in the folk revival, as scholar Keir Keightley argues in his essay, ” Reconsidering Rock” in The Cambridge Companion in Pop and Rock (edited by Simon Frith, Will Straw, and John Street, Cambridge University Press, 2001) and as Hamilton corroborates. Artists like the Beatles and Bob Dylan were seen as elevating the racially hybridized “rock ‘n’ roll” into something more artistically ambitious, for albums and not just singles and for solitary listening more than for dancing.
Within this context of the emergence of a ’60s-centric rock canon focused on white male authenticity, Franklin fits into the narrative of both contextualized black subjects and “timeless” (read: decontextualized) usually white subjects. Yet she fits more comfortably in the rock canon than other contemporaries of color, partly because, as scholars like Daphne A. Brooks and Mark Anthony Neal noted on a Michael Eric Dyson podcast, she was a master of the album format years before Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Sly and the Family Stone, Isaac Hayes, and others made cohesive soul albums more common. Franklin was releasing filler-free albums at a time when R&B and soul albums were known for having a couple hit singles and plenty of lesser tracks.
This could be one reason that Franklin has, like Gaye and Wonder, been embraced by the rock canon in a way that some ’60s and ’70s artists have not been. Yes, many early Motown acts, including the Supremes and Temptations, are venerated for their singles, rather than their albums, but think of how much more attention Franklin gets today because she was a master of both individual albums and singles. As examples of this canonization, in 1987 Franklin became the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and in the 2000s, she was the one woman in the top ten of Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 greatest artists of all time, and the only woman of color in the top 50.
Still, at times, this canonization can seem conflicted. In Time magazine’s 2006 list of “The All-TIME 100 Albums“, contributor Josh Tyrangiel writes of Franklin’s 1968 album, Lady Soul, “The singing here isn’t technically perfect—the roots of what would become Franklin’s unwavering campaign of melody obliteration are evident—unless we’re speaking emotionally, in which case there’s not a wrong note.” In this passage, there’s an elevation of the emotional content of her singing and a simultaneous devaluing of it because of her “unwavering campaign of melody obliteration”. This language could be interpreted as praising sticking to a melody over varying it to a more personal degree, with the latter being a feature that scholars have noted in African American music. Further, this arguably misreads Franklin’s work from a rockist perspective, devaluing improvisation and personalization to the extent that they would supposedly damage the melodic intentions of the songs’ authors.
Franklin may also fit within a canonical narrative because of her simultaneous difficult life and critical and commercial success. In The Rock Canon: Canonical Values in the Reception of Rock Albums (Routledge, 2008), scholar Carys Wyn Jones writes of “the struggling, tortured, Romantic genius” embodied in figures like Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, tying narratives about individual greatness in the rock canon to notions of Romantic individualism. Aretha’s individual talent was, of course, magnificent, but that talent might be bolstered, in the eyes of some, because of her individual life circumstances—she was a teenage mother who dealt with abuse, for example—and her appeal among mainstream white audiences.
Again, some of her appeal to white audiences may been because of the context of the ’60s: as Garofalo and Waksman write, “Southern soul crossed over to the pop market because black pride had created a cultural space in which unrefined r&b could find mainstream acceptance on its own terms.” So, while there are many female artists of color who faced significant adversity and discrimination, few had the mainstream success of Aretha, so the combination of her seeming like a “struggling, tortured, Romantic genius” with the recognition of her by whites, including white men, may make her fit more comfortably in the rock canon than other female artists of color.
Some critics, scholars, and fans have ostensibly gone further than crowning her the Queen of Soul: for example, on VH1’s 100 Greatest Women of Rock & Roll countdown in 1999, Franklin was ranked as #1, with the introductory script reading, “You already know her as the Queen of Soul. Now, let her be known as the Queen of Rock & Roll.” On one level, this may seem like a greater compliment because it places her atop a seemingly broader, more commercially successful field, but it is actually double-edged.
If she is The Queen of Rock & Roll, in addition to the Queen of Soul, it should be because we recognize the African American roots of rock ‘n’ roll, rather than because we are erasing the importance of soul and African American-dominated genres in favor of rock and rockism. Rockist narratives like the ones that Rolling Stone and VH1 have perpetuated tend to favor the latter action, however unintentionally. In a rockist context, calling her the Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll erases the particular context from which she emerged in favor of a broader, more “universal” interpretation of her work.
Franklin’s ranking at #1 caused some cognitive dissonance, including among critics. I remember the Entertainment Weekly review of this countdown expressing surprise that the #1 woman on a “Rock & Roll” list was a person of color. I’m not suggesting that it is wrong to rank her this high on such a countdown; rather, I think that if we place her atop such a canon of women in rock, it is important to question how and why she fits into a rock canon, of women or more broadly.
Again, the work of the Beatles and Dylan, despite being investigated in social histories, is often viewed as transcendent art, separate from its temporal and geographic specificity when, I would argue, it should be celebrated as great music and contextualized simultaneously. And yet, it’s true that many different audiences across time and place can appreciate and enjoy the incredible body of work that Franklin produced, but I nonetheless assert that all music is worth investigating for its contexts, while acknowledging the differences in such contexts in terms of oppression and privilege.
Another context with which to examine Franklin’s work is within the historical struggles of what historian Manning Marable called the Black Freedom Movement (see Living Black History: How Reimagining the African-American Past Can Remake America’s Racial Future, Basic Civitas, 2006), a term that highlights continuities to encompass the larger struggle of African Americans for justice in the US. According to Marable and scholar Leith Mullings in Let Nobody Turn Us Around: Voices of Reform, Resistance, and Renewal: An African American Anthology (1st edition, Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), the emergence of the black power movement, to which ethnomusicologist Portia K. Maultsby ties Franklin and other ’60s soul stars (in her essay, “Africanisms in African-American Music“, published in Africanisms in American Culture, edited by Joseph E. Holloway, Indiana University Press, 2nd edition, 2005), came from what they labeled as the transformationist tendencies of the mid-20th century struggles for black freedom.
Marable and Mullings argue that there were three overall tendencies within the earlier “civil rights” phase—conservative, centrist, and transformationist—and five within the later “black power” phase: conservative black nationalism or black capitalism, cultural nationalism, revolutionary nationalism, religious nationalism, and black electoral political activism. These sectors of the movement overlapped with each other, as Marable and Mullings write, but the largest faction associated with soul music, including Franklin, was cultural nationalism, which historian William L. Van Deburg details New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, 1965-1975 (University of Chicago, Press, 1992). Marable and Mullings describe cultural nationalism as “focused on the African identity of black Americans, emphasizing the need for African Americans to transform their names, clothing apparel, diet, hairstyles, cultural rituals, and family structures to conform with the imagined reality of the continent.”
One way that these issues were addressed, according to cultural critic bell hooks, was through a thorough scrutiny of internalized racism in African American communities, including regarding dress and hairstyles. In her essay, ” Back to Black: Ending Internalized Racism”, published in Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations (Routledge, 1994), hooks argues, “No social movement to end white supremacy addressed the issue of internalized racism in relation to beauty as intensely as did the Black Power revolution in the sixties. For a time, at least, this movement challenged black folks to examine the psychic impact of white supremacy.” With her natural afro hairstyle and popular recordings heavily influenced by African American gospel traditions, Franklin became a symbol of the slogan, “Black is beautiful.”
Still, in addition to her being a symbol of black cultural nationalism and black power generally, Franklin also had ties to other divisions of the movement: she was a personal friend of Martin Luther King, Jr., whom Marable and Mullings identify as part of the centrist tendency of the earlier phase of the black freedom movement. Within the contexts of black freedom struggles, it should also be noted that African American women were marginalized and relegated to side roles, as a position paper from women in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the ’60s (collected in Marable and Mullings’s reader) makes clear. Later, when asked about the position of women in SNCC, black power icon Stokely Carmichael answered, “Prone”, referring to a sexual position (see Michele Wallace’s document in Marable and Mullings’s reader). In the midst of this sexism, black feminists like Michele Wallace emerged, challenging the dominance of male leaders. Wallace, Audre Lorde, hooks, and others spoke out into the decades following the ’60s about the importance of looking at multiple layers of identity, including race and gender, simultaneously.
During the ’60s, with works like Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (Dell, 1963), feminism got a huge boost in mainstream circles and media as well. However, African American female authors like Toni Morrison (see “What Black Women Think About Woman’s Lib“, New York Times, 1971) and Alice Walker critiqued the racism and classism in the predominantly white, middle class feminist movement. They and other outspoken critics and thinkers recognized the particularity of black female experiences and the necessity of including them in feminism, sometimes as an independent form of it, such as what Walker called womanism (see In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose by Alice Walker, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983).
Additional contexts to explore include the religious milieu of gospel music and African American Christian cultures. The daughter of C. L. Franklin, a famous preacher known as “The Man with the Million Dollar Voice”, Franklin grew up among stars in the gospel music world, including Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward, and Sam Cooke (as a member of the Soul Stirrers, before he was a pop star). The context of gospel music’s ascent in the early and middle decades of the 20th century, documented by scholars like Mellonee V. Burnim ( African American Music: An Introduction, edited by Burnim and Maultsby, Routledge), is important to understand the roots of Franklin’s musical development.
Furthermore, part of the work of scholars is uncovering, contextualizing, and making known that which is unknown in different fields. In music, Aretha Franklin is, of course, beloved, but certain areas get overlooked in studying her work, as well as in American Cultural Studies generally—especially involving social class and commerce. Integrating class into studies of race and gender in popular music—and culture, more generally—helps better and more accurately contextualize cultural texts. Ignorance about class may be part of a greater tendency in American life and scholarship, but incorporating class into work on race and gender is necessary for American Cultural Studies to move forward.
For example, the time of Franklin’s ascent to stardom was, relative to other periods, a booming time for the African American middle class, with a near doubling of the percentage of blacks who became middle class, according to historian Joe William Trotter, Jr., in his textbook, The African American Experience (Houghton Mifflin, 2001). The consumer market that emerged with the growth of the middle class after the GI Bill during World War II may help explain the phenomenal commercial success of artists like Elvis Presley and the Beatles in the US in the decades following, and it may also partly account for Franklin’s commercial breakthrough.
So, African American women were marginalized in multiple discourses based on intersectional social constructs: race, gender, and sometimes class, sexuality, disability, religion, and so on. This essay is not an attempt to chronicle every possible context, but I hope to point to future directions of research to undertake.
Discussions of context might seem relatively meaningless if not applied to a specific example of how to read the work of Franklin. In that spirit, this essay presents a critical reading of “Good to Me as I Am to You” from Franklin’s 1968 album, Lady Soul. The song features a guest appearance from Eric Clapton, the white blues-rock guitarist then gaining fame as a member of Cream.
In, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You: Aretha Franklin, Respect, and the Making of a Soul Music Masterpiece (St. Martin’s, 2004), critic Matt Dobkin writes, “Eric Clapton’s guitar filigree elevates ‘Good to Me as I Am to You,’ which, though not a well-known track, certainly ranks among Aretha’s best, most impassioned vocal performances.” I read this recording and Franklin’s performance as assertive, against both external and internalized forms of racist and sexist oppression, with Franklin speaking out against not only men who use her, but also against whites who perpetuate centuries of racism. In this performance, Franklin is rejecting maltreatment and asserting the importance of African American women valuing themselves and being valued by others—on their terms.
The song was cowritten by Franklin and her then-husband, Ted White. It functions as symbolic of their relationship, which was contentious, but it can also be read as a plea for gender and racial equality, intersectionally. My reading of this is akin to an intersectional reading of “Respect”.
Most critics and scholars have separated the race and gender dimensions of “Respect” instead of reading it intersectionally, but scholar Patricia Hill Collins, quoted in Werner’s Higher Ground, wrote about it, “Even though the lyrics can be sung by anyone, they take on a special meaning when sung by Aretha in the way that she sings them. On one level, the song functions as a metaphor for the condition of African Americans in a racist society. But Aretha’s being a Black woman enables the song to tap deeper meanings. Within the blues tradition, the listening audience of African American women assumes ‘we’ Black women, even though Aretha as the blues singer sings ‘I'”.
Similarly, “Good to Me as I Am to You” can yield a more intersectional and collective reading, where Franklin is singing for “‘we’ Black women.” It is as if she is saying, “Be as good to us as we are to you” to whites of (both) genders and men of all races.
In terms of aesthetics, “Good to Me as I Am to You” displays what African American composer Olly Wilson called the heterogenous sound ideal, a conceptual approach that Wilson argued is common in African and African American music. Wilson defines the heterogeneous sound ideal as “a common approach to music making in which a kaleidoscopic range of dramatically contrasting qualities of sound (timbre) is sought after in both vocal and instrumental music,” as seen in his essay on the topic collected in Signifyin(g), Sanctifyin’, & Slam Dunking: A Reader in African American Expressive Culture (edited by Gena Dagel Caponi, University of Massachusetts Press, 1999).
Ethnomusicologist Portia K. Maultsby’s description of the musical aesthetic of soul includes features from this recording, “Artists employ a wide range of aesthetic devices to interpret songs to include alternating lyrical, percussive, and raspy timbres” (from the previously cited African American Music: An Introduction). Franklin shouts and hollers as well as insinuates and shades the text through different devices. The recording also fits Wilson’s conceptual model because it exhibits, in Wilson’s words, “[t]he tendency to create a high density of musical events within a relatively short musical time frame—a tendency to fill up all the musical space.”
In this recording, there is also a strong interplay between Franklin, Clapton, and the other musicians that can be described as call-and-response, or antiphony. Unlike many of Franklin’s hits at the time, there are no backing vocals, so the call-and-response occurs more between Franklin’s voice and the instrumental sections.
In the first verse, there are dramatically contrasting timbres, including with how she sings the word “had” differently twice in the first two lines: she shouts and elongates the first “had”, as if to especially emphasize the more prosperous “dollar” that her partner might have in contrast with her “dime,” preceded by a shorter, curter “had” underscored by the slide on “dime.” With these devices, she shades the meaning of “And I had a dime” with dripping bitterness. She also swiftly alternates between high and low notes.
The horns emerge and crescendo around the middle of the first verse, before “Because when you need my love,” which she shouts, paralleling the increasing volume and rising passion when the horns enter. This means that there is also call-and-response between the horns and Franklin.
Franklin uses melisma—adding multiple notes for single syllables—plentifully on this recording, and though this may be an example of what Time called “melody obliteration”, to me and other listeners, it functions as melodic and emotional enhancement because of how she uses it with key words, often at the end of lines (“Then, my friend you’ve used my dime“, “Then, baby, just don’t knock on my front door“). This effect is, according to ethnomusicologists like Maultsby and Wilson, deeply rooted in African and African American musical practices.
However, some might assert that my placing this recording in a specifically African American musical history and context ignores the fact that one of the recording’s stars, Clapton, was white. So, I’m not arguing that only African Americans can access the heterogeneous sound ideal, but this ideal largely functions as part of a unique tradition apart from European-derived traditions, though, of course, there is plentiful interaction between the two streams across history.
Clapton’s appearance, with flurries of electric blues guitar runs, can function simultaneously as a response echoing Franklin’s desires for gender and racial equality and a commercial move by Atlantic to sell albums. Once again, a rockist interpretation would have us ignore the commercial contexts of Franklin’s work, and it is important to consider it as both brilliant music in the context of the time, including economic context.
Especially towards the end of the record, Franklin shouts in a passionate, percussive timbre, as if she is assertive, demanding equality across race and gender. The dialogue and call-and-response between the voice, guitar, piano, organ, bass, and horns along a repetitive chord progression fulfills Wilson’s description of African and African American music’s “tendency to create a high density of musical events within a relatively short musical time frame—a tendency to fill up all the musical space.”
If we read it intersectionally, it can be heard as a plea for both gender and racial equality. In relation to the song’s title, historian Judy Kutulas (in her essay from the book Impossible to Hold: Women and Culture in the 1960s, edited by Avital Bloch and Lauri Umansky, NYU Press, 2005) expertly close reads Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move” in 1971 as moving from ’60s female-led love songs with “me” to “I”—from object to subject. The title “Good to Me as I Am to You” portrays the singer as both subject and object, claiming her position as a full subject while recognizing the importance of how others treat her. The song can be read as both feminist and antiracist while speaking to the particular experiences of African American women, with what Collins calls the blues “we” of black women responding to the forces of white supremacy and patriarchy. Franklin is arguably saying to men and to whites that they should be as good to black women as black women are to them.
An anti-rockist, contextual, intersectional reading of “Good to Me as I Am to You” in terms of both race and gender recognizes how, at the time, Franklin recorded this track, black power discourses actively marginalized African American women, as I mentioned Carmichael’s comment about the position of women in SNCC (“prone”). Franklin’s song and performance could be interpreted as a plea to people privileged by race and/or gender—that is, whites and/or men—for mercy, for acceptance, and for equal treatment.
Another dimension to consider involves applying what one historian argueS was the centrality of race and of the master-slave dialectic to US history to gender. In his 1972 article, ” Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox”, historian Edmund Morgan callS the coexistence of slavery and freedom the central paradox of American history—that one group of people being free depended on another the other being unfree. An African American historian from my undergraduate alma mater asked her students to consider what it means if you make the aforementioned dialectic central: how, she asked, does that reframe how men treated their wives in US history?
That implies that master-slave relationship can be applied in all kinds of relations between the powerful and the powerless, including with gender, class, sexuality, and religion, and in “Good to Me as I Am to You”, Franklin could be heard as reclaiming the agency of a doubly subordinated people and demanding R-E-S-P-E-C-T all over again from whites and men. The significance of this interpretation, making the record explicitly about race as well as gender, is that it was written about a romantic heterosexual relationship and the woman striving for recognition and equality in the relationship, but it can also be read as a plea for racial as well as gender equality, to whites and to men.
In his 2013 article, ” Said the Hooker to the Thief: ‘Some Way Out’ of Rockism”, scholar Miles Parks Grier writes that “attempts to unseat rockism in popular music criticism will stall as long as rock—as a noun or a verb, a genre or its rebellious practice—remains critics’ central preoccupation.” So, my goal in an anti-rockist reading of “Good to Me as I Am to You” is, alternatively, to highlight the importance of context in ways that we don’t always see—in particular, how a song like this can be read in terms of race, in addition to gender. Situating a song or other cultural text in its proper context can help us gain a greater understanding of why we love this music in the first place, as well as to undermine a rockist, “timeless” interpretation that privileges the perspectives of straight white men.
Grier further argues that devotion to conceptions of individualism and authenticity, even alternative ones, reproduce rockism. Therefore, we should focus in this reading on the plural—”We” instead of “I”, and “Us” instead of “You”—implications of this recording, as well as the potential commercial motivation in bringing in Clapton to play on the record.
Furthermore, returning to the question of how and why Franklin fits within the rock canon, could Franklin have been included in part because of white audiences’ embracing her while she was performing what is constructed as “authentic” African American music? That is, could she have been seen as sticking to her own artistic vision while appealing to mass audiences in a way that rockists find acceptable? I don’t have an answer to this, but it is worth exploring.
If a rockist critical establishment embraces Franklin as the Queen of Rock & Roll, her greatest legacy may still reside in her contributions to soul and African American music and culture. The more we study the specificity of the multiple, intersectional contexts from which she emerged, the greater—not lesser—our appreciation will deepen of the Queen of Soul.
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On a personal note, I was incredibly fortunate to get the chance to hear Aretha Franklin in concert in 2017, less than a year before her death. When she sang, I managed not to cry, but she could still give me chills like nobody else. Her death made me rethink the multiple resonances and meanings of her music, especially when I read some of Craig Werner’s work, including his book, A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America (University of Michigan Press, 2006) Werner writes of African American musicians’ performances having double meanings and masking greater goals, such as equality. For example, Werner writes of gospel great Mahalia Jackson’s performance of “Walk in Jerusalem” as also symbolizing the goal of a seat at the front of the bus, with Jim Crow segregation dismantled.
So, whether a song like Franklin’s “Spirit in the Dark” is about the church, the streets, the bedroom, or all of the above, the multiplicity of contexts and potential interpretations make it more powerful than it would be otherwise. “Respect” and “Good to Me as I Am to You” are arguably similar, though the political meaning of “Respect” is clearer for many. The point is that Aretha Franklin’s music had many different meanings to many different people, and all of these should be investigated, rather than minimized in a “universal” narrative about the towering greatness of her music, especially in rock history.
Delving more deeply into my relationship with Franklin’s music and context, probably the first recording that I ever fell in love with was her 1967 version of “Respect”. I was a kid, listening to the folk music from the ’60s that my parents played, but I remember hearing an audiocassette of Franklin’s 30 Greatest Hits and rewinding that second song on side one over and over and over. I knew nothing about the larger social context of African American freedom struggles or feminism, but I loved how that record sounded—as a piece of music. I did not appreciate how it also sounded a call to political action, both inside and outside of personal relationships.
Recently, after watching some old VH1 countdown clips and getting sentimental, I have to say, Franklin profoundly changed and influenced my life. I don’t know if I ever would have dived as deeply into soul music were it not for having heard “Respect” as a child. That said, most of the diving came after my kinda-sorta-rockist phase. Without ever having heard the term, I was a terrible rockist as a teenager—not just in the sense of being an elitist snob and listening way too much to established critics, but actually being a poor-quality rockist. Not only was I not heterosexual, but I tried to be cool while enriching my palette with an eclectic variety of music that belied the fact that I didn’t listen to a lot of, you know, rock.
So, while spouting others’ ideas of the importance of prizing innovation, I was calling a lot of music “overrated”, usually without having listened to the music much. One of the albums that I dismissed as a child after listening to it once was what is now one of my all-time favorites: Franklin’s Lady Soul. I didn’t really understand some of the album tracks, like “Niki Hoeky”, so I dismissed it, all while listening to the album passively in the background.
While some rockists may fetishize microanalysis of music, with the intention to show how innovative and influential it is in rock circles, I certainly overthought some matters with music, but I didn’t pay nearly enough attention to context. I even once called into a local rock critics talk show ( Sound Opinions) and ranted about how context doesn’t matter when listening to albums like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. In other words, if I didn’t like it, I viewed my initial gut reaction as the be-all-and-end-all of what everyone should think about an album—its historical, social, and political contexts be damned.
Well, a lot has changed for me. Learning about the importance historical context in college, I started to challenge larger narratives about the supremacy and alleged superiority of different groups, such as straight white men. So, today, I can appreciate artists like Franklin—who, again, often get contextualized while straight white male artists get constructed as timeless and context-less—in a different way. It has greatly enriched my enjoyment and understanding of her music, and the more I read, the more I hear, the more I watch documentaries, and the more I ask questions about it all, the greater my appreciation grows.
The day that she died, after countless times listening to “Ain’t No Way” and getting chills, I heard a different kind of desperation in those shouted notes of “Baby, don’t you know that I, NEED, YOU!” The death of an artist can make us hear and appreciate their music in a new way—I think of Karen Carpenter’s 1983 death from anorexia nervosa making many listen to her music differently. But the effects of an artist’s death on listeners is another context that needs to be interrogated.
Today, between her two most acclaimed albums, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You and Lady Soul, I love both, but I prefer the latter for its stellar album tracks—and I see how my ignorance of really listening to the music, including for context, precluded me from appreciating it. There are some classic hits on Lady Soul, including “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” and “Ain’t No Way,” the latter of which is especially a favorite of mine. But the covers of soul greats and contemporaries like James Brown (“Money Won’t Change You”), Curtis Mayfield (“People Get Ready”), and Ray Charles (“Come Back Baby”), as well as “Good to Me as I Am to You,” make Lady Soul one of her most consistently powerful albums.
Whatever the terms of your personal relationship with Franklin’s music, I strongly encourage listeners to actively dig into different contexts, including of intersectionality and of the rock canon, in order to increase the depth of understanding, empathy, and experience that comes when a voice like hers touches our hearts, minds, bodies, and souls. We can only gain a greater appreciation of art by learning about its history, so I wanted to end this essay by recommending some guiding topics and principles for interested readers.
With textual analysis and close reading—whether of words, sounds, visuals, or other dimensions of meaning—scholar Douglas Kellner argues that the best work in Cultural Studies contains two additional components: an analysis of a text’s political economy and one of its reception. Often, the discipline of English literature prizes textual analysis and close reading over everything else, while American Cultural Studies, often borne out of English departments at colleges and universities, often privileges analysis of the reception of texts over the other two, whether on sales charts, in reviews, across different audiences, and so on.
Indeed, political economy, which involves an analysis of how texts fit within larger political and economic contexts of their times, is often neglected in American Cultural Studies. This ties back into the idea that American Cultural Studies often does not discuss class and economics, whereas most other international forms of Cultural Studies make these discussions a priority (i.e., the aforementioned Joe William Trotter, Jr.’s The African American Experience, and Introducing Cultural Studies: A Graphic Guide,Totem Books, 2010, and more informally, Ryan Poll‘s lectures in his Cultural Studies class at Northeastern Illinois University). So, when we discuss the music of any era—music made by whites, people of color, men, women, heterosexuals, LGBTQ people, and so on—we should look at class and how access, or lack thereof, to wealth can predetermine certain contexts, including the reception of the music. That will make our understanding of music all the richer, no pun intended.