Aretha Franklin Who's Zoomin' Who

Aretha Franklin’s ‘Who’s Zoomin’ Who?’ Brought the Grand Diva into the 1980s

Aretha Franklin’s comeback with ‘Who’s Zoomin’ Who?’ wasn’t an awkward attempt to be hip. Instead, she entered the cool, synth-sluiced 1980s with aplomb.

Who's Zoomin' Who?
Aretha Franklin
Arista Records
9 July 1985

The 1980s were kinder to some legends than others, but Aretha approached the new decade with her usual grace.

– Christopher R. Weingarten1

As comebacks go, Aretha Franklin‘s 1985 album Who’s Zoomin’ Who? will remain an essential entry in the diva’s discography. Like many 1960s soul icons, Franklin looked to contemporary pop trends to maintain their cultural dominance and resurrect their careers. With Who’s Zoomin’ Who?, Franklin made an important mark on MTV pop and was able to adapt to the new decade with credibility, artistry, and dignity intact. This comeback wasn’t an awkward or ill-fitted attempt for a veteran artist to be hip. Instead, Franklin was able to enter the cool, synth-sluiced 1980s with aplomb.

The story of Who’s Zoomin’ Who? and Franklin’s commercial resurgence doesn’t actually begin in July of 1985, but in 1979 in Encino. Franklin was living in California at the time and was experiencing a lull in her recording career. After more than a decade of recording some of the best music in the 20th century for Atlantic Records, Franklin saw her career begin to settle into her’ legacy artist’ phase. Her last top ten pop hit was “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” which hit number three on the Billboard charts in 1973. Her album sales slowed down in the 1970s, as well: 1973’s Young, Gifted, and Black, the soundtrack to Sparkle (1976), and a live album, Aretha Live at Filmore West (1971) went gold; while her classic gospel record, Amazing Grace (1972) went platinum, selling over two million copies. But these releases were outliers. For the most part of the decade, her albums for Atlantic were disappointments. And Franklin’s eight-year winning streak at the Grammys for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance was broken in 1975 by Natalie Cole.

It didn’t mean that Franklin was forgotten. It was impossible to forget that voice who defined 1960s soul with classics like “Respect”, “Think”, “Chain of Fools”, “You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman)”, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”, among others. She ruled soul and pop radio in the 1960s. Her voice was a natural wonder: a large, thick, wise, and saucy voice that hit that elusive spot that sees the secular and the sacred overlap. When she belts, it’s a guttural, bone-shaking sound; when she roars, she can move mountains. More so than any other artist, she was able to pull and tease out the spiritual euphoria that exists in great soul music. Though pop radio embraced her in the 1960s, she wasn’t a crossover artist, smoothing her rough edges to make herself commercial. No. She was a soul artist who changed the rules of pop music.

But even the greats, the giants, the geniuses, must contend with the passage of time, and Franklin wasn’t immune, either. Though she made some wonderful music in the 1970s, shifting tastes in popular music, including the dominance of disco, made it sound as if Aretha Franklin might not have a spot in pop anymore. Her work with Atlantic, particularly the work she did in the early years, was her best and most creative, and yet, by 1979, it appeared as if Franklin’s salad days were behind her.

So, back to Encino in 1979. That was the year that Aretha Franklin met Clive Davis. As Davis recounted, “the first time I met her…she was at the end of her career at Atlantic.” Citing the growing unevenness of her work at that point, he said, “She was working with producers who didn’t quite have the right handle on the material.” 2

Davis had been successful in rejuvenating Dionne Warwick‘s career, signing her to Arista Records and teaming her with another artist he nurtured, Barry Manilow, who worked with Warwick to release her top five Billboard hit, “I’ll Never Love This Way Again”. It was the lead single from her comeback album, Dionne, that would go platinum (her first album to studio LP to sell over a million copies). Warwick, a friend and peer of Franklin’s was in a similar situation in her career: a key figure of 1960s popular music, Warwick’s singular and distinct talent graced pop radio in the 1960s but found that her commercial fortunes dipped throughout the 1970s.

Franklin’s relationship with Davis would begin with her Arista debut, Aretha in 1980, but her commercial breakthrough was 1982’s “Jump to It” which saw her being paired with Luther Vandross. Vandross was famously a devoted Franklin disciple (as well as being a fan of Dionne Warwick and Diana Ross). Vandross – a legendary singer in his own right – was able to help Franklin step into the new decade with grace and wit. With his help, Franklin saw “Jump to It” land in the top 30 on the Billboard charts, just missing the top 20 (it reached number one on the R&B charts). More important than the commercial success was the introduction of Franklin to the 1980s. Vandross’ longtime collaborator, Marcus Miller, goosed up the funky soul with synthesizers. The effort pays off because Franklin doesn’t sound like an oldies singer who is trying to sound “hip” or “young.” Though Vandross doesn’t unearth the genius that Jerry Wexler did when he worked with Franklin on her with extra care in crafting a wonderful vehicle for her talents.

With the success of “Jump to It”, Clive Davis worked with Franklin to capitalize on that success, by joining her up with Narada Michael Warden to work on her fifth album for Arista, Who’s Zoomin’ Who? The album was a typical 1980s MTV pop album with a starry list of guest musicians. Franklin was joined by big names like Randy Jackson, Dizzy Gillespie, Sylvester, Martha Wash, Clarence Clemons, and the Eurythmics. The record, an all-star affair, was tailored to become a radio success in the 1980s. It introduced Franklin to a whole new audience by jumping on the latest pop sounds and pop trends and more importantly, Franklin was also introduced to MTV. As music critic Robert Christgau noted, “[the album’s success] couldn’t have happened without Narada Michael Walden, who unhesitatingly plugged his first legend into one pop format after another and came up with classics almost every time.” 3

MTV was an integral part of the music industry as it was a major venue for labels and artists to promote their records. Music videos became an art form unto themselves, and they were considered as important for artists as their music. The tech-heavy pop music of the decade translated well with music videos on MTV: the superfast cuts, elaborate choreography, and innovative technology tracked well with 1980s synthpop. Franklin was placed in the midst of this new music landscape, and despite her storied history and legacy, she seemed to fit right in.

The album’s first single, “Freeway of Love” was released a month before the album’s release, and is one of Aretha Franklin’s most important singles. Not because it’s her best performance. In fact, it’s not; it’s one of the few singles that Franklin graces in which her vocals aren’t the most important part of the record’s success. The reason why “Freeway of Love” is so notable in Franklin’s long career is that it was the song that perfectly captured Franklin’s successful reinvention as a 1980s dance-pop singer.

“Freeway of Love” is a great way to open the record and it’s a great first single for Who’s Zoomin’ Who? because it presents the thesis of the collaborative work of Franklin, Narada Michael Walden, and Clive Davis. The song starts off with pounding percussion, reminiscent of the steady drumming of a Motown song, before a rubbery synth bass marches in (courtesy of Randy Jackson), and to top it all off, Clarence Clemons’ soulful sax wails. Clemons’ contribution is more than just a supremely talented studio musician making a guest appearance; Clemons was such a singular talent, and was a major star, leaving an indelible mark on his work with Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band. His presence in the song makes the tune current and contemporary.

“Freeway of Love” not only brought Aretha Franklin to 1980s radio, but the song’s hit video made Aretha Franklin an MTV video star. Shot in glorious black and white, the song paid homage to Franklin’s native Detroit and its history of automobile production, with shots of assembly lines at car factories. Franklin’s performing scenes were shot at a nightclub; fronting a live and energetic band, Franklin holds court with a sassy buzz cut. (In other scenes, Franklin is resplendent in luxurious white furs.) Director Brian Grant (who won a Grammy for his campy work with Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical”) had crafted a great tribute to Franklin and Detroit and its history of Black popular music.

Due to the heavy rotation of the music video (which was nominated in 1987 for Best Female Video losing to the Brian Grant-directed “How Will I Know” from Franklin’s close family friend, Whitney Houston) and the accompanying hype of Aretha Franklin’s comeback, “Freeway of Love” was a huge hit, returning the Queen back to the top ten after a lengthy absence, and won her the 12th Grammy. But more important than the sales or the critical reception was the message that even though Franklin was a veteran of the entertainment business, she wasn’t a nostalgia act, happy to rest on her laurels.

In that year, Franklin wasn’t the only soul act of the 1960s who was looking to make a comeback on the pop charts. Her fellow Detroit native, Diana Ross released her Bee Gees-produced Eaten Alive. Gladys Knight and the Pips came out with Life. Patti LaBelle saw her seventh studio album, Patti, arrive in stores that year. Franklin’s Arista labelmate, Dionne Warwick released her own Clive Davis-produced Friends later that year. Franklin’s work was the most successful, and she was able to insert herself into the current pop world whilst her legendary peers were struggling. (Though, predictably, Davis was able to guide Warwick to one of her biggest successes with Friends which included the number one hit “That’s What Friends Are For”.) So, even though Franklin was a historic icon, she was also a vital and vibrant artist. But unlike many of her peers from 1960s soul, Franklin found it easier to adapt, as Robert Christgau pithily noted, “the Queen of Soul is totally at home with up-to-the-minute black pop” when comparing her enduring pop success with her 60s cohort.4

“Freeway of Love” paved the way for her subsequent singles to do well on the pop charts. The glossy title track also landed in the top ten of the pop charts. Like “Freeway of Love,” “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” was a fabulous 1980s synthpop dance tune that found a newly-rejuvenated Franklin singing with a spirit and passion. With enthusiastic backup vocals from a chorus of singers that included Franklin’s sister Carolyn and disco legend Sylvester, Franklin practically glides on the dancing bass and pounded pianos.

The other major hit from Who’s Zoomin’ Who? paired Franklin with an act that was the epitome of the glassy, icy synth-driven 1980s: Eurythmics. The British band was fronted by Annie Lennox, a preternaturally gifted soul singer with a wide and formidable voice. With her musical partner, Dave Stewart, Lennox became a major figure of 1980s pop. Not only was Eurythmics’ music popular at the time, but Lennox – a startling androgynous figure who played with ideas of gender and femininity – was a ubiquitous figure in pop culture at that critical moment in pop music. With New Romantic artists becoming popular in the mainstream, the Eurythmics led with a string of moody, ominous synth-soul hits.

The pairing of Lennox’s blare of a voice with Franklin’s gospel-reared instrument is inspired on “Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves”. The two women’s vocals compliment each other, though Franklin is placed in the highly-synthetic, robotic dance-pop of the Eurythmics sound. The song – written by Lennox and Stewart – is a feminist anthem that attempts to bring feminism into pop. It’s one of the album’s few moments that fails to escape the trappings of its time. Though both Lennox and Franklin sound great (to her credit, Lennox keeps up with her legendary duet partner), the song’s facile sloganeering makes the important message sound trite and easy (also, Lennox’s condescending mention that there were, in fact, women “lawyers, doctors, and politicians” was a headscratcher of a line, especially given that Lennox was from a country whose head of government was a woman). The unfortunate bridge panders to any feminist backlash with both singers reassuring their listeners that “a man still loves a woman/and a woman still loves a man” (except if they happen to be queer?).

The song would be destined to be used in montages of light comedies when the female characters suddenly discover self-empowerment. Still, despite its limits, the song was another massive hit for Franklin, her third top 20 hit. It’s clear that by the time “Sisters Are Doing For Themselves” became a smash hit, it wasn’t a case of a new, younger act propping up an established veteran act but a union of two popular and contemporary artists combining their respective and estimable commercial power.

The other superstar duet on Who’s Zoomin’ Who? wasn’t a hit single but a critical moment on the record. “Push” paired Franklin with former J. Geils Band singer Peter Wolf, who embarked on a successful solo career the year before. The album also featured an extended solo sequence for Carlos Santana’s squealing electric guitar. It’s a crowded, gaudy tune with major superstars vying for space as they perform the grooving dance number. Unlike Lennox, Wolf doesn’t manage to measure up to Franklin’s powerful vocals, despite possessing a good voice. Unfortunately, he seems pushed out by Franklin and Santana, who dominate. But the song is badly dated. The extravagant and, frankly, ridiculous synthesizer is pretty awful. So, then why highlight the track? Because it encapsulates Davis’ vision better than any other track on the record (with the possible exception of the excellent “Freeway of Love”). It’s the type of cynical, calculated, planned move that Davis masterminded to bring Franklin into 1980s pop. His idea – which admittedly worked – was to throw synthesizers, drum machines, electric guitars, keyboards, and big-name guest stars at Aretha Franklin and completely submerge her churchy soulfulness.

Given the aggressive market-driven direction of Who’s Zoomin’ Who? the inclusion of an old chestnut from Franklin’s Colombia Records past seems quite shocking. But “Sweet Bitter Love” is a significant highlight on the album devoted to showing off the studio effects more than the genius of Franklin’s voice. So, hearing “Sweet Bitter Love” in the album’s context is revelatory. It’s the one place on the album where we get Franklin’s complete genius. The sheer ecstasy found in Franklin’s brilliant work on “Sweet Bitter Love” is further emphasized when compared to the original version of the song from Franklin’s 1966 album Soul Sister. The song’s original production is twee and syrupy, and Franklin’s voice – powerful and robust in its youth – doesn’t have the majestic gravitas of her far-superior work on the 1985 version. Instead of a swinging Bacharach-style pop ditty, she elevates the material with a pained and emotional performance that drenches Van McCoy’s lyrics with heartache and anguish.

“Sweet Bitter Love” is an essential inclusion on Who’s Zoomin’ Who? because it reminds listeners of Franklin’s glorious soulful gifts. Yes, the record is surprisingly vibrant and consistent even though it sports the then-latest flourishes and accents of pop. Franklin’s once-in-a-generation voice busts its way through the thick, slick gloss, but it does remove Franklin from her soul and R&B roots.

When released, Who’s Zoomin’ Who? was declared some of Franklin’s best music in decades, some even comparing it to the successful pop makeover Tina Turner enjoyed the year before with Private Dancer. In a positive review, Rolling Stone’s Vince Aletti praised the album with some minor reservations but did agree that the album contained “some of Aretha Franklin’s best work since the Sixties…Franklin sweeps through the stylistic hodgepodge with more fire and verve than she’s displayed in years.” He declared that “there’s enough vocal brilliance here to stun any listener within rage.” 5 In a retrospective of Franklin’s career after her death, the magazine paid tribute to the album, with Christopher R. Weingarten hailing the record as “tuned-in pop, contemporary but not cloying, banking on a reliable brand (Aretha) but not dependent on it.” 6

But Davis isn’t considered one of the greatest music men in the business for nothing. With Who’s Zoomin’ Who?, Franklin entered a new phase in her career that saw an intersection of legend and commercial success. After the album’s success, she followed it up with the almost-as-successful Aretha the next year. That album not only featured her hit cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (which was the theme of the Whoopi Goldberg comedy of the same name), but Franklin also went back to number one on the pop charts after 20 years with “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” which saw her pair up with male pop diva superstar, George Michael, who was about to embark on a solo career. She spent the next decade or so on Arista as its undisputed Queen. Though her music in the early 1990s didn’t sell as well, it didn’t matter at that point because Aretha Franklin was a national treasure. And some audiences and critics found her work on Arista to be stronger than some of her later Atlantic work, including Robert Christgau, who opined that “her 1981-89 [Arista albums] proved far more consistent and focused than her 1974-79 [Atlantic albums].” 7

In 1998, Davis yet again spun his magic, this time assembling a coterie of urban-pop, soul, hip-hop, and neo-soul producers to create another gold-selling success, A Rose Is Still a Rose. Even more so than Who’s Zoomin’ Who?, A Rose Is Still a Rose was a highly satisfying way of updating her sound and making her sound very contemporary. Davis and Franklin worked together one last time in 2014 with her final studio album, Aretha Franklin Sings the Diva Classics, a covers album released four years before her death. Upon her death, Davis said, “She was more than the Queen of Soul. She was a national treasure to be cherished by every generation throughout the world.” 8

Works Cited

1 Weingarten, Christopher J. “Aretha’s Greatest Albums: ‘Who’s Zoomin’ Who?’. Rolling Stone. 21 August 2018.

2 Newman, Melinda. “Clive Davis Reflects on 40-Year Friendship & Creative Partnership with Aretha Franklin.” Billboard. 25 March 2016.

3 Christgau, Robert. “Aretha Franklin.” Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics.

4 Christgau, Robert. “Queen of Pop.” Originally appeared in Village Vocie, 17 March 1998. Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics.

5 Aletti, Vince. Review of Aretha Franklin’s Who’s Zoomin’ Who?. Rolling Stone. 29 August 1985.

6 Weingarten, Christopher J. “Aretha’s Greatest Albums: ‘Who’s Zoomin’ Who?’. Rolling Stone. 21 August 2018.

7 Christgau, Robert. “Robert Christgau on Aretha, the Genius Behind a Voice Unlike Any Other.” Rolling Stone, 16 August 2018.

Davis, Clive. “I’m absolutely devastated by Aretha’s passing.” Twitter. 16 August 2018. @CliveDavis