I remember sitting down in my dad’s living room, as a boy. He had decided that the time had come for me to watch one of his personal favourite movies. I do not remember feeling particularly excited about it – when I think of it, I do not think it was the appropriate movie for me to watch (but I also grew up listening to the live recording of Janis Joplin at Woodstock, so there we go). After one particular scene, however, I remember turning around to my dad, who is a singer and guitarist, and going:
“She’s pretty good, isn’t she?”
Music had always been my dad’s shtick, and giving my opinion to him was always somewhat of a big deal. My dad shook his head: he was in tears. I had never seen my dad in tears.
That movie was The Blues Brothers.
That song was Respect.
That goddess of a singer was Aretha Franklin.
Since then, Aretha Franklin has been an ever-present figure in my life: her songs would constantly play where I lived, and she would constantly be one of the few go-to artists. Few of them were regarded as highly in my house: next to her name I only can think of legends such as Whitney Houston, Ray Charles, Janis Joplin, and titans of Italian music like Rino Gaetano, Fabrizio De Andre’, Mina. Those kind of artists whose name itself is the music, the real deal. All of Franklin’s magic artistry could not be attached to a single title: she was the title.
We all have those songs that we associate to a specific moment: a party, a kiss, a cosy night with friends… Yet to me, and I’m sure to most others, Aretha’s voice accompanied so many of them: a wholesome brunch with my best friends after a night with zero hours of sleep; a particularly good Cheesy Moles; a road trip; the time I danced Respect in the shower to the point of falling out of said shower, dragging the curtain down with me. Her voice accompanied me while preparing for nights out, during moments of demotivation in which I was looking for some strength to get to the end of the day; when I needed vivacity, energy, nerve, I could rely on Aretha. She was a household name and you always think those people are never going to die: and even though, in a way, they don’t, knowing that you’re not sharing the same planet with them anymore brings a certain feeling of sorrow. The world of music is mourning as the Queen of Soul has walked her last steps on Earth. We all have been blessed by her talent and by that of those who aided her in crafting her gift and sharing it with the world.
Many articles published after her death, in my opinion, did not do her justice. Though all well written, narrating the story of an incredible woman who climbed up to become a divinity to all of us, they were all missing something: the personal touch; the feeling the writers had when they heard her singing. Aretha Franklin, like few others, was capable of tingling some strings in our bodies and souls in a way that produced pure energy – vibrating, raw energy. What was missing was a sign of the intimate link she could create, through her music, between ourselves and our experiences.
The symbolic “death of the author” is applicable to music as well. Artists can be powerful figures through which we channel our emotions, mirrors through which we look at ourselves: the objective sound we receive undergoes twists and turns in our minds, to become utterly unique and subjective. And by god was Aretha capable of doing this.
On the news of her death, I quickly became fond of two pieces written by Candace Allen and Irenosen Okojie on the Guardian: they exposed their feelings, their personal attachment to her that came from different places and different motives, to frame their own experience of Aretha Franklin, her music and what it meant to them. That is the homage everyone is looking for to fill the Aretha-shaped hole her loss left. Dry articles by white men explaining what Aretha meant to black women are unbearable because they, we, cannot understand their experience of her music. What each of us can talk about is the Aretha Franklin we experienced, the moments and the feelings we were able to connect with and still are able to cherish. Great artists have a capacity to suscitate all sorts of emotions, and each of us, in a way, has their own Aretha to mourn, to remember, and to keep alive. There was only one Aretha Franklin and we were gifted to have lived in the same world she did; all we can do now is to keep her legacy alive. That’s our job.
So thank you, Aretha, and goodbye. If anyone had to be singing while I was falling out of the shower, I am glad it was you.