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Music Column: Aretha Franklin made music for change

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CW/ Jordan Hadley

CW/ Jordan Hadley

Desi Gillepsie, Contributing Writer

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Last week, the world lost an icon and musical warrior that had no equal in her time or in ours. Aretha Franklin effortlessly bridged the gap between pop and soul, and perhaps even more easily the gap between technical prowess and deep expression.

After a six year contract with Columbia produced only moderate success, her 1967 number one hit, “Respect,” immediately launched her to superstar status. With this, Franklin accepted the role of civil rights and feminist icon. The American cultural identity has been drastically changed ever since.

Aretha Franklin had 20 number-one R&B singles, 18 Grammy awards and was the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone Magazine twice ranked her as the number one Greatest Singer of All Time.

While her songs were largely about relationships, her out-of-studio philanthropy and independent flair within those songs influenced countless women and minority groups. Franklin’s soulful execution of these songs presented a stark contrast to the bubblegum pop and male dominated rock and roll of the 1960’s, which often lacked feeling and objective skill. Her strong delivery and self-empowered voice honestly sought relationships and connections with others while maintaining a strong sense of self-worth and identity.

I grew up listening to 60’s music, having made the move from the kids satellite radio channel to 60’s on 6 at age seven. It quickly became clear to me, albeit on a simple level, that there was a lot of thin, shabbily produced pop from that era (which is admittedly present in all eras of popular music). As I got older, I began to gravitate toward jazz, soul and more thoughtful rock and roll, Aretha Franklin’s music included. I still know no other song as brilliantly emotional and simply eloquent as her “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman.”

Now, as I minor in music production, Franklin’s perfectly produced and tastefully mixed music provides a wealth of insight into keeping a natural sound and soul throughout recordings. For songwriters, her lyrics testify to the value that is contained in popular music and remind listeners ordinary subjects can remain poignant when presented in fresh and honest ways. Franklin’s influence continues beyond the years of the height of her career, and now continues past her death.

This influence is felt all over the nation, inspiring many young African-American musicians to this day.  One such musician, Jada Foster, a junior in vocal performance, grew up listening to Aretha Franklin.

“My mother played her in the house while we cleaned up and sang her songs to us as kids,” Foster said. “The power, passion and emotion came through in her voice and it really spoke to me,” she continued, “As a young singer, having that representation gave me the courage to think, ‘Maybe I could do that someday.’ She was truly the Queen of Soul, because her music came from her soul.”

In recent years, “escape artists” have dominated the popular music landscape. Superstars like Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, Shawn Mendes, etc. sing feel-good songs, break-up songs, all sorts of pop themes that have existed for years. While there can be value in such music, as a consumer market, we reward these people with success in return for very little.

Artists that actively use their influence to comment on our culture, offstage or in-studio, are few and far between. Yes, Franklin recorded songs with those same themes, but her soul and voice became icons for two movements. Her grace and work for change became legendary. Where are the mainstream artists promoting change in our society? Where are the Franklins, the Guthries, and the Dylans offering cultural criticisms? You’ll be hard pressed to find more than one or two examples.

The reality of it is there are no superstars willing to risk their fortunes on improving our nation. Perhaps candy pop escape artists don’t have the soul for it. But maybe a new generation of musicians inspired by the inaction of their elders and the work of icons like Aretha Franklin will soon put the national spotlight to good use again: singing to earn what the marginalized cannot on their own – respect.

 

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Music Column: Aretha Franklin made music for change