Aretha Franklin was a legendary singer, a pioneering arranger and producer and, not least, an important figure in the fight for civil rights.
She was also — stay with me here — a master of the modern viral video.
Think about this: In the last few years of her life, which ended Thursday when she died of advanced pancreatic cancer at age 76, where did you most often encounter the Queen of Soul? Chances are it was some priceless clip that somebody shared: the time a camera caught her seemingly brushing off Patti LaBelle in a crowd, for instance, or the video interview in which she was asked what she thought of Taylor Swift as a singer.
“Great gowns,” she replied. “Beautiful gowns.”
There were also, needless to say, pieces of video depicting Franklin’s musical genius, including a long, churchy rendition of the national anthem at a 2016 football game and the ne plus ultra of Aretha Franklin internet content: her mind-blowing performance of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2015.
This was the gig where Carole King could be seen freaking out in the audience as she watched Franklin transform her tune into a religious rite. The gig in which she brought down the house by getting up from behind her piano and tossing her fur coat to the floor. The gig that famously made President Obama wipe a tear from his cheek as he took it all in.
But you already know that, of course. Like everyone else, you’ve seen the video.
Part of what these clips tell us — one of the things I’ve been thinking about as I’ve rewatched them this week — is how well Franklin understood the way show business works. They make clear everything she learned from her father, the flashy and beloved Rev. C.L. Franklin, about gripping an audience with all the tools at one’s disposal.
But they also demonstrate her ability, crucial to a career in pop, to communicate an enormous amount of information in a small amount of time. Like her songs, the videos put across so much about Franklin: her attitude, her resilience, her sensitivity and, yes, her unequaled voice, which itself was a kind of living compendium of American musical traditions, from gospel to jazz to blues to show tunes to funk.
Everything she did, whether an old-school spiritual or a sleek R&B jam, carried the unmistakable essence of Aretha.
Take “Respect,” probably her best-known record and one that was destined to become an anthem given its perfect legibility. Here’s a woman in the mid-1960s who has assessed her situation with a man (or perhaps every woman’s situation with every man) and found it unsatisfactory; the voice is scuffed with experience but steady with resolve — the sound of a complicated person at a complicated time that we nevertheless can envision within the song’s first 45 seconds.
Or listen to something from decades later: “A Rose Is Still a Rose,” the 1998 title track from one of her many comeback efforts in which she’s counseling a younger woman who’s been mistreated by a lover. Her vocal is lower and huskier, but it’s suffused with the same emotional wisdom you hear in “Respect.”
As much as her soulful runs or her impeccable timing — and surely both lifted her above pretty much everybody else — that recognizable wisdom was Franklin’s signature; it’s the thing she learned to build her music around, no matter the setting.
One benefit of this crystallizing skill was that she could keep our focus where she wanted it. Notoriously protective of her reputation, Franklin walled off her art from many of the messy details of her real life, as David Ritz writes in his recent biography. His portrait is of a woman determined to shoo us away from thoughts of teenage motherhood and money trouble and broken relationships.
But because she was so good in the studio and onstage — so capable of authoring a story and then expertly relaying it — we often accepted her half-fantasies as the whole truth.
Which isn’t to say that Franklin’s work avoided the expression of pain — far from it, as anyone who’s heard her desolate rendition of “The Thrill Is Gone” knows. Yet true abandon in her music felt rare; she always appeared in control, even when her voice was going places no other singer could map.
That careful tailoring of her image is another way, beyond her preternatural instinct for the viral video, that Franklin seemed more modern than her contemporaries, many of whom had no interest in (or at least no flair for) the type of brand maintenance that now is second nature for any celebrity.
She knew what worked within the persona she’d cultivated — and because that persona was so vivid, she knew it could withstand any number of shifts in musical style. Franklin never stopped caring about commercial success; she paid attention to the marketplace and sought out collaborators with proven juice.
For “A Rose Is Still a Rose,” she recruited Lauryn Hill and Puff Daddy, and she sounded great — she still sounds great — in their hip-hop-informed productions. The players had changed, but in her mind the game remained the same: Make it Aretha, or don’t make it at all.
There’s one more clip I’ve been looking at, and with a little more than 4,000 YouTube views (including quite a few from me) it could hardly be described as having gone viral. But man, does it distill the breadth of her gift.
It’s from a concert Franklin played at Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun Casino in March 2017, just months before what’s widely described as her final public performance in November at an AIDS fundraiser in New York.
She’s introducing “Skylark,” one of the old standards Franklin sang in her early Columbia Records days, with a lengthy account of the time she’d been booked to do the song on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” At rehearsal, she recalls, she wore a low-cut dress, “which was not very ideal for Ed at the time.”
So she goes out and finds another dress, comes back to Sullivan’s theater — and then is promptly told by her agent that she’s been bumped from the show due to overbooking. The audience grumbles; Franklin’s got everyone in the room on her side at this point, and you can see the satisfaction on her face.
“‘That’s all right,’” she says she replied. “‘Ed Sullivan will call me before I call him again.’” Big laughs, big applause — Aretha told him!
But then she drops the diva act — “Well, that never happened,” she deadpans — and suddenly we’re sympathizing with her again: a masterful lead-in to a performance of “Skylark” that’s so tender and yearning you can hardly believe it.