You know your feelings best—
trust them, follow them.
They are guided by
the deeper chemistry of intuition.
It was in the early dawn when I first felt the power of Aretha Franklin’s voice. It came trembling out from my fingertips and shaking through my knees. It washed over my sins like faith.
Her mighty vocals possessed such strength, her gospel seemed to lift the weight of God into my headphones. So I listened with complete absorption, on a westbound train to a day’s work, far from the comfort of my man’s loving arms.
Two of her albums in particular, 1968’s Aretha Now and 1970’s Spirit In the Dark, translate womanhood in a way that is neither sexualized, marginalized or inflated. Instead, these songs highlight the sensitive details in temporal activities; such as putting on makeup, going out to eat, or just feeling lonely at home.
The more I listened the more her tracks became saturated with my own experience as a young Black woman in love. I began to hear my own longings and loss in Aretha Franklin.
In just under 30 minutes, Aretha Now establishes a sound at the intersections of blues, gospel, and pop. The two leading singles from the album, “Think” and “Say A Little Prayer” illustrate this intersection the most.
“Think” opens the album with an attitude that declares her disillusionment towards the efforts of a lover. She howls with the rage of a woman scorned. She is not only claiming autonomy over her body, spirit, and mind, she is asserting an equal standing of power in the relationship, themes heavily suggested by lady blues singers. Her rallying cry for Freedom, is an anthem parallel to the liberating aspects of the Sexual Revolution throughout the 1960s.
Following “Think,” “Say A Little Prayer”” shifts the album’s entire sound with a softer tone, demonstrating how she can command her vocals from firm to tender vibrations. Her outward displays of frustration become intimate revelries of love. Although this track is a cover of a Dionne Warwick single, Aretha’s delivery–accompanied by the choral vocals of the Sweet Inspirations–illuminates the loyalty and faith found in love.
On Spirit In the Dark, Aretha displays a more mature expression of womanhood, one that juxtaposes the sunny and bright bulb of Aretha Now with darker shadows and blues. On “Don’t Play That Song” and “Spirit In the Dark,” Aretha summons this sultry magnetism with refined skill.
The piano melody on “Don’t Play That Song” holds as much gravity as her vocals. Instead of depicting the woman in heartbreak as weak, or succumbing to anguish, Aretha lifts above that misery and expels the forces that seek to drag her. She reclaims her power to grieve, instead of allowing it to inflict her own outlook.
The slow draw in “Spirit in the Dark” is sensual and strikes like a match. The sway of the beat combined with the organ begins like a religious hymn, but it’s low growl turns into a praise full of dance and rhythm. This track shakes and shimmies like rock and roll, and releases like an exhale.
Although the aforementioned songs are some of the most popular in her repertoire, my favorite (and underrated) picks from these albums are “Hello Sunshine” and “Try Matty’s.” On “Hello Sunshine,” Aretha welcomes the spring while her vocals reach for their ultimate might and grasp for the heavens. “Try Matty’s” is amazing for its portrait of a woman expressing her affection for her local lowdown juke joint.
Both Aretha Now and Spirit In the Dark reveal a multitude of love’s grace and complexities. From fury to frustration to grace and glory, these tracks illustrate all the faces of a love affair. The mastery of her vocals, combined with the fact that Aretha wrote many of these tracks herself, proves exactly why she’s the Queen of Soul. Aretha Franklin captures the freedom of the Black woman.
I spent this past Saturday night with my mom at a Dixie Chicks concert. I know that’s a whimsical image: me and my mom–two short black women with braids–surrounded by tall blonde moms in cowboy hats. Although there was an initial out-of-place feeling, the music created a space in which a community of women became liberated from the patriarchy. The stigmas of womanhood evaporated, leaving a celebration of acceptance, love, and the freedom of the modern chick.
“Dearly Beloved, we are all gathered here to get through this thing called life…” rang the opening lines to Prince track, “Let’s Go Crazy” as the Dixie Chicks walked out onto the stage. This sentiment echoed throughout the night, with each song embracing a unique coming-of-age chapter.
My mom introduced me to the Dixie Chicks during my own coming-of-age chapter. I was a tween doing my US history homework, and she was a forty year old woman belting “Goodbye Earl” at the top of her lungs. I got so used to hearing her FLY CD blast from our boombox, that eventually I memorized the album cover to cover. Hearing these badass women sing and parade and flaunt their agency over their lives and bodies, inspired me to never let some guy steal my wind. It also forever instilled the “chicks over dicks” mantra.
Hearing their songs performed live as a young adult put a lot of my own coming-of-age story in perspective. My mom gave me those wide open spaces, and let me take the long way around. I didn’t realize how much of an impact their message had on me until I heard it reverberated throughout a stadium hall. It penetrated the little bubble I shield myself in, and coated me like a warm maternal hug.
So we sat together, side by side, and sang those songs word for word. Her happiness meant as much to me as mine did to her. The Dixie Chicks have a powerful way of delivering their songs, with a loud gust of breath and string. Their revolutionary words fold into a songbook of the Feminine Mystique.
Little did I know then that all this time my mom was teaching me how to be free.
I listened to a lot of folk music in high school. Like a lot. In tenth grade when I first heard this song on the Johnny Cash show (this was the pilot episode), I made a youtube playlist with only this ballad on repeat to sing me to sleep.
I was completely engrossed with Long Black Veil for over a month. The most beautiful aspect of this ballad is its point of view from the man in the grave. I won’t spoil anything, but he recounts what got him in the grave, and how in the windy nights after, he gets visits from a veiled woman. It’s a tragedy of lost love, betrayal, and wrongful conviction. Written by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin, Long Black Veil is shrouded with mystery and influenced by local legend of a veiled woman visiting Valentino’s grave.
This is one of my favorite duets of all time. The contrast of Johnny’s trembling baritone vocals with Joni’s extravagantly symphonic sound is a folk/country marriage that only the mid-20th century sound could sanction. Unlike many of the other renditions of this song, Johnny and Joni’s duet perfectly captures the man’s suffering and the woman’s mourning.
It begins with a spark.
Rising from the pit of your gut, to the edge of your fingertips, it knows no boundaries. It’s as dense as an atom, but it can swell like the universe, with as much matter and gravity that pulls and contracts galaxies to other galaxies. When it seeps from our eyes, we call them tears. When it explodes the night skies with color, we call them Fireworks. It’s a chemical catch and release, and the first time I ever caught such a powerful light, it burned me. A new skin healed over.
I learn something new about myself every time I play with fire. Some sparks flicker and flirt an explosion, only to fade in the wind, others, were rambunctious and sprayed fireballs in swerving directions. I learned how to read light, or at least I thought I did, until I touched a spark so faint, it embraced me. It felt like faith. This light nursed me, and I nursed it, until it blossomed into a raging flame that roared underneath my skin and behind my eyes. With the gentlest of touches, it swallowed me whole.
But it begun with a spark.
Some sparks grow into a star, or a universe, but fortunately, most of them will blow a short fuse and leave you with a beautiful pageant of colors. You must learn to see the beauty of both experiences: the stars that stay with you, and the fireworks that fly away.
I forgot about this gem until I found Labi Siffre hanging in a friend’s top listened to artists. Even though I first discovered this ditty in my high school Pandora days, it draws me back to the first semester after I graduated from college during my long-distance relationship. Anyone who’s ever waited and wished by the phone to glow their lover’s names can find shelter in the familiar lyrics. The tender fingerpicking, the sincerity of the lyrics–which compose a dance between love being “nice” and “strange”–and the soothing range of his vocals all come together to paint an Impressionist portrait of love.
It was like being in fuckboy church. You know that feeling right? When the band just swallows the audience whole and has you at their absolute mercy?
I mean we were fucking screaming and squawking lyrics along, gushing beer and limbs, shoving each other around to the beat. It was Friday long past midnight at the Echoplex, and the boys of Twin Peaks stood in formation, and bestowed upon us every fiber of their might. The riffs surged through our veins and poured out of our chest, and we prayed it’d never end.
The end felt so short, the beginning, so long. The opening band, Golden Daze, played their lackluster tunes against the projection of an anime urbanscape. That first flaccid hour dragged and I chugged and chugged and still it wouldn’t go any faster. Each song tasted like mild sauce—just never quite getting there—and blended into one slow bobbing melody. Everyone looked tame and mesmerized under the sparkles of two disco balls.
Another beer and two smoke breaks later we heard Ne-Hi strum their first measures and I began to lose my shit. The first time I saw Ne-Hi was in Massachusetts, opening for other Chicago underground legend Supermagical. The show itself was supermagical, taking place in the basement of Jamaica Plain’s Whitehaus. One of the oldest collectives in the DIY music scene in Boston, the walls of the Whitehaus are shrouded in myth and covered from ceiling to floor with collectible choxies expressing decades of identities. That was the exact night I fell in love with Chicago rock and roll.
Whereas Twin Peaks have gained national success and toured all throughout the festival circuit, Ne-Hi is only beginning their break out of the Midwest. The two bands share a sweet bromance, with a heavy tone of camaraderie you can sense all throughout the show. After slowly seeing Ne-Hi rise out of the basement, I’m honored I could see them play in Los Angeles for the first time.
So yeah, I was fucking pumped to see Ne-Hi on the west coast for the first time ever. And they delivered. They lured us from our slumber and played through their rad hit tunes from the self-titled EP. Although their songs are on the slower burning side of the power-pop spectrum, their enticing chord progressions and harmonies are so profound that I still found myself moved by the music and dancing (with my eyes closed).
The premiere of Twin Peaks’s third studio album, Down in Heaven, brought the summer from spring and I spent countless nights in the early May gloom streaming it all the way through over and over. The range of their melodies—a balance of ups and downs—reverberated my own moody vibes.
Since most of Twin Peaks’s songs color the subject of love, it was such a tender set. In the audience we blurted angsty lyrics usually reserved for the shower or car. I squeezed my boyfriend’s sweaty hand during “Making Breakfast” (or “cooking dinner” as they jokingly called it). He kept me grounded against the jolt of the mosh pit.
Twin Peaks sounded better than they do in their live-sessions or even on festival stages. They successfully knew how to play off of the raw energy emanating from the crowd. A proper exchange of give the roll and ye shall receive the rock. In addition, they gifted us with an improvised cover of “Green Onions” while the drummer fixed his kit.
These Midwestern boys possess the raw talent and DIY spirit it takes to become shred legends. They sprinkled Chicago magic on the disco balls and we breathed it in. I prayed it’d never end. After their encore, an impenetrable silence flattened the air (or had the air always been this flat?).
To throw a cherry on top of those sweaty post-show blues, as we emerged from the Echoplex, a silhouette hollered “You down wit OPP?” from their car window. The squad instinctively responded “yeah, you know me,” and we watched the car disappear into the starless night.
phosphenes (n.): the stars and colors you see when you rub your eyes
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