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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.
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