Aretha Franklin Survived a Lot of Shit — And Taught Me That I Could, Too
One of the biggest songs of Aretha Franklin’s prolific year career is “Respect.” The upbeat, horn-driven tune was initially performed by R&B heavy-hitter Otis Redding in 1965, but it was Aretha’s 1967 interpretation that made it a hit. She was 24 at the time and married to Ted White, an abusive character whom she had wedded against her father’s wishes at 19. They had one child together, a son named Theodore.
If her home life was as hellish as Time described in its 1968 cover story — White apparently “roughed her up in public at Atlanta's Regency Hyatt House Hotel” in the late ‘60s, for example — her willingness to record a song like “Respect” makes a lot of sense. After all, she was living in a world where she had to demand it.
Aretha’s version of “Respect” was released in the midst of the women’s liberation movement of the ‘60s, which began in the summer of 1967 after a women’s manifesto was shared at a national conference. The song boldly announced that women were actually deserving of the intangible gift of reverence.
All I want you to do for me
Is give it to me when you get home
Whip it to me (respect, just a little bit)
When you get home, now (just a little bit)
Find out what it means to me
It was the perfect soundtrack for the time. Franklin sold over a million records, “Respect” spent 12 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 (2 weeks as number 1), and she went on to tour Europe. It was a sensation.
The first time I heard “Respect,” I was with my family. My great aunt had a massive music collection and she loved to show it off. Aretha’s voice boomed from the speakers in the living room while my cousins and I did wild, childish dances (not anywhere near Aunt Mae’s fine china, of course). I was barely in elementary school and didn’t understand how groundbreaking the song was (it went on to win two Grammys and was also an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement) — all I knew was that I liked the way it sounded. Little did I know that it was indoctrinating me with a message: Stand tall and demand what you deserve.
That message has stayed with me throughout my adult life, particularly when it comes to my career. My first internship was with a well-known music industry executive in New York City, the kind of thing that people probably expected me to feel lucky to have. It was a catastrophe: I wasn’t paid for months, I was condescended to, and I was expected to sacrifice my every waking hour for a company that didn’t care about my well-being. I felt and looked awful most of the time, exhausted from workplace all-nighters.
At a certain point, I’d had enough.
As I made the terrifying choice to quit, I replayed the lyrics of “Respect” in my mind. What was once just a catchy tune had became part of my adult ideology. It was the way I wanted to live my life and demand that people treat me. I know many Black women can relate.
There are other Aretha songs that speak to me on a much more specific, personal level. At first glance, the lyrics to 1970’s “Spirit In The Dark” seem relatively light — at its core, it’s a song about dancing and moving.
With the spirit
(With the spirit)
Go on an move
Move with the spirit
(With the spirit)
But at the time of the song’s release, Aretha was still reeling from the assassination of her friend, Martin Luther King Jr. (she sang at his funeral in 1968). She had also recently left White, and was pregnant with her fourth child. Aretha was young, but had already experienced a lifetime’s worth of trauma.
In the Time story, she said, “I might be just 26, but I’m an old woman in disguise — 26 goin’ on 65. Trying to grow up is hurting, you know. You make mistakes. You try to learn from them, and when you don’t it hurts even more. And I’ve been hurt — hurt bad.”
I can empathize.
I ended a painful relationship this year, and am nine months pregnant with my first child. Barely a month into my pregnancy, my former partner cheated and then told me that he “needed to be alone.” In no time, he was in another relationship. The lack of support from someone I thought I trusted was devastating. He never came to the doctor’s appointments, never offered any emotional assistance, and last week he told me he hasn’t gotten a single thing for our child because he “hasn’t been making any money.”
It was the worst low of my life. I had to come to terms with the fact that my relationship had fallen apart. I questioned my existence and my ability to survive.
Something about the “Spirit In The Dark” helped me realize that I could.
The song made me feel like I didn’t have to be stoic. I could acknowledge my pain and talk openly about how intimacy with someone who didn’t love me had almost most ruined me. I could keep on moving and have faith that the spirit will continue to guide me. Like Aretha said:
A rose is still a rose
Baby girl, you're still a flower
He can leave you and then take you
Make you and then break you
Darlin', you hold the power (what I am is what I am)
By the ‘90s, it seemed like Aretha had it all. She had been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (the first woman to be included), was free from her final marriage, and had received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In my view, she’d transcended the pain of her youth. In 1998, she collaborated with a young R&B starlet, Lauryn Hill, to crank out yet another inspirational, flavorful jam: “A Rose Is Still a Rose.”
The song is about a woman that’s been through difficult times, but understands that she is in complete control. It’s a reminder that happiness is always within reach, you just have to let go of whatever is holding you down. Franklin’s usual song formula is an analysis of a romantic relationship dynamic, but like “Respect,” the subject matter can be applied to anything that’s oppressive.
“A Rose Is Still A Rose” is most reflective of where I am now — happy and ready to pass on my experiences to other people who can benefit from listening. I am indeed still a flower who holds the power. I’m still the same youthful beacon of light who danced in my aunt’s living room, before life had shown me its many facets. This is what I want to pass on to my daughter. I want her to feel the magic and weightlessness of self love. Of course, I want her to get the respect she deserves, but most of all, I’d like her to know what a healthy relationship with yourself, and others, looks like. Aretha Franklin gave that perspective to my aunt, my aunt gave it to me, and in a few days, not long after we lost the Queen of Soul, I’ll give it my girl.