Stanford musicologist reflects on ‘multimusical’ Aretha Franklin
Charles Kronengold talks about Aretha Franklin as a singular figure in American music.
As family, friends and fans pay their final respects to Aretha Franklin, whose funeral is Aug. 31, Stanford musicologist Charles Kronengold discusses with Stanford Report the ways that Franklin defined her time.
Franklin, who died Aug. 16 at age 76, figures extensively in Kronengold’s upcoming book, Crediting Thinking in Soul and Dance Music. Kronengold shows how the “Queen of Soul” has changed the way people listen to music, to African American culture and, he says, to each other.
Kronengold, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Music in the School of Humanities and Sciences, has written widely on 20th-century music and film. He is the author of the forthcoming Live Genres in Late Modernity: American Music of the Long 1970s and with his Stanford colleague, Adrian Daub, co-authored The James Bond Songs: Pop Anthems of Late Capitalism.
Here, Stanford Report interviews Kronengold on Franklin’s influence on pop culture and how she will be remembered by generations to come.
You write about Aretha Franklin in your forthcoming book Crediting Thinking in Soul and Dance Music. Are you trying to help the reader get inside Franklin’s head in terms of what she is hearing, feeling and thinking?
I was actually motivated more by how Franklin projects her thinking outward, verbally and nonverbally. That is, I was looking at how 1960s and ’70s listeners tried to “get inside her head.” People paid careful attention to what Aretha sang and played, what she said in interviews and onstage monologues, what they could read into her movements, facial expressions, clothes, hair and so on. Critics, fans, family members and fellow musicians invested a lot in her interiority: Her contemporary Roberta Flack said Aretha’s performances embodied “truth and sincerity.” Aretha’s father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, said she had “the ability to hear each note perfectly in her head. More important, she feels what is in the music. Her soul is being black and liking it.” There are many instances of this.
But I too have gotten obsessed with what’s inside Aretha’s head.
The more I study Franklin’s works and life the more I see that she was not just a musical genius – which is something we normally imagine as bursting forth at inspired moments – but also someone who possessed a smartest-person-in-the-room capacity for grasping musical problems and possibilities. Her collaborators acknowledge that she heard more, felt more and understood more than the people around her, lots of whom were also super-smart. Sometimes we hear this intelligence in emotionally gripping, ad-libbed note-choices nobody else would’ve made; sometimes it’s a little inner-voice melody she plays under her vocal line; sometimes it’s her verbal wit, as when in her marvelous post-disco hit “Jump to It” she describes a gossipy phone-call as getting “the 4-1-1 on who drop-kicked who this week.” Sometimes we can almost hear her having three musical thoughts at once.
Franklin’s work rewards attention to the moment-by-moment flow of individual songs, to a bird’s-eye view of her choices, tendencies and techniques across a 20-year prime, and to time-scales that lie in between, like the Valentine’s Day 1967 session in New York City that yielded her biggest hit, “Respect” – and, somehow, four other quite different songs that also appeared on her first Atlantic Records LP.
Trying to hear Aretha’s thinking, feeling and ways of connecting with people can teach us something about how thinking works, in all its unruly variety. Aretha, in other words, gives us reasons and ways to really listen – to music, to African American culture, and to each other.
Listening to that voice, it is easy to overlook the fact that Aretha was also a remarkable pianist and songwriter. How did that contribute to her persona?
She had an amazing touch as a pianist. Her collaborators talk about how she would sit down at the keyboard, play a few chords and everyone would get chills. And while she was never marketed as a “singer/songwriter,” a designation typically reserved for white artists, she certainly could’ve been: she composed many successful songs that were designed to integrate her voice and interpretive approach. She also had great skills at what we call “rhythm arranging,” which concerns how you shape what the keyboards, guitars, bass and percussion do on a song.
These other parts of her artistic makeup get overlooked partly because she blended her talents so well that it can be hard to piece out the individual components. It was this blend that came to define her persona or “brand,” especially since she could do it all in concert, in the recording studio, and on television.
There’s also the unclassifiable role she played as a performer of her sister Carolyn’s songs. In monologues, interviews and memoirs, Aretha stages her relationship with Carolyn as if it’s mediated by Carolyn’s songs. But Aretha and Carolyn’s public intimacy gave artistic substance, depth and particularity to a kind of African American familial experience that audiences didn’t often find in popular culture.
In the history of American music, where does Aretha Franklin fit? How do you present her to your students?
She’s a singular figure at a key moment in American music. By mid-century the major styles of African American music – jazz, gospel, blues, rhythm & blues – had gained a strong cultural and commercial presence. Same with African American pop singers and classical composers. What’s new about people like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin is they could move among these genres, sometimes in a single song, in ways that connected with a range of audiences. Aretha likened this to being multilingual.
Aretha was a “multimusical” album-oriented artist with a highly identifiable sound and approach and had what a 1970s fan called “the genius of combining all forms of black culture into music.”
When she moved to Atlantic Records in 1967 – a smaller label committed to R&B and soul, and savvy enough to let Aretha be herself – she became a star who could show audiences the depths, the reach and the heterogeneity of black music. She presented African American music as a repository of ideas – ideas about politics, culture, and being-in-the-world, about love, sex and romance, and also about the flexibility and force of song. Above all Aretha was a singer with power and precision who could ad-lib on a melody like nobody else, give a lyric new meanings, make time flow in impossible ways, and put a tear in your eye at the drop of a dime.
All this is why it’s exciting to discuss her in courses like my soul-music seminar, where we can unpack records like “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and hear how she creates these effects. But we also talk about how as an African American female artist Franklin paid a steep tax on her creative output.
Even after she was crowned the “Queen of Soul,” white-male critics called her vocal strength “shrill”; they heard her sensitivity, delicacy, subtlety and capacity for negotiating with a song as tentativeness or lack of confidence. She responded to this criticism in two ways: by being her own biggest critic and by directly addressing the people who mattered to her, especially black women. Unlike her white-male contemporaries – and more than anyone else of her stature – she often talked publicly about the work of self-improvement: both as an artist and entertainer – her sound, her body, her stage presence – and in her relations with collaborators, audiences, friends and family members.
In an early-’70s interview she suggested that “being black … means searching for one’s place among others.” It’s pretty clear she saw this as a task that African American women were both burdened with and uniquely capable of. Aretha was very aware of how people were “growing up to my music” and she modeled the task of “searching for one’s place” for listeners who were struggling. That’s one of the biggest reasons why she mattered like she did.