I have more to say about the passing of Aretha Franklin.
Whitney Houston, whose career I followed from beginning to end (because I was
alive during its entire span), I acquired my appreciation for Aretha.
But not from my parents, because I do not have memories of them being
great fans of hers (like I do with Stevie Wonder, for example). I came
to this love for her on my own as a young law school student back when we were all members of the Columbia House music club. I was going through a discovery period of "classic" artists and bought this:
Of course, I was not disappointed.
as the news broke of Franklin's passing, I was looking through a
sampling of Madonna music to highlight for her 60th birthday. That
search was based on her catalog of videos from that early period
of her career in the 80s when she was being called the "Queen of Pop". While there is no
denying Madonna's star quality and endurance as an icon in her own
right, there is a clear distinction between a music video star and an
all-around musician and artist. Aretha is, was, and always shall
be...(yes, that song is stuck in my head now) The Queen.
In one of my first published online pieces, I questioned whether music (R&B specifically) had lost its soul. That was in 2001 when the video for Lady Marmalade had been released for the film, Moulin Rouge.
It's ironic that I thought of that piece, but it contemplates this exact moment in time--the vacuum created by loss of a great artist in comparison to how greatness is defined by modern tastes. How most popular singers of this
current era are better known for record sales and provocative award
show performances, but it is uncertain whether any of them will be
remembered for their music. How many of these singers will be able to
rely on their 40 year old hit records when they are long past the age of
being able to dance to the original choreography on stage? How many of
us who came of age on hip hop or heavy metal are willing to pay good
money to see those old heads perform a cover of someone else's music
from a different genre (other than Aerosmith and Run-DMC)? In the future, who will be the recipient of a Kennedy Center tribute that brings the Leader of the Free World to tears?
That is the magnitude of the loss of an artist like Aretha Franklin.
that's why we can't just give away titles to folks on the basis of
record sales and concert bookings. Greatness requires more than good
looks and media savvy. Greatness is more than the ability to reinvent
one's career as popular music tastes shift. Greatness isn't always
long-lived, but it is about the quality of the output. Greatness is a
heavy burden that exacts an expensive toll.
crowned the Queen of Soul in a 1964 ceremony contrived by a local Chicago radio
deejay before her true greatness was even realized. It is safe to say
that by the time she was recording the album that would mark
her "comeback", she had put in much of the work that gave that title its
value. Work in the form of the eight albums she recorded before she
switched record labels in 1966, and then in the form of the tremendous
output of 1967 to 1976, which would be known as her golden
era. She had been a teenage mother, had two marriages, and had weathered various
family tragedies, including the death of her beloved father. She had already been a working artist at Arista by the time Whitney was signed.
This is not a dig at other performers, but simply a recognition that Aretha's talent surpassed all of what we would use to define greatness in music today. That's the reason why there have been serious debates on social media about who should be included in a tribute...
(I had been working on this piece off and on since the weekend, and last night I decided to go to bed. I was feeling blocked and uninspired, so the kid and I tucked in to watch TV. I tuned into the VMAs for maybe a minute, and I wasn't following social media, so I had NO IDEA. And I won't even dignify that nonsense except to suggest that it proves my point.)
Aretha was great.