Before and After Aretha

The artist was unrivaled in her ability to shape her own work and image without bending to constraints.

Aretha Franklin
Paul Natkin / Getty

To be a popular artist is, generally, to bend yourself into whatever form the public demands of you. As audiences, we have tortured such gorgeous majesties out of our artists, coaxing them into unrecognizable shapes to satisfy our ever-shifting appetites and prejudices. Those contortions are more elaborate for people of color, practically byzantine for women, and downright murderous for black women.

Aretha Franklin was unrivaled in her ability to bend that reality rather than bend to it. Most artists thrive for a season, then fade into legend; very few artists have influenced as broad a span of culture as she did. And none other brought as much of the many-hued experience of our society to the fore while surrendering as little to the dictates of that society.

Before Aretha ascended to the height of American musicianship—and remained there—artists like Billie, Ella, Sarah, and Dinah had claimed their places on that pinnacle. But the immaculate art they made was fitted to the constraints of the racially monstrous, financially exploitative, and sexually predatory landscape of their time. Aretha paved the way for a succession of pioneers—Patti, Donna, Diana, Whitney, Mariah, Lauryn, Beyoncé—every one of whom would have to battle for her autonomy with an industry that sought to corral, control, and pigeonhole her. In her emergence onto the public stage, Aretha was certainly not untouched by racism, misogyny, vice, and exploitation, but she was unique in her ability to subsume these forces into her art without allowing them to shape or compromise her vision.

Musically, Miss Ree took what she wanted, right from the beginning. “Of all the singers who have forsaken church choir stalls for smoky dens of jazz,” begins an Ebony article from 1964, “few have managed to fuse more ‘pure Gospel’ into their blues preachments than … Aretha Franklin.” History belies the point; her producers would discover that Aretha didn’t have to forsake or fuse anything; she was not required to pick a lane—secular or gospel, pop or soul. Her talent simply didn’t work that way. Her breakout moment, in 1967, after her move from Columbia to Atlantic Records, came after Jerry Wexler merely “took her to church, sat her down at the piano, and let her be herself,” as Wexler recounted in Craig Werner’s book Higher Ground. Thirty-one years later, when she stepped onstage at the Grammys to fill in for Luciano Pavarotti on a moment’s notice, her performance of “Nessun Dorma” was not the aria Pavarotti had popularized, or that Giacomo Puccini had written—it was hers, all hers.

In a famous concert from 1967, Otis Redding performs Aretha’s legendary “Respect.” Redding had written the song, and he gives an exuberant performance of it, but the song is no longer his, and he knows it. “This next song is a song that a girl took away from me,” he says by way of introduction; that “girl” is both backhanded and also so sheepish and wounded, it almost draws pity. “Good friend of mine, this girl, she just took the song. But I’m still going to do it anyway."

Redding understated the case. Aretha hadn’t merely “taken” his song; she had put his thing down, flipped it, and reversed it. He thought he’d written a killer tune for himself about a man coming home from work and laying out what kind of deference he expected from a woman. It turned out, however, that he’d actually written an Aretha Franklin song about what she and hers were owed. It did not matter that he wrote and performed the song first. His was the cover version.

No profile of Aretha’s musical gifts was complete without a description of the degree of ownership she took over her work product. “She remained the central orchestrator of her own sound,” says Wexler in Higher Ground. “Aretha authorizes her own reality, and sometimes it’s hard to juxtapose that reality to the reality,” said Tavis Smiley, quoted in David Remnick’s lovely paean to Aretha’s influence in The New Yorker in 2016. “I always worked on my sound, my arrangements, before I went into the studio with a producer,” she says in Werner’s book.

That ownership extended to her image as well. When she decided to lose weight or quit her smoking habit, these were choices she made as a person in command of her career, not as a person striving for a break. Whether in her autobiography or in her press appearances, her narrative remained firmly in her own hands. Over the years, she crafted for herself an uncanny ability to be the focal point of any occasion, no matter how momentous. When the young President Barack Obama stood before America for his inauguration, he made history. But it was Aretha who presided over that moment, in her glorious gray-felt crown. Obama may have been sworn in as America’s first black president, but when Aretha stood to sing “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” she was, unquestionably, its first Queen.

If human constructs could not contain Aretha, natural forces seemed to fare no better. The revelation of her 2015 performance of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center Honors was not merely the extraordinary suppleness, clarity, and control in her voice at 73, an age when many vocalists have adjusted their most challenging songs to a comfortable register. It was the heightening sensation, as the performance unfolded, that she would take us past any limits we might have imagined for her, that it was not effort but mastery and will that drove her vertiginous ascent up the musical scale, that she would not miss a beat or let us fall, and that our role was not to marvel, but to revel.

Journalists chafed—as we will—at Aretha’s message discipline, the tight control she exerted over her story. But I believe she insisted on that control because she sensed the likelihood that her biography would be twisted into a familiar shape. Audiences love a hero’s journey—the story of a lifelong struggle against monsters within and without, culminating in a rousing triumph over adversity—and the version of that monomyth we foist onto black women is particularly suffocating. It would be so easy to impose that narrative onto Aretha’s life, to spin, again, the tale of a woman who struggled against domestic abuse, medical concerns, a phobia of flying, and assorted inner demons, channeling that pain into an ultimate victory. It would be just as easy to recast her efforts to diminish that narrative as a form of capitulation to struggle. But Aretha’s telling of her own story is a challenge to all of us to widen our imaginations. Is there any reason she shouldn’t have a story as rich as that of Steve Jobs or David Bowie, the story of a genius and visionary with a will to power, whose virtuosity and conquest are at least as interesting as her resilience, whose ability to push past boundaries and limits overweights her capacity to transform pain into poetry?

I don’t expect that mortality will prove any more effective a limit for Aretha Franklin than those that life tried and failed to place on her. Today’s emerging artists—and tomorrow’s—will face a world that insists upon their yielding to it. That insistence will likely fall heaviest on those whose life experience overlaps in some way with Aretha’s. And so her life and career will stand as a beacon until the message is no longer necessary: Do not be eroded or encapsulated by your experiences; be enlarged by them. The world will throw challenges at you, but you are free to set even bigger challenges for yourself—to grow, to transform, to master. Bend reality to your own vision. Let yourself be free.