It’s always hard being on the road when a pop culture figure who was important to you dies. The last time I remember this happening to me was when James Gandolfini died. Though, I suppose it’s easier with a musician. Since it made it pretty easy to decide what I’d be listening to in the car yesterday, even if the occasion was less than ideal. Because even if it’s a busy day, you always want to be able to take the time and stop to appreciate the figure in question’s importance and the work they left behind, and its hard to think of many singers who left more great music behind than Aretha Franklin.
The timing of Aretha’s passing is also a bit strange for me, because I’ve been listening to a lot of her this summer. As a music fan, I’ll often go through these types of phases, where I’m just listening to one particular artist with a deep discography. Often their career will be full of not only monumental albums worthy of “greatest albums of all time” lists (like Lady Soul or I’ve Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You), but also lesser known classics (like Spirit In The Dark or Soul ’69), as well as well-regarded ones that I still haven’t gotten around to hearing (Amazing Grace). And this is coming from someone who could also be considered a great singles artist!
So needless to say, Aretha’s an artist who not only has the distinction of being a cultural icon, but also one whose work speaks for itself. Her status as an icon can be owed to a lot of things. For one, she feels like a distinct product of the civil rights era – this strong black woman whose outlook is steeped in the church, and who asked for nothing but mere respect. This gets at the fact that she also didn’t match your typical perception of what a pop star should look like. Which of course can all be attributed to the fact that she had a voice so all-encompassing that her talent simply could not be ignored.
In fact, Aretha’s cultural ubiquity is also something that’s made her easy to take for granted. She sang the national anthem at the swearing in of the first black president and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and had hits long past all of her ’60s contemporaries had faded into obscurity. She has always been just as much an American institution as a singer, and often times that kind of popularity doesn’t always correlate to quality. Fortunately, Aretha’s run of albums and singles on Atlantic records in the late 60s/early 70s still hold up as well as anything from that era. Also fortunately, that voice will always be there to listen to on record, and will always linger in the ears of those who’ve heard it.
I’ll leave you with a personal favorite that seems ripe to get choked up to: