Another musical legend is gone. On August 16, the news dropped that Aretha Franklin made her transition at 76-years old after having suffered from pancreatic cancer. Even though the news wasn’t sudden, it was still daunting, the impact reverberating as deeply as the soul-stirring music and transporting vocals with which she left us. In true fashion, the day became painted with her legacy. Thanks to my precocious yet devious toddler, I got a whiff of one of many tributes via my hotel radio, which had her classics on repeat. I had forgotten how many she’d created: “Respect”, “Natural Woman”, “So Right Woman, Do Right Man”. She was a feminist, sensualist, and lover all in one. She actual wrote the instructions to love – ever simply – in the latter.
Her story is like many of her caliber and time. A black woman from the south who got her start while singing gospel music: the quintessential bio of our nation’s most beloved artists. From the cotton fields to the auto plants of Detroit. From Stax to Motown. From gospel to rhythm and blues with a little bit of everything in between.
While vibing to her on my staticky hotel radio, I couldn’t help but dwell on these details. And it made me wonder if we’ll ever experience music like hers or Whitney’s or Luther’s or Jackson’s or Prince’s again. Will music ever bring us to tears, force us to love, force us to reflect, force us to live, again? Has music died with its creators?
I came across one photo/quote tribute for her that read: “It really is an honor if I can be inspirational to a younger singer or person. It means I’ve done my job”. Admittedly, I felt a bit pessimistic about the prospect of that ideal being made manifest. While we do have our Jill Scotts and Erykah Badus, I was hard-pressed to conjure a decent list of soul singers who will create the classics that make movie cuts; songs that new generations somehow just “know”. It seems that, with the exception of perhaps Adele, we have very few mainstream artist who have that magical, undeniable gift that takes a song and makes it memorable: the voice. Yes, we create reality TV shows based upon this seemingly ethereal concept, but where has the true musicianship gone?
It’s really a shame since music is the unifying, universal language. In our history, it was literally sports and music that broke color barriers. Now I’m afraid the true gift of music is buried in autotune, asinine lyrics, and pageantry instead of purity. Coming from a singing and musically inclined family myself, I had no choice but to introduce it to my kids; but when I do play music for them, I am forced to turn to the classics, so they’ll get a dose of “the real thing”. No such thing seems to exist in this current climate even though the need is still there.
In all, I hope Aretha’s words resonate and a new generation of pure vocalists with lyrics worth learning and music worth feeling comes to the fore, lest we’ll find ourselves steadily grieving the art with the deceased.
Ms. Aretha, though your body is no more, may your soul rest ever peacefully, and may the music from your soul live for eternity.