I can't recall a public performance more divisive than Aretha Franklin's cover of Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" on the Sept. 29 episode of The Late Show with David Letterman. The conversations I had about it fell into two distinct camps: those who loved and those who hated it. Both were adamant. One person on the latter side suggested that anyone who posted praise of it was just traffic-whoring. One person on the former side jokingly called for a ban on opinions, specifically of those who suggested that Franklin's vocals on the studio version of "Deep" had been sweetened with Auto-tune .
It's weird to watch people so vehemently disagree on the quality of a voice. Sure, there are oddballs like Björk who could never appeal to all tastes, but when it comes to soul singing (particularly that of the person who set its standard in modern popular music), we know what sounds good as intuitively as we know what smells bad.
Franklin hit some sour notes that night. It was far from the ***flawless performance that pop culture's pageant-perfect reigning contemporary diva Beyoncé has us used to hearing. If it were an American Idol audition, Franklin might not have made it through to Hollywood.
But man, what gusto the 72-year-old exhibited. What risk she took. She could have sung the entire song in her comfortable middle register, as she did mostly during the verses. This would have been safer and more likely to have earned her praise from across the board, but it also would have been boring. Instead she unleashed and went wild, opting for an abrasive octave jump during the song's pre-chorus section. She did that thing that Aretha Franklin does so thrillingly: she disrupted.
Aretha Franklin's voice used to soar, seemingly without effort, but sometimes now she audibly gets caught on hurdles when she goes for the big jumps. Her upper range often sounds strained and threadbare. If it were a piece of cloth, you'd be able to see through most of it by this point. But whatever. Her attempts on Letterman were audacious, there's still plenty of power in those pipes, still enough of that Aretha growl to satisfy many of us who consider her voice to be one of America's greatest natural resources.
Aretha Franklin in 2014 doesn't sound like Aretha Franklin in 1967 or Aretha Franklin in 1982 or Aretha Franklin in 1998. Of course she doesn't. Anyone with any sense knows that. When you evaluate present day Aretha Franklin, you must understand this. You are grading on a curve. You are acknowledging context (the same context that makes banal words hilarious and viral because they are coming from Larry King). You are, perhaps, giving an A for effort. This is not the most objective of critical stances, but so little regard is afforded to old black women in our culture that I think the lack of an objective stance is morally defensible in this case.
Aretha Franklin fucking rocks. She still sounds better than you on her worst day than you do on your best. She is the Queen. If her voice isn't quite as easy to listen to as it was in the past, well then good. Aging sucks. Aging is hard on the body, and Aretha Franklin offers proof you can hear. Let's not now ignore a woman who has spent her best years singing her lungs out as a public service now that those lungs have withered a bit. A voice will change and, yes, degrade over time. Aretha Franklin's voice degraded for us, and she's still pumping out records. That's what she does. She's not going to stop, nor should she.
I wonder if her newly released Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics will do for aging what "Respect" did for Civil Rights and the Women's Movement. When Franklin demanded respect in 1967, she did it with the same matter-of-fact sensibility that she sings today. Nonetheless, it was a radical thing to do, as a black woman in 1967, just as it is a radical thing for a black woman of 72 years to sing her ass off in the ageist music industry in 2014. (Fun fact: The oldest woman to score a No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 was Cher, who hit the top spot with "Believe" when she was 52.) "Respect" was not necessarily intended to be an activist anthem; it just was. Aretha Franklin just is, still. The older she gets, the more meaningful that is.
The industry being what it is, though, "Rolling in the Deep" is likely to be as close as Franklin comes to a hit single. With about four million combined YouTube views between the album version and the Letterman performance, she has commanded more attention than she would have with an original recording. (Remember anything from 2011's A Woman Falling Out of Love? I bet you don't even remember 1994's "Willing To Forgive," and that went Top 40.) That the anthem she covered as Great Diva Classics's first single is so recent probably played a key role in its relative success—Adele's 2010 single, which stayed at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks, is fresh in our heads. Comparing the versions comes simply.
Aretha's move is also one hell of a wig-snatch. During last week's messy satellite junket, Eugene Robinson on Morning Joe asked Franklin, "Why did you decide to do this to these poor other singers?" Franklin's answer was "Huh?" The truth is that it's long been her style to swoop in and claim a previously released song. Her cords are some powerful clutches. At the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, Otis Redding said this of, "Respect," which he had recorded two years before Franklin: "That a girl took away from me, a friend of mine, this girl she just took this song." She had a hit with "I Say a Little Prayer" about a year after Dionne Warwick did. Franklin's "Son of a Preacher Man" went Top 20 about two years after Dusty Springfield's went Top 10. "Eleanor Rigby," snatch. "You're All I Need To Get By," snatch. "Bridge Over Troubled Water," snatch. "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing," snatch. "Jumpin' Jack Flash," snatch. "A Deeper Love," snatch.
And let's not forget Franklin's impatience at the 1998 Divas Live concert—she just couldn't wait to sing the bridge of "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," which she was assigned, so she also snatched the opening lines that Carole King (the song's writer) was to sing, prefacing them with, "Would you forgive me / If I didn't sing this song tonight? / I don't think so." After the first thee lines she chirped, "Thanks!" at King.
Franklin tackles all 10 of her Great Diva Classics with the same vigor and technical dubiousness as heard in "Rolling in the Deep." (There are actually 13 covers in all, if you count the segues into shorter covers that come in medley form: "Rolling in the Deep" into Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" into Destiny's Child's "Survivor," Chaka Khan and Whitney Houston's "I'm Every Woman" into "Respect," which means that Franklin is effectively covering herself, lest she be excluded from her and executive producer Clive Davis's master list of great divas.)
There is novelty to be derived simply from witnessing Franklin's attempts at owning these songs. She's murdering them. She sounds convicted as ever, sinking her teeth into mostly typical arrangements of ubiquitous classics. There's plenty of joy to be had in her growls, or the way she settles into a purr during the opening "At laaaaaaaaast" in her cover of the standard best known via Etta James.
There are also plenty of ad-libbed eccentricities that are as uniquely Aretha as her ravenous bellow and her stubbed-toe wail. The "old car" in Gladys Knight's "Midnight Train to Georgia" becomes "that old raggedy hoopty of a car." To Eric Kupper's MOR recreation of the house spin on "I'm Every Woman" that Clivillés and Cole crafted for Whitney Houston in 1992, Franklin implores, "Pump up the groove!" several times. You can hear her eyebrow cock when she turns a verse of "I Will Survive" into spoken word. And she concludes her boisterous jazz cover of "Nothing Compares 2 U," by running down a list of things she enjoys that her object of desire nonetheless trumps: strawberry sundaes, ham hocks and greens, roller skates, and garlic toast.
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That last mentioned track was produced by OutKast's Andre 3000 and it is not just the clear highlight of Great Diva Classics, it's one of my favorite recordings of the year. The arrangement and production are as bold as Franklin's vocals, and all complement each other so beautifully. Though Sinead O'Connor's version is satisfyingly miserable, "Nothing Compares 2 U" really is a celebration. Few compliments in song or otherwise have been so flattering or singular as the song's title. Andre 3000's music is a New Orleans-style funeral procession for a relationship that the song's lyrics attempt to revive. Still, it would probably sound too sunny and disrespectful were it not for Franklin's weeping vocal, which grows more impassioned, thinner, and more desperate with every verse.
This is the perfect interpretation of that song, and an exposé of what Great Diva Classics could have sounded like if someone with Andre 3000's outrageous mind had been doing the steering. Instead, though, the rest of the arrangements are mostly polite, predictable centerpieces for Franklin's voice, which after all these years is still creating a terrific racket. Fuck perfection; soul is eternal.
[ Image via Getty]