September 8th 2018

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Caution with gender transitioning: children's futures at risk

EDITORIAL Turnbull the architect of his own demise

CANBERRA OBSERVED Coal-Hand ScoMo pulls off an accidental coup

ENERGY Daniel Andrews' sun worship turns delusional

MEDICINE AND POLITICS Sacrificial Virgins: Is Gardasil even necessary?

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Turkey-U.S. dispute further destabilises Middle East

GLOBAL BAILOUT Follow those zeroes! U.S. Federal Reserve doled out $US29 trillion to save the world

POLITICS AND SOCIETY Business next to fall to 'progress'

OPINION The Victorian ALP observed from up close

SPECIAL BOOK REVIEW Assault on Kokoda Track heroes fails evidence test

BOOK LAUNCH Live not by lies. An appraisal of Patrick J. Byrne's new book, Transgender: One Shade of Grey

CINEMA In praise of horror: That most visceral of genres

MUSIC Aretha Franklin: A singer of spiritual intensity

BOOK REVIEW A self-defeating experiment?

BOOK REVIEW The four firms that rule the world


EDITORIAL Power companies in clover after closures

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Aretha Franklin: A singer of spiritual intensity

by David James

News Weekly, September 8, 2018

The passing of Aretha Franklin has called forth many eulogies and not a little hero worship.

Listening back to some of the famous recordings and performances, this writer was struck by several things. There was the extraordinary rhythmic power that she possessed that turned, for example, Respect, a fairly unremarkable call-and-response pop tune, into an irresistible tour de force.

She had an exceptional fluidity in her sound; she did not so much sing notes as glide past them, emphasising the important ones along the way. Listen, for example, to her version of Burt Bacharach’s I Say a Little Prayer for You. She gives the melodic line a smoothness that even the great Dionne Warwick could not match in her original version of the song (although Warwick probably had a better, albeit lighter, tone).

Another less obvious aspect of Aretha’s singing – very evident in the two aforementioned songs – was her ability to bring into play the rest of the ensemble. Her phrasing was not overbearing and, unlike many singers, she did not treat the backup singers or the band as mere wallpaper. She knew when to pause to allow them in, and as a consequence they would usually perform brilliantly.

The swing from the band in many of Aretha’s hit singles is sublime, and was a big part of why she became so successful. Listen, for example, to the opening phrases in Ain’t No Way, or her live performance of Natural Woman. They are understated and invite the rest of the ensemble in, orienting the whole performance. It is only later that the intensity is raised.

Another distinctive feature of her singing was her command of dynamics, unusual for a singer possessed of such power. Most singers with great instruments cannot resist the temptation to use it at all times. But Franklin used the power only when it was needed. She was quiet when it was appropriate, a nuance also evident in her touch as a pianist. As a result the power was authentic; it was not just a great instrumentalist showing off.

Aretha was trained in the African-American Baptist gospel tradition. From an early age she was singing hymns and when she was 12 she went on the road doing gospel caravan tours, managed by her father. She went on to become the world’s most famous soul singer and one of its most prominent popular singers.

Aretha grew up in Detroit and never forgot her hometown, something that many other performers from that benighted city did not. It was another sign of her authenticity.

What she never lost, amidst what must have been surreal and distracting adulation, was a sense of the sacred in her singing – which was, after all, where it all came from. This could be a little odd at times; spiritual intensity can sound peculiar in pop songs.

On the surface, that intensity sounds like the expression of powerful emotion, which at one level it is. But it is very different to the singing of other expressive pop singers in that it does not seek just to articulate an emotion; it seeks to express it in order to reach beyond all emotions to something higher.

It is a subtlety almost completely lost on modern emulators of the soul tradition. It was a quality completely absent in the singing of Whitney Houston, for example, who had arguably a better instrument than Aretha and who was trained in the same gospel tradition.

By the time that we get to the contemporary crop of American singers influenced by soul and gospel, it has all but vanished. The mannerisms remain; the reason for their existence does not.

Musicality is an elusive quality that is not easy to describe or distil. It is better to point at examples, and there are few better than Aretha. When it is executed at a high, it develops an otherworldly quality, as if the performer has gone somewhere beyond themselves. Aretha was able to achieve that, creating global popularity for soul music and its potent mix of African rhythms and European hymns.

Yet perhaps most impressive of all, she did it, not with aggression or ego, but with a kind of humility. We are unlikely to hear anything like it again.

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.

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