I can’t sum Aretha’s legacy up better than in Jason King’s meditation on her meaning to Black music:
To honestly account for the primal power of Aretha, you have to acknowledge the underexplored history of African pre-colonial aesthetic genius; you have to understand how the global slave trade brutally remade the world; how that brutal institution violently turned dispossessed black bodies into commodities and chattel; how black women in particular were whipped, flayed, defiled, raped, and diminished, their labor stolen and exploited, and their wombs hijacked to breed future profits for slave owners. W.E.B. Du Bois once called the culture of glorious Afro-Christian black music that emerged out of the dung of slavery that barbaric institution’s only great redemption; as black folk, we transmogrified traumatic experience into field hollers, work songs, and ring shouts; and eventually, over time, into the stylized blues and jazz of artists that directly inspired Aretha Franklin, including Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Sarah Vaughn, and Dinah Washington. When Aretha opens her mouth to wail, all of that unassailable tragic-beautiful black history, those soul-shocking scenes of subjection that are at the horrific core of American history, comes barreling at you. That’s the essential root of her sound.
Or with Wesley Morris’s typical thoughtfulness about the experience of listening to her:
“Respect” is going to be an even more prominent part of your life than usual. The next time you hear it, notice what you do with your hands. They’re going to point — at a person, a car or a carrot. They’ll rest on your hips. Your neck might roll. Your waist will do a thing. You’ll snarl. Odds are high that you’ll feel better than great. You’re guaranteed to feel indestructible.
All I can say is this. Aretha is the artist who made me get it, drew me into music, when I was just old enough to dance.
I don’t know when I first heard Aretha, because her music is the first I remember. My parents don’t listen to music much, and can’t sing or keep a beat to save their lives. (Sorry, guys.) But they had an LP collection full of the boomer classics before they ditched the turntable (I rue the day, but that’s a different story): Paul Simon’s “Graceland,” Bob Marley’s “Legend” compilation, assorted Beatles.
None of those records got me like “Aretha’s Greatest Hits.” The cover of that record, with the Queen standing at the bottom of a staircase, regal and resplendent in red velvet and an Afro, is etched in my mind. I remember having the record play over the stereo, trying to understand the power I was hearing, and seeing it emanating from Aretha’s eyes in the photo.
More to the point: “Respect” was the first song to get stuck in my head. It followed me around all the way through preschool and kindergarten. It has that relentless, forward groove that I’m pretty sure made me walk the way I do. I would dance my three year old butt off, bobbing my blond bowl cut up and down.
The grandness, the ferocity, the warmth, the elegance, and the humanity of Aretha’s music, the sheer being and (of course) soul, that she communicated in all her best cuts—I didn’t know those words yet, but I could feel them. Even as a child, I understood Aretha Franklin was the Queen, and why. I’ll miss her dearly.