Queen of Pop

The success of this approach does definitely owe the cohesive sensibility of the new r&b, which can be cautiously samey and suffers its own accusations of soul betrayed but has its upside in dedicated craft and sweet emotion--from Babyface and Boyz II Men to the pop hip hop of Puffy and the Fugees, a woman-fed insistence that music isn't just phony street hustles and black CNN. But at its heart, of course, is Aretha Franklin's voice--not just the instrument, which is losing its high end the way 55-year-old voices usually do, but what she does with it. It doesn't need saying that this voice is at the core of Aretha's virtually universal appeal--does even Rex Reed, who once called her "probably the worst ballad singer I've ever heard," deny her now? Its power is so ineffable, however, that no one has ever satisfactorily described it in words. One reason the sentimental myths that identify her solely with soul grit, gospel exaltation, and the big beat hold such sway is that they at least make surface sense.

I'm not about to penetrate this mystery here. But I am going to note the obvious--that however misguided other artists' upward gentility may be, Aretha does it right. Not even her girl-woman explorations for John Hammond at Columbia were as hapless as we used to think (forgive the routine rhythms and try the standards and more on Jazz to Blues), and since the late '60s nothing has been beyond her reach. Of course she fumbles sometimes--too often. But existentially, she's in command. In fact, as she proved conclusively with her Grammy opera stint, there's nothing she does right that she doesn't also do her way. When she's on, what defines her magic is that she's in the music but not of it. All her great performances, even "Who's Zoomin' Who?" and "Freeway of Love," are infused with suffering, and from "Ain't No Way" to "In the Morning," all her suffering is infused with joy. While Jerry Wexler provided the means, I think it was her father's colleague Martin Luther King who showed her the way. Great Godamighty, she's free at last. And no sentient human can resist that freedom.

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