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Ode to Aretha, or Reconnecting Women and Singing

May 14, 2010

When I think of music’s, or specifically singing’s, liberatory potential, one voice immediately springs to mind: the earth-shattering, shiver-inducing, bone-chilling instrument possessed by Aretha Franklin. Aretha’s amazing talent is intimately linked for me with freedom, not only because of her own, very real struggle to express herself as a black woman artist, but also because of her tremendous capacity for instilling a sense of transcendence in her audience. As a listener, one is taken on a journey through a spectrum of emotions, and regardless of whether a song is mournful, pensive or joyful, Aretha manages to enthrall and elevate beyond the specific context, transporting one to this unshackled realm of, well, freedom.

Aretha’s gospel background undoubtedly plays a role here, as musical ecstasy is frequently reached by ever-intensifying call-and-response sections and coloratura passages, which allow her to really flex her vocal chords, showing off her vast and impressive range. A musical style so heavily steeped in the legacy of slavery inevitably conveys suffering and bears the marks of oppression, however, it also offers a way out of trauma and subjugation – indeed this is the liberatory power Aretha literally gives voice to, and in her own inimitable way repeatedly transforms into states of untrammeled freedom.

Her music is therefore hard to resist, and I find myself continuously drawn to classics like “Respect”, “Day Dreaming” and “Rock Steady.”After more than fifteen years as a self-professed Aretha fan and admirer, her records still excite me, and as a female singer, I still learn from her. I’m sorry to say that the same cannot be asserted for more recent recording artists, and I am hard-pushed to find anybody in her league, and with the same capacity to inspire.

Certainly, the world has produced some fine singers, and women artists are struggling to launch successful careers despite the seemingly increasing odds presented by a patriarchal industry, which confuses objectification with adoration and debasement with entertainment. But perhaps this is precisely where my difficulty in identifying female singing greats of the present era, on a par with Aretha, stems from. Rather than instinctively linking vocal artist A with freedom, passion, emotion, etc. as I have done above with Aretha, the automatic mental conjunction is made between vocal artist A and a re-enactment of that well-worn drama of scanty clothing and feigned lust/desire in view of what feminist theorists call the male gaze.

That this should be so is not surprising, as it is the industry’s intention to create and reinforce in us connections between women singers and their bodily availability. On the one hand, it stresses the notion that women are sexually exploitable – for this is what we actually want – while on the other, it renders the need for patriarchal objectification rather superfluous as women and girls learn to self-objectify. All of this means that an artist’s talent, her craft, that is, her music, become secondary, a saleable side-product for the actual commodity posed by her body.

Now, it will be interjected that this kind of objectification is nothing new, that women have always been reduced to their physicality – a phenomenon attested to by the many works of art created over the ages, which are currently hanging in galleries and private houses all over the world. Certainly, this is a valid point, and it is indeed true that the equation ‘woman=the female body,’ has been made since time immemorial. However, what we are currently experiencing, certainly in Europe and North America, is a new form of objectification.

This 21st century version is driven by multinational corporations reaching beyond the specific cultural localities coining this new objectification, and it constitutes a kind of hyper-sexualisation bleeding right through our societies. It has been described as the ‘pornographication’ of our daily lives, and has become intensified and increasingly directed at the very young.

Thus, in a bid to increase profits from new consumers, girls are now targeted as a matter of course, much to the dismay of some concerned parents and teachers. Sadly, women artists play their role in this dangerous game, whether they are the victims of self-objectification; whether they believe themselves to be outside of the bounds of patriarchal control; or whether they think of themselves as using the game to their advantage. Whatever the case may be, the result remains the same: aggressive and insidious objectification, which for music means subservience to the male gaze.

Perhaps, though, singing has changed; perhaps expecting women to ‘merely’ be singers, and to be recognised for ‘merely’ being singers, is passé and old-fashioned. Art has moved on, and a woman’s body is now as much part of her performance as her vocal display. Hence, she becomes the performance, rather than her music. While this might be the case, I find it hard to reconcile the stereotypical, sexist posturing to be found in many a music video with appeals to self-determination and artistic freedom.

Claims of a subversion of the male gaze through playful use of irony, for instance, seem shallow, given that there is nothing radically different about such alleged expressions of embodied self-awareness. Also, if nobody gets one’s sense of irony, then continued reinforcement rather than undermining takes place. Since pornographication is now so vociferous, we need outspoken, direct, and clear artistic critique, in order to turn the gaze into hearing, and to re-stitch those connections between women artists and the sense of freedom, passion and emotion they potentially hold for us.

We can start by supporting those who are currently struggling against the odds of patriarchal industry, who are already critically engaged in reconnecting, and thereby transforming, indeed, liberating not only women, but music itself. Maybe then it will be easier for us to recognise the Arethas of the present. For, although Aretha surely was not immune to distinctly gendered and racialized expectations placed upon her by virtue of being a black female singer, she is living testimony to our capacity for overcoming such expectations by (in Simone de Beauvoir’s terms) setting herself up as subject, that is, the subject of singer. In light of the music industry’s current penchant for extreme objectification, nothing less than Beauvoirean subjectification a la Aretha Franklin should be aimed for, as nothing less will truly liberate us as women, as singers, and as lovers of music.

Clara Fischer is a philosopher and musician. When she isn’t busy writing, reading, playing the piano or singing, she’s preoccupied with analysing the wisdoms of her cat.

Photo from art.com

15 Comments
  1. May 14, 2010 11:23 am

    The first lady of soul was (and still is) so far ahead of the curve it’s scary!

    I think the opening bars of ‘Respect’ are like a clarion call for feminists 🙂

    Love the video- it really is effortless for her……………

  2. May 15, 2010 5:16 am

    Good music transcends gender, race and perception. Aretha Franklin is the voice of a generation (maybe a lifetime) and as such stands alone as an artist. Class comes along rarely and it is easy to take it in isolation but those that came before ie Rossetta Tharpe deserve great credit for picking up the baton and standing for something more than the tawdry tat we are subjected to these days. Lady Gaga wouldn’t even be allowed to open a can of soup for these ladies let alone a show.
    The 10 second attention span we are credited with and subjected to has long since run it’s course – a change is gonna come 🙂

    bit of class here.

  3. Niamh O'Kelly permalink
    May 16, 2010 5:18 am

    Whilst I very much agree with the feminist content of this article, on a point of vocal technique, Ms. Franklin did not use coloratura but rather infused her vocal interpretations with melismatic ornamentation.

  4. Clara Fischer permalink
    May 17, 2010 9:00 am

    I should have included some links for the more technical details, so here they are:

    New Grove’s definition of coloratura can be found here:
    http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/public/;jsessionid=4014F402FFF1B27ADED15D90E8625412
    Alternatively, the Oxford Companion to Music defines it as follows:
    “A term applied to elaborate decoration, either extemporized or notated, of a vocal melody (by figuration, ornamentation, etc.)”
    While the Oxford Dictionary of Music states the following:
    “Word derived from Ger. Koloratur. The elaborate and agile ornamentation of a melody, either extemporized or written, with runs, cadenzas, trills, roulades, and the like.”

    For more on singing in popular music genres and coloratura see:
    http://books.google.ie/books?id=3gPSBgPE9lcC&printsec=frontcover&dq=Sing!+elisabeth+howard&cd=2#v=onepage&q=coloratura&f=false

    http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=81715

    For coloratura & the history of African American music see:
    http://books.google.com/books?sitesec=reviews&id=UaodId2CFDUC
    http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~content=a794050210&db=all

    The link to the online New Grove above also includes an entry on ‘call-and-response.’ For more on this in the development of African American music & popular music see:
    http://www.jstor.org/pss/1214967
    http://www.jstor.org/pss/779361

    Just in case you wanted to know, although feel free to ignore if the technical details bore you to death….

    CF

  5. May 17, 2010 9:41 am

    wow!

    The New Grove definition sounds like Aretha to me- I hope she knows!!

    corolatura sounds a bit painful though- a bit like John Lennon being asked if he made conscious use of onomatopoeia and replying “Automatic Pier- don’t what yer on about”!

  6. Niamh O'Kelly permalink
    May 17, 2010 7:33 pm

    Thank you so much for all these wonderful links – this call-and response information is really invaluable! Many thanks.

  7. P McF permalink
    May 19, 2010 9:04 am

    Aretha reminds me so much of those great West of Ireland sean-nós singers like Sara Ghriallais et al in the ornate melismatic delivery. By the way, I agree with Ms O’Kelly – I think that the term coluratura is over-used and certainly doesn’t appear applicable to the bould Aretha.

    • Niamh O'Kelly permalink
      May 26, 2010 5:12 pm

      Aretha has absolutely nothing in common with sean-nos singers & having read the links provided by Ms. Fischer, I must agree with her that under the modern, non-classical definition of coloratura she reigns supreme.

  8. thomas duncan permalink
    May 20, 2010 11:21 am

    Nice article- good video showing Aretha at her best.

    Is this part of a series (my wife has a few greats she’d like to know more about)?

  9. brian farrell permalink
    May 20, 2010 11:28 am

    lady soul indeed- nice article 🙂

  10. Cormac permalink
    May 20, 2010 5:55 pm

    Excellent article,
    I certain agree that modern pop music culture is a shooting gallery of untalented tripe, all ready to step on each other to get to the top of the slipper slope, peddling soft porn on mass to the our youngest and most vulnerable. So are the individuals to blame; the consumers, the promoters, the record company’s? we may have struck on a winner!! But I fear they all have their part to play in this tragedy. Where do we look for strong moral female figures in todays pop culture, recognition for such mystical pop Amazonian’s will be hard fought in this big brother, celebrity get me out of here, consumer society we inhabit

Trackbacks

  1. Ode to Aretha, or Reconnecting Women and Singing : Ms Magazine Blog
  2. Welcome to the Singing for Survival Series « Gender Across Borders
  3. I Say A Little Prayer for You « Jukebox Heroines – A Women in Music Blog
  4. I Say A Little Prayer for You « Jukebox Heroines – A Women in Music Blog

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