When Aretha Franklin stepped up to the podium behind the panel of bullet-proof glass at President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009 to sing “My Country, ’Tis of Thee,” she was dressed to the nines. A formal gray coat, elegant gray gloves, dramatic pearl earrings, a pillbox hat with a bow: all in all an outfit befitting the solemnity of the occasion. It was a solemn performance, as well. She sang the song as a gospel hymn, and Barack Obama listened from his box with an expression fit for a Sunday pew: My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. / Land where my father died…
Sixteen years earlier she had performed as part of the festivities on the day before Bill Clinton’s first inauguration. That day, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, she wore a tight red dress with a mid-thigh hemline, a fur coat, heels, no hat, and sang a rousing rendition of her 1967 anthem “Respect.” That performance felt like a party, with the Clintons and Gores grinning, bobbing their heads, and clapping as Aretha strutted nimbly across the stage at Lincoln’s marble feet, raising the roof of the country.
These are the two Arethas: One feels the full weight of life, the other, the joy of it.
It’s 1985 and my mother and I are stuck in traffic in a parking lot outside the A&P Supermarket. We have completed the shopping for the week and my mother “just wants to get out of there.” I am five, strapped into the backseat, with grocery bags on either side of me. One of my favorite songs comes on the radio. It’s a hit. Big enough for Kasey Kasum’s Countdown, and about a pink Cadillac. I don’t know all the words but I know the chorus:
Goin’ ridin’ on the freeway of love
Wind’s against our back
Goin’ ridin’ on the freeway of love
In my pink Cadillac.
Since the song began my mother has brightened about the traffic. She tells me the singer is Aretha Franklin and sings along. The car is full of groceries and voices.
Soon I will know more about what that name means. It will mean my parents dancing around the living room on my mother’s 40th birthday. It will mean my mother’s handwriting on cassette tapes piled by the stereo. It will mean the Blues Brothers and commercials for shampoo that have naked women cooing under a stream of water about how they feel like natural women. It will mean that when it is past time for my family to leave me alone on campus on my first day of college, my sister, hugging me goodbye, will take me by the shoulders and hold me at arm’s length, look me in the eye, nod across the hall to where another girl is tacking up Mets posters, and say, “Go make friends with that girl. She’s listening to Aretha Franklin. She can’t be that bad.” It will mean that I do as my sister says and that, when I talk to that girl from across the hall on the telephone 13 years later, I will tell her “Chin up,” as she heads to the hospital where her aunt and uncle are battling cancer.
You see her in a way you can’t elsewhere. She is young, just 28 years old, and a star. The most popular video of Aretha on YouTube is a performance she gave of “Say a Little Prayer” on the Cliff Richard Show in 1970. At publication time, it had 8,892,098 plays, 13,935 “likes” and 207 “dislikes.” Disliking an Aretha Franklin video is an act of wanton absurdity, but I’ll let it lie since it’s the internet. It might be initially surprising that this clip is as stunningly popular as it is, but there is something special about it. The film is black and white, but its quality is the best of the videos available online. Whereas most are grainy and blurred, the focus here is clear and the camera gets shots of Aretha from near and far. You see her in a way you can’t elsewhere. She is young, just 28 years old, and a star. She’s got great legs, her gaze is direct, and at one point she swallows to gather strength for the next verse. Since television screens were smaller back then, extreme close-ups were more common than they might be now, on giant screens, so you can see her teeth and her tongue, the inside of the mouth. You watch her lick her lips. I say a little prayer for you, she sings. Forever, forever, you’ll stay in my heart and I will love you…To live without you would only be heartbreak for me. Like the image, her voice is as clear as if it had been recorded yesterday. As if yesterday it were 1970 and four students had just been shot at Kent State and the Ford Pinto had hit the market and the civil rights movement was winding down as the women’s movement was winding up. As if yesterday the Beatles had disbanded and Aretha was well on her way to six gold albums and 14 gold singles. If it weren’t for what Aretha and her backup singers are wearing, the black and white film would seem an artistic choice, not a technical imperative; her singers, with their fake eyelashes, bouffants, and tailored dresses, are fashioned in the style of the Supremes, while Aretha, with her closely cropped Afro, hoop earrings, minimal makeup, short, loose dress, and boots, is a woman apart. When the song is over she snaps her fingers and smiles, looking quite pleased, as if to say: “I did good.”
Aretha is famously afraid of flying. In 1982, a flight from Detroit to Atlanta bounced her halfway across the country and around the sky as if connecting the dots on a chart of a volatile stock market. When she landed in Atlanta she said, “Oh, my God, when I get back to Detroit, that’s it. That is it.” She has stuck to that, traveling by bus from Detroit to anywhere and back. Learning to fly again is on her list of things to do, but it’s been almost 30 years and she hasn’t gotten around to it yet. She says it hasn’t held her back. Asked about it last year, she said: “Miss Franklin can get around. I have been everywhere, believe me, on this bus—everywhere except across the ocean…When I was flying, I never saw the U.S. and what it really looked like. I saw the back of the concert hall, the hotel and the airport. Now I really see America.”
When I graduated from college I got on an airplane and left America to spend a year in a former Soviet housing complex in Slovakia. Central and Eastern Europe were trendy back then with aimless liberal arts graduates. The structures of the complex lined the banks of the Danube and housed more than 100,000 people not far from the Austrian border, 45 minutes east of Vienna. The place was called Petrzalka, which means “field of flowers” and, sometimes, when the late afternoon light fell on the white concrete walls, Petrzalka did not seem as much like a misnomer as it did other times.
The pilot smiled at me: Take a seat. He and his copilot were drinking tea and asked if I wanted a cup. When the year was over I boarded a flight back home because life in Slovakia turned out to be as aimless as life in America, where at least I spoke the language. Turbulence hit over Dublin and I had a panic attack. The flight attendants offered me water and soft words and hands on my back, and finally one said, “Come with me.” By then the turbulence had subsided, but my anxiety had not. I followed her past first class and, when she knocked on the captain’s door, it opened. The nighttime and its stars encircled the cockpit in a bear hug. The pilot smiled at me: Take a seat. He and his copilot were drinking tea and asked if I wanted a cup. I did, so they fixed one as the airplane flew itself, and pointed out the constellations ahead.
These days I take airplanes only under dire circumstances. Instead, I travel by train. It’s a seven-hour trip from Penn Station to where I grew up in Virginia, and when I make the journey I have grand plans of the things I will accomplish with the time. Inevitably, I arrive in Charlottesville having accomplished nothing and having spent the day looking out the window at Newark, Trenton, Wilmington, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Alexandria, Orange… When people ask, I tell them you can see the country change out the window of a train, that you get an idea of what’s going on out there, of where you’re coming from and where you’re going, of the geography between points A and B.
Whether for technical reasons or personal ones, Aretha dropped the “s” from the line land where my fathers died, when she sang “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” at Obama’s inauguration. Land where my father died, she sang, eyes closed, notes drawn out. I prefer to think she changed the lyric from the plural of the original to the singular of her experience. This is the land where her father—the Baptist minister, the one who’d gotten her singing in his Detroit church in the first place when she was six—died. When he got shot in the head and lay in a coma in 1979, she returned from Los Angeles to Detroit to care for him, and Detroit—as the city has spiraled downward—is where she’s parked her bus since his death five years later. Her family is there, she says. Her family means her sisters and cousins and aunts and uncles and the two sons she had there, one at age 13, one at 16. It’s this attachment to family and place I sometimes wish I saw more of now in New York, where so many people it seems are in a rush to divorce themselves from wherever it is they came. In August, she slipped in the tub and broke her hip. Then her son Eddie was beaten to a pulp by thugs at a gas station outside of Detroit. Aretha canceled all performances. She’d be back in May 2011, she told her fans: May, God willing.
In August I was in Maine, visiting friends on an island off the coast of Damariscotta. One of my closest childhood friends had invited a handful of us; the family house where Joey was vacationing with her fiancé needed to be painted. Shutters needed replacing, and brush cleared, she said, but if we were up for lending a hand, we should come. Joey was pregnant and the baby was due in October. She and Jeff were engaged, but the engagement was casual—no ring, no date, no big deal.
That week we fixed shutters and painted. We jumped off the dock into the freezing water and encouraged the dogs to jump in after us. When they did they swam at us, batting the water—then our bodies—with their paws before we turned them around, grabbed them by their tails, and allowed them to tow us to shore. Near the end of the week, Jeff and Joey went to the mainland to run errands and get more beer. When they returned it was late afternoon and they called us to the porch. Jeff had an announcement. “Today Joey did me the honor of becoming my wife,” he said, smiling shyly. We screamed, cried, hugged each other, and took deep, celebratory gulps of our cocktails.
As it got dark, we prepared a wedding dinner. We danced wildly around the kitchen before chopping the vegetables, boiling the water, and uncorking fresh bottles. Later, full, tipsy and tired, we lay about the living room. There was no electricity and the fire was stoked just enough to brighten the occasional lip, sock, set of eyes. All evening, Jeff had been saying something about a first dance, but we had drowned him out. Finally, he brought in the battery-powered CD player and said to Joey, “Let’s have that first dance.” She rolled her eyes, but stood up. He pressed Play and she had to twist around in order to let him get a hold of her, her belly already so big they couldn’t reach each other without maneuvering. The sound of an organ filled the air as we sat in the darkness, watching the two of them sway: Take me to heart, and I’ll always love you. / And nobody can make me do wrong. / Take me for granted, leaving love unsure, takes willpower weak and temptation strong…
At the end of November we celebrated another wedding: my sister’s. Relatives and family friends descended. Joey and Jeff were there with baby Eleanor. The weekend was a blur of small talk and erratic emotions as people expressed how happy they were my sister had pulled through her yearlong bout with breast cancer.
During the reception I caught up with Aunt Judy, my mother’s sister. She and her husband, Jim, have four grown kids. Judy loves many things, but the things she loves most are Jim, her kids, basset hounds, and Aretha Franklin. She has been to more than 20 concerts in the past 40 years and photographs she took at those concerts cover the walls of her house. “Aretha is my religion,” Judy told me as hors’ d’ouevres were passed. “If I don’t listen to her at least once or twice a week, my soul feels empty. I need Aretha the way other people need God.”
Judy told me that night about her favorite Aretha photo. It was taken four years ago, at a concert a month after my Aunt Susie—my mother and Judy’s youngest sister—had her stomach organs removed and bathed in chemotherapy for cancer of the peritoneum, which she’d gotten just a year after having breast cancer. The concert was Judy’s get-well present to Susie. Even though Susie couldn’t stand to dance, she could sing and cheer, so she and Judy had gone to have a good time. Aretha was wearing a white dress, Judy said, and a fabulous white boa that hung behind her like a pair of wings. Like an angel, Judy said, Aretha looked just like an angel.
“If I don’t listen to her at least once or twice a week, my soul feels empty. I need Aretha the way other people need God.” I told Judy I agreed that Aretha is one of the religions worth worshipping and that I would love to see the photograph. I admitted I’d never seen Aretha perform live, and Judy told me this was one thing to do before dying. I told her I planned on it.
A week later I was back in New York, scrolling through the day’s stock of inappropriate jokes at the expense of celebrities when I learned Aretha had cancer. It was not until I read the news that I realized I had been taking her for granted after all. It was not until she was perhaps dying that I realized I couldn’t imagine a world—an America, more specifically—without an Aretha Franklin up there looking out for us from Detroit.
On the internet, like all celebrities, Aretha is sometimes the butt of jokes, and I have laughed at her expense many times, but the retroactive guilt once I learned she was sick was consuming. Some might say this is true for any celebrity who falls seriously ill, but with Aretha it was more than that. Here is a woman whose very name has become synonymous with the word “respect,” and yet that is exactly the thing we have not been giving her in recent years. The internet has turned her into a cartoon, a fat lady with enormous breasts dressed in silly hats and acting like an eccentric diva with her attachment to her hometown and her refusal to fly and the balls to tell someone chattering as she sang “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” at the inauguration to shut up without missing a beat.
When I am frustrated with my generation it is often because we have a willful disregard for what has come before. Aretha seems a prime example of this. Those hats are the hats of black churches. That weight and those breasts are a body that has aged. That hometown is family and that fear of flying is, above all, human. That “shut up” was a demand that you recognize she has been there, she has done that, and you could learn a thing or two from listening to where the “there” and the “that” have brought her and what they have shown her.
I’ve been thinking about women’s voices: the quality of these voices, the variety, integrity, and volume. This is not a coincidence; the various inside-baseball literary blogs I frequent have been preoccupied lately with this issue: Are women writers being heard? If they are being heard are they getting properly recognized? If they are getting recognized, why aren’t women writers better represented in the pages of elite magazines and at the doling out of annual literary awards? When I consider the idea of “women’s voices,” sometimes I hear the writerly ones in my head, but more often I find my mind wandering toward a more literal interpretation of the phrase, and it’s Aretha who has set up camp between these ears.
As if it would make a difference to anyone but myself, I tried to make it up to her, the fact that I had taken her for granted. After reading news of her cancer I scoured the internet for updates on her health. Everywhere it said the same thing: She had had surgery in early December, it’s pancreatic cancer, the surgery was successful, Aretha is resting at home and asking for privacy, the holidays are her favorite time of year and she wants to be with family. That’s what second cousins and sisters-in-law and Jesse Jackson told reporters. They said little to nothing about her prognosis but the professionals said that at her age and weight and with this cancer, chances were that this was a game of numbers she’d lose sooner rather than later.
I heard the line “Stop trying to be someone you’re not” as if for the first time. She belts it; she means it as much as she has ever meant anything, and you can’t not listen. I didn’t know how to process this. I posted the video from the Cliff Richard Show to Facebook and wrote, “Say a little prayer for Aretha.” Four of my friends “liked” this post. I was subsequently furious at the remaining 466 of my friends who remained silent on the subject of Aretha’s illness. “Don’t you see?” I wanted to scream. “Signs point to the fact that Aretha is dying and no one is paying attention!” I thought people didn’t understand. It was true, they didn’t and—as it always is when you realize people you love don’t understand something you consider profound—it was infuriating. In the real world, I tried to talk to friends about her and ended up agreeing that her recent performance in a commercial for Snickers was excellent. One friend confused her with Patti LaBelle. Another friend said she had just become aware that Aretha was still alive. It wasn’t that she thought Aretha was dead, she said, but that the woman was immortal already, so her physical life seemed irrelevant. What my friend missed was that the line between Aretha the icon and Aretha the human being does not exist: Aretha is an icon to begin with because of the ingenuousness of her humanity.
While taking the train I listened to “Do Right Man, Do Right Woman” on repeat and thought about how brilliantly she sang the line, “They say that it’s a man’s world but you can’t prove that by me…” I searched for documentaries about her on the internet, but all I could find was a PBS “American Masters” that wasn’t available instantly on Netflix and was thus instantly unsatisfying. I didn’t believe reports that, post-surgery, she was a-OK and life was coming up roses; I thought these reports were the equivalents of brave faces and that facts needed to be faced. Walking through the park one afternoon, plugged in and listening to her, I heard the line “Stop trying to be someone you’re not” as if for the first time. She belts it; she means it as much as she has ever meant anything, and you can’t not listen. I lay down on the floor of my bedroom to listen to every song of hers I owned. It took all afternoon. In his introduction to her live gospel album, “Amazing Grace,” the Reverend James Cleveland spoke to the audience: “We want you tonight to be a part of this session, to let the folks know you’re here…she can sing anything: ‘Three Blind Mice,’ anything. I’d like you to be mindful, though, that this is a church and we are here for a religious service…” The floor of my bedroom felt like church, and I was a believer.
It occurs to me though that Aretha for me is more mother figure than spiritual one. Aretha and my mother are nearly the same age, and imagining a world without Aretha means imagining a world without my aunts, my mother. What I mean is that as I become settled into the idea of my own adulthood, I have begun to recognize how much I have relied on other women—those I know and those I don’t—to show me just how it’s done.
I don’t claim to know what a woman’s got to do to make it in America these days, or ever. I am still only beginning to feel my way in that darkness. That said, when I look at, listen to, or think about Aretha Franklin, I recognize in her person what I want one day for myself. In her I see a certain awareness that life is difficult and life is wonderful and that, either way, you pick up and carry on with your shoulders as square and your voice as strong as you know how to make them. Either way, you pick up and carry on with an awareness that the world out there is larger than any me or you, her or him, but also that you and me, he and she is where it all began in the first place. In her I see a way of living that is equal parts heart and head, a way which never loses sight of priorities. She has remained stalwart in her conviction of self. And that means something these days, as I sometimes wonder whether being oneself even matters anymore.
We all have people we feel this way about. One friend says she learned to live from listening to Ella Fitzgerald. My mother says she learned from reading Eudora Welty. Joan Didion certainly showed an uncharacteristic amount of admiration for someone when she wrote of Georgia O’Keefe, “Some women fight and others do not. Like so many successful guerrillas in the war between the sexes, Georgia O’Keefe seems to have been equipped early with an immutable sense of who she was and a fairly clear understanding that she would be required to prove it.”
For me, Aretha reigns with the strength she finds in vulnerability. Flaws, heartaches, mistakes, the stuff of life: These are the things she takes to heart, claims as her own. By claiming, she can then turn them around and offer back to us what she has learned. She can say, “Look at this. Feel this. This is us, don’t you see?” I wish for my own voice what Aretha’s has had from the beginning: a sense of self so strong that she had to open her mouth and sing to keep from exploding, to keep herself whole.
Six weeks after my sister’s wedding party and a few weeks after Christmas, a package arrived for me from Judy. Inside was a black and white print of the photograph she had described: Aretha in a sleeveless, floor-length white gown and a ruffled white boa. All the light is falling on Aretha; everything else is shadows. She could indeed be an angel and the boa falls behind her just as Judy said: like a set of wings.